play like it’s your job

The Sacramento Bee article is a tear-jerker. Rocket, a border collie mix on death row in a California shelter was going to be put down for being too energetic. But workers at the shelter saw something special and recommended him to become a disaster search dog. Rocket failed the first test, in 2012, but a volunteer adopted him, trained him and he passed the test in 2013. Rocket was called into service in August to help find survivors in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Such is the nature of energetic dogs. Find them the right job to do, and a behavior problem becomes an asset. The job can be a real job, such as hunting/retrieving, search and rescue or police work, like Mt. Lebanon’s K9 officer, Snieper, does. Certified therapy dogs go into hospitals, nursing homes and schools to give comfort. Service dogs can be trained to guide the blind, help patients know when a seizure is about to happen or help those who use a wheelchair grab out of reach items. Sheepdogs help farmers tend to their flocks or put their ducks in a literal row. Dogs even lie down and listen to children reading at the library.

Yet even our companion animals need the work.

Danny Boy, a border collie owned by Karen Herceg of Weirton, W.Va., practices his dock diving, when dogs longjump into water to chase a toy.

“I had a patient recently, let’s call him ‘Marti,’ whose mom brought him in because she wanted medication for an anxiety disorder,” says Mt. Lebanon resident and veterinarian Marina Siegert, owner of Bethel Park Animal Clinic. “Marti is a 10-month-old Labradoodle who races around the house, barks at everything and frequently tears up objects he finds in the house. His owner felt he was over-reactive and was concerned that his behavior was based on anxiety. When asked about exercise, his owner stated that they had a big backyard that Marti could run around in.”

But Siegert knew his behavior was typical for a puppy. Instead of medication, she prescribed a long walk in the morning and an extended session of fetch in the backyard in the evening. She also suggested a dog walker take him out a few times in the middle of the day during the work week.

“I commonly hear people tell me their dog ‘has the whole backyard to run in.’ Certainly, it’s nice for a dog to have a backyard and run off energy, but it’s not enough for most dogs to tire themselves out,” she says.

“Dogs are not furniture. You can’t leave them locked in the house all day and expect them to be OK. They need stimulation. They need exercise, and they need a social life, such as play dates and dog parks.”

Siegert emphasizes mental exercise too. She refers to certified dog trainer Paula Shimko, who can help her patients get to work.

Anything that gets the dog’s brain working will do the trick. “All you’re talking about is mentally stimulating your dog,” says Shimko, who owns Paula’s Dog Services. She also has four Shetland sheepdogs and two papillions. “Mental stimulation is extremely important. That is right up there with food, water and sleep.”

The goal should be to burn off excess energy and help bring the dog down from a highly aroused state to a sense of calm. “They don’t know what to do with all the energy,” says Shimko.

Dogs need stimulation, exercise, a social life. All the things humans need.

Not all jobs are work; some are games that seem like work to the dog. Great games include: agility, where the dog runs through an obstacle course; obedience and rally, where the dog must respond to the handler’s commands, Frisbee games, flyball (a relay race with hurdles where several dogs on a team take turns running with a tennis ball shot out by a mechanical box) and a newer sport called Treiball, a type of urban herding, where dogs herd large inflatable balls, instead of livestock, into nets.

All of these games require not only exercise but mental agility and the ability to follow directions, focus and partner with humans to get the tasks done. 

Siegert, who adopted a stray dog she thinks is an Irish red and white setter, recommends food-dispensing toys and puzzles such as Busy Buddy, Kong, Bob-A-Lot and Omega Tricky Treat. “You may need to go through a few different types to find one that works,” she says. Shimko says you can even hide the dog’s food throughout the house and teach him to look for it on a “find it’ command.

All dogs can be subject to having too much energy, but some dogs have it bred into their gene pool. The American Kennel Club’s 15 most active breeds: Pembroke Welsh corgi, Shetland sheepdog (Sheltie), Dalmation, Russell terrier, Siberian husky, golden and Labrador retrievers, border collie, Australian shepherd, English springer spaniel, miniature pinscher, poodle, beagle, Irish setter and German Shepherd Dog.

You can take a dog’s bred-in instinct, such as a hunting dog’s sense of smell, or a German Shepherd Dog’s herding desire, and develop that through play. For example, nose work, which is training your dog to identify a scent and find its source, could be great for hunting breeds. Frisbee plays on the herding skills of a sheepdog, such as a border collie or Australian shepherd. Shimko says it’s as simple as finding out what your dog enjoys doing and then train the dog to do it.

Belgian malinois/K9 officer Snieper works with human partner, officer Ben Himan, on eight-hour daily shifts, not including 16 hours of training per month. And even that’s not enough to keep Snieper busy. “His energy level is among the highest of all breeds. As a working dog, they are always looking to do something. That is why they excel at being police K9s. Their drive is high and they want to work, always,” Himan says. “Snieper lives with me, and he needs activity. I routinely walk him and play fetch. At home, we don’t train. Just like people, dogs need their break and time to relax from their job.”

But Snieper, age 6, is always ready to go. “I don’t see Snieper ever being mellow. The Mt. Lebanon Police Department and I were very fortunate to get a high energy police K9 that is very social, obedient and always wanting to work.”

Photos by Cindy Noland