Fun with Dogs

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 2.05.52 PM.png

On any given day, one of my family members is assigned the task of playing with the lizard.  Each participant chooses either the grass or sandbox.  

    Yes, I have four dogs who need their daily dose of stimulation.  Cats are also a part of our landscape.  I’ve got tunnels in the backyard and playground equipment that satisfies both kids and dogs, but honestly, it is the lizard, peering out from inside his glassy habitat that routinely makes me feel most guilty.

     Perhaps I’ve taken anthropomorphism to a whole new level, but when I look at any of our pets (reptiles, mammals, and rodents included), I feel responsible—not only for their physical well-being but for their emotional well-being too.  

     So how do I cure my angst and why exactly do I feel pressured to enhance the play scape of every living creature in my care?  Well, the why is simple…or sort of simple.

Why?  If living things are restricted, their muscles atrophy and a type of boredom sets in.  As anyone who breathes knows, a little boredom is a good thing—but too much of it can make you delusional.  Want more reading material? Dr. Jaak Panksepp lays it out in his book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (though you might need a college degree to understand some of the passages), and Temple Grandin (my personal hero) describes it well in her book Animals Make Us Human.  In short, Dr. Pankspp cites many animal emotional states are the root of all behavior.  While each is present, the two mandatory for balanced living are seeking (as in food, water, and shelter) and play.  So if we equate reptilian play as freedom/exploration, and mammalian play as interaction between familiar individuals, you are the “Why.”

How?  How did I cure my angst and just what to do I do with a household of varying species to satisfy each urge on any given day?  Let’s start with my toughest customer- Rocket, the lizard.

For Rocket, I marched down to the pet store and purchased a lizard harness.  They do make such things.  And now, Rocket our Bearded Dragon enjoys daily excursions.  If he is not better off for it, I most certainly am.   Indoors in the cold weather, outdoors when the sun is beaming, Rocket, who was becoming aggressive, has mellowed into a fascinating family pet

Professionally, as a lifestyle pet coach and dog trainer, I routinely listen to my client's lament about their short-comings with their pets. According to them, their cats seem board and their dogs need more attention, more training, more exercise… 

Or do they? 

Commercialism and the media have been quite effective in convincing the entire Northeast population that anything short of buying their dog a treadmill, the cat mechanical toys and serving organic pet food passes as neglectful.  The truth is cats sleep a lot and dogs who have the brain capacity of a two-to-three-year old child, need a balance of interaction, exercise, and uninhibited play.  Key word: balance.

Few people know that dogs, like people, can become exercise junkies, equally addicted to hour long jaunts at the dog park, 90-minute hikes, or routine 5ks if conditioned to this level of stimulation daily.  This is fine if you are, in fact, an exercise junkie who has the time to devote to this routine endeavor, but it might relieve you to know that excessive exercise is not necessary for a dog’s happiness.  

While there is some truth to the idiom, “A tired dog makes for a happy family,” dogs who are not conditioned as athletes can meet their daily dose of stimulation with two bouts of play in the back yard or by a short romp with a neighbor’s dog.  Extended trips to the dog park and marathon worthy laps should thus be the exception, not the rule.  And the amount of exercise is greatly impacted by the type of dog you shelter.  Personally speaking, my hundred-pound shepherd needs about four times as much running time as my little ten pounder.

 Of course, summertime brings its own challenges for dog and cat owners alike as the outdoor weather is simply too warm to expose any living being to prolonged outings.  Fun feather-on-a-stick cat toys and catnip-laced balls can be propelled through the air or on the ground to stimulate a cat when he wakes. Dogs should be exercised in the early morning or evening after the sun has dipped down, and provided an endless supply of water, shade, or ideally air conditioned spaces.  All pets enjoy interaction, but time can just as easily be devoted (as it is in our home) to teaching pets Silly Pet Tricks, like jump through a hoop, rollover or “Hot Dog”—my summertime version of play-dead. (Dog Tricks and Agility for Dummies would be a great read.)

So while my engineering minded son is dutifully building a miniaturized treadmill with his Erector set to occupy his lizard, you can think equally creatively about how to stimulate your pets throughout the warm months ahead!  Though not created equally in size and mental acuity, all pets have the right, at least in my opinion, to a life balanced with love, play, and a healthy dose of freedom.

Note about summer and pets: As summer heat waves take hold and temperatures spike, the dilemma of regulating body heat becomes a canine’s chief concern.  With few pores on their body to release perspiration, it can be metaphorically likened to our wearing a fur coat 24/7.  As you’re enjoying the pleasures of this season, keep these points in mind to make sure your dog is not only safe but comfortable, too.

➢    Access to water   

Place dishes of fresh water indoors and out.  If you prefer your dog not drink from toilets, fountains, or pools, have a large dish along side each of these locations.  Should your daily fun include an excursion, take a collapsible bowl and a bottle of clean water with you. 

➢    Keys in the car   

While I’d support a law mandating pets not be in cars when the temperature peaks 60%, if you must bring your dog in the car, pack an extra set of keys in the glove compartment.  If you need to leave your dog in the car for any reason, leave the air conditioner on.   A car can overheat in minutes. 

➢    Slowing metabolism   

During the hot months, your dog’s metabolism will slow down naturally.  Do not be alarmed if their food consumption drops or their interest in exercise and play dwindles, especially during the hottest part of the day.

➢    Feel the pavement 

Your dog’s “bare” paws are the most sensitive part of their body.  If walking on pavement, place the palm of your hand down before forcing your dog to follow you.  Too hot?  Choose a cooler time to walk or find a shaded pathway at a local park.

➢    Access to shade and pools of water  

When leaving your dog alone, a cool indoor location is ideal.  If forced to spend time out of doors, provide access to shade, a shallow pool to lie in, and plenty of fresh water to drink.

Sarah Hodgson