A couple of days ago we bumped into a dog physiotherapist who used to treat Nell and she me why we decided to get a second busy dog. The question took me slightly by surprise and I didn’t have a good answer for her on the spot, but her question stuck with me so I thought I’d write about it.
First of all, I need to address the loaded nature of her question. It’s possible that her tone of voice was not entirely intentional, but the fact that she thought to ask that question, in that way reveals something of her own preferences for dogs which is interesting in itself. And fair enough – intense, active working dogs are like marmite and you either love them or hate them.
I’ll start with all the reasons why someone might not want another one of the same after already having “a Nell” but in a nutshell, a working dog is a lot of work – for the owner.
Exercise requirements: she is very active and in order to be happy, she needs a lot of exercise – to the point of being an amateur athlete. This also means there is an increased responsibility for the owner to support the dog’s wellbeing with the right nutrition and some kind of understanding of how to keep the dog fit in a holistic way. For Nell, that means high quality food (now raw diet), and her walks are often pentathlons that include multiple activities (fetching balls, retrieving/searching for dummies, sniffing, swimming and jumping on logs etc.). She runs up and down hills to exercise different muscle groups, jumps over and walks on tree trunks to maintain her core balance and swims regularly to boost the exercise without strain on joints.
All this is demanding for an owner – a simple walk around the park will not do, and she needs a solid, active hour daily to stay happy and for her humans to stay sane.
This pile, filled with some treats in each and hidden around a flat, keeps Nell busy for 30min in which time she finds them all AND solves them.
Intense mind: not only does she need lots of exercise, she also requires a lot of mental stimulation. A mind that moves fast gets bored easily, and a bored dog means only one thing: trouble.
I often read the instructions for various dog brain work exercises they suggest you teach the dog in stages how to use the toy so that they don’t get frustrated. No need – I can give most toys to her and she’ll figure it out instantly. Activity toys that say “hours of fun” often last only minutes with Nell because she throws herself into the game so intensely. Again, a lot of work for the owner – sometimes life with Nell has felt like it’s a part time job to keep her busy.
So yeah, why on earth would we want another one of the same if it’s that hard?
Because once you get used to and learn to love the crazy and the busy, that is your new baseline for a dog, and dogs that are less intense just seem to be missing something. Of course, they are not missing anything – it is the busy doggies who have dog-ness in excess supply – but going back to a “normal” dog seems… boring.
And of course, the flipside of the coin is that working cockers are incredibly affectionate, loving and playful dogs with a touch of cheekiness that will make you swear and then laugh – daily! Morning cuddles are a regular feature of our family life, accompanied by a shower of enthusiastic doggy kisses.
Ready for action!
Although separation anxiety can be an issue with these velcro dogs, the upside of a handler-focused dog is that I rarely need to worry about them wandering off (they usually stick close to humans) and the attachment to humans makes them eager to please and train.
High energy levels mean Nell is always ready for adventures, a trait that is common for her breed. On our road trips, she can do an hour at a beach, and only needs a short recharge in the car before she is ready to go again. The intense energy also means she is ready to work at the drop of a hat and doesn’t need much effort from me to get her excited or motivated in a detection class – she is already raring to go, I just need to guide her. The fast and curious mind results in some ingenious and creative doggy problem solving in every day life – from hunting down chocolate in the long-forgotten handbag I stashed in a corner to opening the garden gate leading to our jetty, Nell’s inventiveness keeps us on our toes and lets us marvel at the complexities of the canine mind. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!
One crucial consideration was Nell and her needs because she was here first. Non-sporting/working breeds have a different level of energy and a mismatch would create problems for all of us – when one dog needs much more than another, someone always has to compromise. We also wanted to have a dog that would enjoy similar activities to her because even among gun dogs there is huge variability in what a good, rich and fulfilling life means to them. Gordon setters, for example, enjoy long distance running (not very compatible with a dog who prefers exploring bushes), and gun dogs that specialise in prey like rabbits won’t be as crazy about swimming as Nell. So it had to be another half-otter that runs in bushes with nose trailing the ground.
I guess the most fundamental reason is that I feel like I understand these dogs because my own ADHD mind also feels strongly, works fast, and gets both bored and excited easily. I understand their intense hyperfocus on whatever they are interested in, and their tireless curiosity and pursuit of mental stimulation. I love their sense of adventure because I like to be spontaneous – try new things and see new places. They are, in some ways, a canine version of me.
And that is why we got another busy dog.