Does Your Dog Really Love That Activity?

Photo by Marcy Fenell

Photo by Marcy Fenell

There is perhaps no greater experience than participating in an activity with your dog that satisfies you both. The bonding experience created is unparalleled. This is something that all avid dog parents aspire to. The possible activities that this goal encompasses are almost endless. Simple pleasures such as walks and hikes or more active pastimes such as running and bicycling with a dog trained to run along, are among the options. More dog centered activities such as agility, scent detection, obedience, flyball, etc. give an almost endless source of choices. Add to that therapy dog work and even public events such as festivals, holiday celebrations, charity walks and parades show that there is an activity available to share with your dog pretty much at any given moment. Even dining is a mutually enjoyed activity in many cities, with outdoor patios catering to the dog enthusiastic.

But with all of the activities that your beloved dog can potentially share with you comes the responsibility of knowing what they will and won’t enjoy. The sad reality is that far too many dogs are placed in circumstances that they truly don’t enjoy. It is often the human part of the equation that has the desire to participate and drags the unwitting dog along. This happens in all of the previously mentioned activities.

Let’s start with Therapy Dog programs. I often hear clients say that they want their dog to become a Therapy Dog. I think in part, that some people feel this way because they think it gives some sort of elevated status to their dog. People love to feel important, even through their dogs. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel important. It’s a worthy goal to do something that helps people. Therapy dogs are so uplifting to many. But ask the dog in question how they feel about it. Many dogs are simply not interested in being that social. It’s overwhelming to them.

With my own original dog crew, I made the choice to register only one of my three dogs that passed the Therapy Dog International test. Why did I choose that one? Because unlike the other two dogs, Kera actually was very social and enjoyed the attention of many people unknown to her. So I registered her. And although I did not do much in the way of formal Therapy Dog work, I had her accompany me whenever I visited my mother in a nursing home facility that she spent repeated time in. My mother enjoyed Kera’s visits as did the other residents. Win/win for both parties. Merlin and Siri would have hated all of the interactions aside from with my mother. But they passed the test with flying colors. Passing a test doesn’t mean excelling at the subject matter, however. But they were lucky. Their human mom happened to be a professional so I understood the subtleties. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.


Photo: Tamira C. Thayne

Agility is another common activity that some dogs are just not interested in. They might participate and do well but their heart isn’t in it. If you know your dog well and really accept what they say to you, it isn’t hard to determine the truth about how they really feel about something. Accepting that truth is a whole other scenario.

Conformation and formal obedience are other arenas that I often see dogs not enjoying the experience. The pressure that is coming from the human part of the equation is often intense and supercedes any chance of it being seen as fun. The competitiveness that drives so many of these activities often eliminates the fun for the dog. Activities that are joint experiences between humans and their dogs SHOULD be fun, not stress inducing.

One of the top areas that could win the prize for lack of enjoyment on the part of so many dogs are typical dog parks. Humans gather to socialize with other humans without asking their dogs whether they share that desire. I sometimes get the question from prospective clients on how can they, as the owner, can teach their dog to play nicer at the dog park. The easy answer is don’t take them there anymore. If your dog is a bully and confrontational with other dogs or if the opposite occurs and your dog tries to make himself invisible and is often hiding, then neither are enjoying themselves. Bullies are stressed as are the targets of bullies.

Charity walks are another activity that many dog parents think their dogs will enjoy. In truth, many dogs find the atmosphere over-stimulating and scary. Often strangers will reach out to dogs they don’t know subjecting a dog to multiple touches and invasions of privacy. If strangers reach out and touch you while you are walking on a public street, are you going to find this objectionable? Without question! Then don’t subject your dog to it please.

Adding to that stress are often equipment such as wheelchairs and large strollers and bicycles that most dogs don’t see in the quantities that are visible at such events. Over-enthusiastic children, exhausted parents and lowered stress thresholds make these events a perfect storm waiting to happen.

Parades are probably the worst place to take a dog, outside of a dog park. Loud instruments, fireworks, gunshots, large unusual looking silhouettes and loud speakers can all combine to cause a trigger stacking episode like never before seen. Dogs get frightened and startled and leashes are often not held tightly enough and then you have a lost dog alone in a crowd that does nothing to instill a feeling of safety.

It is important to note that there absolutely are dogs who enjoy many of these things. But it’s equally important to note that the humans who parent the dogs that attend any and all of the activities mentioned and any that I missed, should take it upon themselves to learn enough about dog body language and communication to know the difference between the two. Even dogs who love the activities that they participate in can have an off day and not be up to attending at times. The important thing is to know your dog and to know how to communicate effectively with him or her. Communication is a two way street and your dog depends on you to get what he or she says to you. You are their safety.

Below are some good links with tools to educate yourself on body language. I urge you to really look at your dog when you participate in any activity with him or her and accept what your dog wants out of that activity or not.



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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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