Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Does your dog feel guilty?

A friend recently told me about her dog getting into the trashcan while she was at work. "He got in the trash again. When I walked in the door he looked guilty, turned around and left the room." This is a fairly common complaint, especially when dogs are left alone, unsupervised, for long periods of time. I suggested to my friend that it might help to understand her dog’s perspective – which might well be something like this: 
  • 7:03 a.m. Henry, a 3-year-old retriever, had breakfast, a drink of water, a poop and a pee. His Mom left the house, already focused on the workday ahead. Henry settled in for his morning nap. 
  • 8:45 a.m. Trash trucks coming. Henry wakes up, checks out the noise, woofs, gets a sip of water, goes back to sleep. 
  • 9:17 a.m. Henry wakes up, stretches, cruises the house. Finds his tennis ball. What good is a ball without someone to throw it? Something moved in the corner of the bedroom. Spider? Investigate. Where'd it go? Cruises the bathroom. Nothing interesting here. Moves on to the kitchen. The squirrels are in the backyard. Can't get to them. Woof. Back and forth in front of the sliding glass door. SQUIRRELS! Woof woof woof. Ugh and oh well. Henry lies down, watching the backyard, and falls asleep. 
  • 10:12 a.m. Phone rings. Henry wakes up, stretches, and gets a drink of water. What is that tantalizing smell? His people sometimes put yummy stuff in that container in the kitchen. Fish from last night? Did they leave some in there for the dog? They are SO good to Henry. Henry knocks the trashcan over and starts the most fun game of the day: a treasure hunt. He finds the fishy smelling paper towel, eats it; finds the potato peelings, eats them; finds the mostly empty chocolate pudding container, licks it clean. Not much else of interest. Another sip of water and a nap on the couch. 
  • Fast forward to 5:48 p.m. Mom gets home from work to find the contents of the trashcan all over the kitchen floor. Henry greets her as always, tail wagging, excited to see her. But wait. He takes one look at her body language and knows she is not happy. Why? She's yelling at him. Why? Her hands are all fisted and she's wearing her mad face. Why? Henry tries to figure out what's going on when she yells "bad dog" in her really mean voice. Henry lowers his head submissively and gets out of the kitchen as fast as he can. 
Dogs live in the moment, so there was no connection for Henry between his trashcan diving (something that happened hours before) and his Mom’s anger when she got home from work. What she saw was not a dog feeling guilty but dog feeling pretty darned confused. 

My friend thought she needed a solution to Henry’s trashcan diving. That one’s easy: put the trashcan somewhere he can't get to it. But what she really needs is a dog with a richer daily life. Here are some possibilities for Henry and maybe for your dog, too, if he spends too much time home alone: 
  • A dog walker. If you have a full-time job, you are probably gone 10+ hours a day. Consider hiring a dog walker (sometimes pet sitters offer this service, too). She can come in mid-day to spend an hour of quality time with your dog. Not only can she take your dog for a walk in the neighborhood but she can also play fetch with him in the backyard and provide lots of hugs and belly rubs. 
  • Doggy day care. Put variety into your dog’s life by dropping him off at a doggy day care once or twice a week. This is the place your dog can play with other dogs in a safe, supervised setting. Many doggy day cares offer both half and full-day programs. Before choosing one, visit. Observe and ask questions. If it feels right, schedule your dog’s first visit. When you pick your dog up after that first day, expect him to be tired but happy. Ask how he did. Did he make new friends? Did he have any problems? The staff of a well-run doggy day care will be happy to answer your questions.
  • Interactive toys. The best toys for an unsupervised dog are those that he is unlikely to shred and possibly ingest. Hard rubber treat dispensing toys like the Kong classic are among the best. Premier also makes a great line of toys, including the Twist ’n Treat
Give your dog a big, full, happy life and you will get nothing but tail-wagging love in return.

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