Is your dog fulfilled?

Pets and people.
Aug. 8 2003 8:33 AM

Is Your Dog Fulfilled?

Herding classes, obedience school, play dates, day care—pretty soon you'll be taking your dog to ballet lessons.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

I drive a couple of hundred miles each week so my border collies can embrace their destiny—or is it their ancestry?—by herding sheep at a farm. When I'm there, I'm always amazed at the scores of people who show up with all sorts of dogs, from avid herding breeds to bewildered mutts. Their owners are all eager to expose them to the ancient art.

"I do agility, obedience, and therapy dog training," the owner of a Lab/shepherd mix told me, "and I'd love to add herding. We have Thursdays and Fridays open."

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America has enriched its children to the bone with soccer and ballet and computer camp and Chinese lessons. Now it's the dogs' turn. If your mutt isn't "fulfilled" yet, it will be soon. "Fulfillment" is the new buzzword among trendy California dog lovers, the Los Angeles Times reported last fall. The idea is to figure out what a dog was born to do—herd, hunt, retrieve, sit decoratively on laps—and find ways to do it.

Dog fulfillment feels like an inevitable movement. One of the baby boom's many dubious ideas was the Gifted and Talented Child. In the 1970s and '80s, schools created programs based on the same principle as dog fulfillment: We had to figure out what our kids could excel at and make sure they got vast encouragement to do it. Nervous principals and anxious parents made sure that every child was defined as gifted and talented at something. This has gradually led to families where too much is never enough: Every waking hour must be spent at some class or team or camp.

As Americans who love their dogs have increasingly emotionalized them and come to see them as family members, complete with complex psychological lives and histories, they feel more and more anxious and guilty about them. It follows that dogs, too, should have every chance at fulfillment. And it also follows that dog owners should come to feel as if they are never doing enough. "Is it OK to have a dog and still go to work?" one woman e-mailed me recently.

Dog owners vigorously search for activities that will endlessly stimulate and amuse their pets. Dogs belong to recreational and sporting associations, sometimes organized by activity (obedience, therapy, search and rescue) and other times by breed. Dogs have play dates or walking dates. They participate in agility, tracking, and myriad other sporting events. They are acquiring service and therapy certificates by the thousands. Dog day-care centers have sprouted everywhere so guilt-ridden owners can go to work feeling good that Max or Maggie (our dogs often have human names now, too) has sufficient exercise, stimulation, and companionship. And have you checked out the toy department at your pet store recently? It's like Zany Brainy in there.

A generation or two ago—in fact, for most of the species' evolutionary history—the idea that a dog needed to be fulfilled would have shocked even the most attentive owner. As recently as the '60s and '70s, dogs were rarely even leashed or confined; they generally were content just to hang around, occasionally squabbling with other dogs, getting into the garbage or menacing the mailman.

Today's dog owners might pause and consider that their pets may sometimes actually need much less from them than they want or feel they need to give. Most dogs require an hour of exercise a day, not endless fetching and chasing or romps with scores of excited peers. (A dog that chases balls, sticks, and Frisbees and races around all day is sometimes an obnoxious, aroused, or hyper dog, not necessarily a fulfilled one.) They certainly need love and attention, but not always as much of it as we think. They need food and things to chew on, but not as much as we usually provide. A trainer friend told me I wasn't helping my anxious border collie out by rushing him around to stimulating activities all day. "He needs to be socialized with dogs and people, but he also needs to learn how to be calm just as much as he needs to work. I see dog people smiling all the time when they see their dogs racing around in packs like maniacs, but they aren't always doing their dogs a favor. Dogs don't have 'fun' in the way that humans do, and people often confuse excitement and arousal for yuks."

In natural environments, which almost no dog or owner can find anymore, dogs are like lions. They lie around much of the day, rousing themselves every now and then for food or sex or to chase after something appealing. Dogs don't have human emotions. They don't get bored in the human sense of the word, although they do need some activity. They may get anxious when left alone—they are pack animals and usually prefer company—but loneliness is a human, not canine, emotion. With proper training and acclimatization, sometimes confinement, almost any dog can spend time alone, vegging out, smelling the smells and listening to the sounds of the world, chewing on rawhide, or staring at nothing in particular. One European study suggests that dogs left alone sometimes are smarter than dogs that are smothered by attention: They get the opportunity to solve problems by themselves.

Working with dogs and engaging in activities like agility, obedience, and herding is great, terrific for people and dogs alike. Nobody should feel badly about doing this stuff. I've spent some of the loveliest hours of my life out in pastures with my vigilant dogs, listening to the sound of sheep crunching away on grass. But it's sometimes OK to relax and let our dogs just be dogs. After considerable badgering by some great trainers, I now make sure my dogs spend several hours a day alone in the yard or quietly in their crates, learning to settle down. We have spent some of our happiest times together doing nothing.