I am often told, 'just let your dog be a dog', when people see videos of Hazel and Bramble doing tricks or agility, and it made me ponder- what does it mean to 'be a dog?'
It's hard to argue that Hazel and Bramble don't lead a mentally and physically stimulating life, full of fun and enrichment, however I sometimes wonder whether I could be doing more to give them a natural life. Am I giving them everything they need to be happy and have the best life possible? To try to answer that question, I did a bit of research...
To own a pet in the UK, it is a required that you adhere to the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, which states that they must:
-have a suitable environment (place to live)
-have a suitable diet
-be able to exhibit normal and natural behaviour patterns
-be housed with, or apart from, other animals (if applicable)
-be protected from pain, injury, suffering and disease
The part I am focussing on is the third point, because that is basically saying 'let your dog be a natural dog'. Here's the tricky part: there is not really such thing as a 'natural' dog, they're a man-made species. That makes it extremely difficult to know what their normal and natural behavioural pattens would be, so what is the bare minimum they should get in terms of stimulation?
Lots of people like to compare dogs to wolves- dogs are in fact a sub-species of grey wolf, so the comparison isn't crazy- however thousands of years of domestication has made the average dog more docile, adaptable and downright lazier than a wolf would be. But let's, for the sake of inciting a reaction, assume dogs require the same amount of exercise as your typical grey wolf. A quick Google search tells me that a wolf can roam between 25 and 100 miles- daily! Like I said, dogs are not wolves, but I sincerely doubt that many dog owners walk their pets even half that far, daily, does that make us terrible owners? Surely, to allow a dog to be a dog, we should give them the option of walking, say, 20 miles a day, shouldn't we?
Well, probably not. Most dogs are smaller than wolves, and aren't built for daily marathons. Because of this, it is recommended that a healthy dog should be walked for at least an hour a day. However, according to research done by Michigan State University, "nearly half of dog walkers exercise an average of 30 minutes a day at least five days a week". Perhaps there are more recent and relevant statistics out there, but from this we can see that at least 50% of dogs are walked for less than 30 minutes a day. Yes, perhaps some of these dogs may be too young to walk a long distance, maybe some of them are elderly or a breed that is incapable of walking for long periods of time, but that still leaves thousands of healthy dogs that aren't being exercised.
Even if a dog is walked for an hour a day, is that enough? What other natural behaviour patterns can wolves perform that dogs cannot? Hunting is certainly something that most pet dogs cannot do. Hunting isn't just a case of chasing and killing, a lot of thought and logic is required to take down prey. Because of this, dogs are usually very intelligent and active animals, they cannot just be left to their own devices without anything to mentally stimulate them; if bored, they can quickly become destructive and may develop unwanted behavioural issues. Since it is unethical and quite possibly illegal to give your dog live prey to hunt, we have had to find different ways of getting them to use their brain like they would had they not been domesticated.
Hiding food around the house is a fantastic way to engage your dog. They have to sniff the food out, climb furniture to get to it, use their paws to dig it out from under the sofa and most importantly, use their brains! Food puzzles, dispensers and treat balls are all brilliant, too, and can help to enrich your dog's meal times.
Agility is another thing you can do that allows your dog to express its natural behaviours. More often than not when suggesting this I am met with the statement "Agility isn't natural", but tell me what is unnatural about climbing, running and jumping? Simply because the obstacles are painted in bright colours it doesn't take away from the fact that the behaviours dogs perform in agility mimic the actions wolves carry out when they are hunting in the wild. Similarly, trick training, obedience, rally and dog dancing are just other ways in which dogs are required to problem solve in exchange for a reward- walking, running, jumping, circling, balancing- all natural behaviours that have just been slightly modified by us so that they look fancy in the showring, or can be performed to the James Bond theme tune.
What is important is that we don't forget what it means to be a dog. A dog isn't an animal that should just spend its days sleeping on the sofa, with the occasional walk around the block, they are so much more than that. Let your dog 'be a dog', by giving it the most stimulating, enriching and exciting life possible!