These are the chronicles of two Shetland Sheepdogs and their adventures in rally-o, obedience, flyball, agility, tracking and therapy dog work.
Also including information on raw feeding, canine epilepsy, positive training, and lots and lots of Sheltie hair!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Creating Mental Balance in a Sheltie

It pains me the number of times I hear stories from Sheltie owners of their dog's various behaviours. Behaviours like stealing socks and underwear at any opportunity, following their owners around the house biting at their ankles, chewing anything they can get their mouths on from power cords to baseboards, obsessively sitting at the window and barking at anything that moves by, or "spitefully" destroying or urinating on items around the house. Worse even than these tales are the reactions of the owners, making excuses for these behaviours with comments like "Oh, he's just so energetic" or "She just doesn't like it when I leave without her" or better yet, laughing at their "silly" dog's antics.

I feel the need to point out that these behaviours are not normal. These behaviours are not exhibitted by balanced dogs.

When people are asked what is required to care for a dog, the common answers will be feeding the dog, walking the dog, picking up the dog's poop, and giving it lots of love. While these things are absolutely important, I am not trying to diminish their relevance in any way, they are not the be all and end all of caring for your dog. Dogs need more than physical care, they need mental care as well.

In order to determine what is required for the mental care of Shetland Sheepdogs, we must first look at the original purpose of the breed. There are numerous websites detailing the history of the Shetland Sheepdog breed, and the Sheltie as a "type" of dog before it was recognized as a breed in 1909, so I'm not going to go into detail there. One of the best sites regarding all things Sheltie is Sue Ann Bowling's website. In reference to the development of the Sheltie-type dogs, the UKC suggests that type development of the Sheltie began around 900AD. Recognizing this, we begin to understand the intensity of which these dogs were bred. They were originally intended as working dogs, be it as flock guardians, property guardians, or herding dogs. And, with the exception of the past 100 years or so, breeding of the Sheltie was intensely dependant on selection for workability and instinct. Prior to modern times, if the dog did not do the job it was intended to do, it was not kept around, and it certainly wasn't allowed to breed. Only the best working dogs were bred, resulting in the strengthening of the instinct and drive in the breed. This sort of selective breeding cannot be undone in the mere 100 years since the inception of the Sheltie into the Kennel Club of the UK, where breeding for physical type began to take preference over workability. 100 years is not enough time to "undo" the selective breeding of the 1000 years prior. As a result, the modern Sheltie still has an intense drive and instinct, and a very highly developed intelligence and workability.

That, of course, is not to say that everyone that has a Sheltie should go out and purchase a flock of sheep. Though I know many Shelties that would be thrilled at the prospect. Rather, we merely need to recognize that the dogs that we love so much are working dogs. They have the mental needs to have a "job" and an outlet for their instinct and drive, and if we do not provide that outlet for them, they will take it upon themselves to release that drive and energy as they see fit. That is when you get the destructive chewing or digging, the "herding" and nipping behaviours as the dog chases you or the kids around the house or yard, and the obsessive guarding or hoarding behaviours. Shelties are wonderfully adaptive dogs, and there are some out there that will be more than happy just relaxing around the house. But when you start to notice irregular behavioural patterns in your happy house dog, you may want to consider that they really aren't getting all the mental stimulus that they need.

Mental stimulus does not include walks, running in the park, or fetch in the back yard. These activities will tire the dog out physically, but do next to nothing to tiring them out mentally. While physical activity is important, so is mental activity, requiring the dog to use logic skills to solve a problem.

Providing your Sheltie with a job does not need to be a 7 days a week situation. Even one or two days a week of regular and routine "working" is often enough to curb unbalanced behaviours. This means looking into a dog sport of some kind and considering joining a local dog club that provides regular practices or training opportunities a couple times a week. This is more than just enrolling in an obedience class, but extends to joining a local kennel and obedience club and continuing on with classes beyond beginner or intermediate levels. The options available to Shelties are immense! So don't get hung up in the idea that you don't like one particular sport or a certain activity doesn't appeal to you. In the world of dog sports, there is an activity for everyone. And, lucky you, Shelties can excell at nearly all of them! I do realize that competition is not for everyone, but don't fret. There are many dog organizations out there that are willing to allow you to just come out to classes or practice times and have fun with your dog without the intent of competition. Don't think that you have to start competing if you start training in a dog sport. You can enjoy these activities "just for fun" and still provide the mental workout that your Sheltie is asking for.

Some options for Sheltie activities include:
agility, flyball, disc dog, dock diving, obedience, rally-o, tracking, therapy dog, scent hurdling, canine freestyle, herding, and lure coursing

Certain areas of the world do not provide all opportunities for all sports. This is not an excuse for denying your Sheltie a job. With access to the World Wide Web, you can get any information you could ever hope for! Check out Yahoo Groups for groups of people that are interested in a particular sport. There are also numerous online communities that are willing to provide information on certain sports. Google can be your best friend!

Please do consult (either in person or online) with a qualified professional trainer before embarking on a training regime in your back yard. If at all possible, please pursue a class offered by a professional trainer to get the basics of the sport down before attempting to do it on your own in your yard or basement. This is vitally important for the health and safety of your dog!

In addition to organized dog sports, there are lots of games that you can play at home! Check out the large variety of "puzzle games" that are available for dogs. These toys require the dog to think and flex its brain muscle to figure them out. Some favorites include:
Buster Cube
Hi.Q. Puzzle Toy
Or some of the toys that I would LOVE to purchase, but have yet to try, the Nina Ottosson games

Games you can play at home without purchasing special toys, include:

Hide and Seek - Put your dog in a sit-stay, show them a treat in your hand, then allow them to watch you hide the treat under a pillow, blanket, or towel. Release them from the stay and encourage them to figure out how to find the treat. As they get better, increase the difficulty when hiding. Utilize the furniture around your house, place a treat under the couch, on top of a chair, or behind a cupboard door. When your dog become really adept at the game, you can even put them in a sit-stay in a different room while you hide a couple of treats around the house. Then send them off to find all the treats. If your dog is not food motivated, use a favorite toy instead.

Scent Discrimination - Take two small plastic containers (sour cream containers work well) and punch some holes in the lids. In one container, place a sock that you have been wearing all day. Place the containers a couple of feet apart, and send your dog to "find it". Click/treat when they nose at the container with your sock, no click/treat if they nose at the container without your sock. Repeat, gradually adding difficulty by increasing the number of plastic containers. You can also begin asking for a "signal" when the dog finds the correct container. It could be a sit, a bark, a down, or picking up the container and bringing it to you.

Tracking Games - With another family member or friend, find a dog-friendly grassy or wooded area. Have your helper hold the dog, then you run away from the dog and hide a short distance away out of sight (lay down in the grass, hide behind a bush or in a clump of trees. Once you are hidden, have your helper release the dog telling them to "find it(mom/dad/her/him/etc.)" This will encourage the dog to use their nose to follow your familiar scent. When they do find you, lots of play and fun! Move to a new area of the park, and do it again. Eventually increase difficulty by zig-zagging as you run away, pausing in one location before running off to a new hiding place, etc.

It isn't uncommon for any irregular or unbalanced behaviour to completely cease after only a short time of having a routine implimented. Remember, you chose the breed, so it is your responsibility to supply what they require to be a healthy and happy dog!



Excellent information!

Bree/Reilly said...

Indeed wonderful information. I could not imagine my mom not playing lots of games with me, doing agility, obedience taking me to every park she can find. I am not sure about her latest thing though.....we are learning to dance together - which is really obedience to music

Gussie said...

Great post. It applies to any dog bred for working!

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