Help your dog avoid an anxious mindset by tasking her with work she knows and enjoys—it will build her confidence.
I remember the day I brought you home: January 5, 2008. Eight weeks old, in the dead of the Minnesota winter, there you were—my little black/chocolate Lab mix. You were wrapped in the “coming home” blanket I’d sent to your family a week before so it would smell like the pack you were leaving behind. I knew you’d be scared at first, being away from your littermates and your mama. We named you Trixie, after the character in Speed Racer, that original anime series from the 1960s. How quickly we learned just how fitting that name was!
Your energy level was immediately apparent. It was high … very high.
What was I going to do with you? You had energy to burn, but temperatures outside were below freezing. Our saving grace was a long hallway in our house, down which we would throw … and throw … and throw … a tennis ball. You returned it every time, eyes lit up, tail wagging, eager for the next toss. Little did we know we were “training” you, teaching you to fetch and return. In our minds, we were just keeping you occupied, helping you burn off some of your boundless energy, in the hope that you’d eventually take a nap.
Sometime during that long, cold winter, it dawned on me that what you needed was a job.
Summer finally came, and with it, the first-ever pet expo hosted by our small town. The free event featured demonstrations of dock diving, canine assistance, agility, obedience, and tracking. I told your dad we had to go! (I hate to admit it, but his response was, “If you’re bringing that crazy dog, I don’t want to go!”) But go we did, all three of us, with you dragging us through the entire event—pulling so hard on your harness that you literally walked on your back legs for most of it.
We watched the rally demonstration with some interest, but then came upon the flyball demo. We were transfixed. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t know what this is, but Trixie needs to do it!” By the end of the expo, we were hooked. I went home determined to get you started in this sport.
After completing a round of puppy class, then basic obedience levels I, II, and III (not required, but you needed it!), we signed you up for beginner flyball training. From the get go, you were ahead of the game, as you would automatically fetch and bring the ball directly back (that hallway routine really paid off!). You were never distracted. You had laser focus as you waited for those magic flyball words: Ready … Set … Go!
It was clear you knew this was your job.
So, for our human readers, what is flyball? Flyball is a high-adrenaline team sport for dogs, basically a canine relay race. Two teams of dogs take turns jumping hurdles and retrieving tennis balls shot from spring-loaded boxes. These teams consist of a minimum of four dogs, each with a handler, plus a brave and nimble box loader. (The box loader stands behind the spring-loaded box and depending on the contestant, loads tennis balls on the right or left side of the box, quickly and accurately.)
And for the flyball athletes, that’s the twist … it’s not simply retrieving a ball. To send the tennis ball flying, each dog must race down the 51-foot course and pounce on that spring-loaded box to eject the ball. Once the dog has fetched the ball, they must return to the start/finish line before his teammate can hit the course. The first team to have all its members finish the course without any errors wins.
The best thing about flyball is that any healthy dog can play (with veterinarian approval to run and leap). Herding breeds and retrievers tend to excel at the sport, but all breeds are welcome. Bulldogs, basset hounds, Chihuahuas and everything in between can race! In fact, the smallest dogs are often MVPs because a team’s jump height—which ranges from 7 to 14 inches—is calculated based on the height of that team’s smallest dog (called the “height dog”). A short dog can be a real asset to a team because the larger dogs on the team will benefit from the lower hurdles.
What are the benefits of giving your dog a job? There are many, but I’ll list just a few:
• Stimulating your dog’s mind will make her less likely to misbehave. If your dog craves a job and you do not give her one, she will create her own—and it may not be to your liking, such as chewing the furniture or chasing the cat.
• A busy dog will have less trouble with weight control. Every dog needs some form of exercise or physical movement. Depending on the energy level of your dog, her physical activity could range from a simple, leisurely walk to a long, intense session of running, running and running some more.
• Having a job gives your dog purpose and lowers her anxiety. Help your dog avoid an anxious mindset by tasking her with work she knows and enjoys—it will build her confidence.
• Working with your dog strengthens the bond between you. We all love spending time with our dogs and seeing them happy and confident.
Finding your dog’s job and putting her “to work” does not necessarily mean sending her out to do the thing her breed may have been originally intended to do. Obviously, most owners of border collies don’t have a flock of sheep for their dogs to herd. And that’s not a requirement. Putting your dog to work can be as simple as teaching basic obedience. For more active dogs, sports like flyball will stimulate them both mentally and physically. For a dog, a having a job simply means performing tasks to earn the things they value, such as dinner, treats, or play time. It’s natural for we dog owners to want to give our pets everything they need or want without question, but we should remember that most dogs, just like humans, are actually much happier having a job to do so they can earn the good stuff.
Your dog’s job could consist of mastering typical commands, such as sit, down, stay, come, etc. And you can progress to fun games like Hide and Seek, Find It, or Put Your Toys Away. If your dog is particularly adept at obedience cues, you may want check out a rally class.
Other advanced options for a bright and energetic dog may include
■ Agility, rally, lure coursing, or flyball
■ Guard dog or protection training
■ Service or rescue dog skills
So remember, every dog needs a job right, Trixie?
Trixie, you’re now celebrating your 11th year of work. That’s a long career for a canine. It’s earned you both the Flyball Grand Champion and the Iron Dog Flyball titles. And no, you’re not looking for that gold watch or a big party to send you into retirement. You race for imaginary points, stuffed toys, yummy treats, and tournament medals, but even those aren’t what really motivate you. You’re just happy to be up in the morning, on the job and giving it your all. We humans could learn a thing or two from you about keeping a positive attitude and enjoying the journey. Your eyes still light up like they did when you were a puppy, and your focus is as sharp as ever when you hear those magic words: Ready….Set…Go!!
And yes, my girl, I hear you loud and clear: Your job, is not done yet.
Author Jennifer Guglielmo extends special thanks to Trixie’s original flyball team, Sirius Chaos of Bemidji, Minnesota, and her current team, Surf City Flyball of Huntington Beach, California, as well as all the other teams that have hosted their family along the way.