Thinking about choice

I’m a fan of giving dogs choice and have previously not quite understood nor agreed with people who say their dogs can’t handle choices.

Reading this article, I understand a little better – or to be more accurate, I have a better grasp of the concept and vocabulary of choice, and where it is appropriate.

I can now see I don’t always give my dog a choice, but I haven’t really been able to articulate it as it was more of a gut feel where I do or don’t. In any case, this is a really thought provoking article and I’ll think more clearly about choice in the future.

The freedom to choose: A blessing or a curse?

“Why did you get a second busy dog?”

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.

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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?

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Cheeky monkey

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.

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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.

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I'm bored now mummy 😐

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How my heart dog has changed my life

img_20190410_075023_688Some months ago I read about the term ‘heart dog’ – the dog who “comes along once in a lifetime and grabs your heart so tightly he changes the way you live life”  and who is “forever a part of our emotional existence — a part of what made us who we are”.

Even thinking about that makes me cry, because it makes me think of the inevitable day when my heart dog is no longer with us. Every joyful day I get to spend with her brings that other day closer. For sure, she is often annoying, frustrating, and a general pest, but for the most part she lights up my life like nothing else and she has genuinely changed my life in lots of ways and taught me many important lessons.

The way our life is now has been largely shaped by what is best for Nell:

  • Firstly, when we moved out of the UK, dog friendliness of the country and city were a crucial criteria which rules out many options.
  • Although you don’t really need a car in Amsterdam, we wanted to get one so that we can travel with Nell and especially go to the beach which she loves
  • When we were buying a house, being close to a big park and the beach were crucial factors
  • Floors were redone, just because of garden and wet paws, and many sofas were discounted because they would not survive zoomies
  • And, of course, we needed a garden because we wanted Nell to have a lovely place to relax in for the second half of her life – this is literally her home for the rest of her life and we wanted it to be just right

You might think that is a bit excessive for a dog, and maybe it is. But her life is much shorter than ours, and although we may have many dogs in our lives, she only has this one life with us, so we see it as our responsibility to make it as amazing as we can.

As lifelong couch potatoes, we probably would not have chosen this lifestyle if it wasn’t for Nell – but now that we have, it’s a life we absolutely love and I am grateful for being able to spend a lot of time in nature. Turns out it is what makes me feel happy and peaceful, and I probably wouldn’t have discovered it without her.

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All for the love of a dog 

She has also changed how we spend our holidays.

In the past 5 years, she has travelled with us in 12 countries and handles travel like the pro she is. 18 months ago on our honeymoon we decided we no longer wanted to do long trips without Nell – we simply missed her too much, and we kept worrying about how she was. So, from then on, we have travelled together and that means driving – even if the drive is 1500km each way to Finland.

Nell travel collage

From John O’Groats at the northernmost point of Scotland, to Lisbon in the south – and both the westernmost point of Europe in Portugal, and in the east all the way to Finland and Poland.

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The roadtrip where I fell in love – with Nell and her human

She has also taught me many invaluable life lessons. When I met and fell in love with Nell, she was 2.5 years old and a bit of a nightmare albeit irresistibly adorable.

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Important lesson: dogs and PARK are more important than phones.

I was in a busy stage of life, never stopping for a breather. The demand for my startup was growing and alongside that, the demands for my time and attention. Spending time with Nell at the beach in Scotland, watching her enjoy herself to the fullest helped me learn to stop thinking for a moment and just be with her – because if I wasn’t present, she made sure I did. In some of the dark times of the past five years, just focusing on being with her have helped me through.

 

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Persistent pest face

Understanding her nature and character have also helped me understand my ADHD – like me, Nell is smart but easily distractable yet intensely hyperfocused on things she cares about (ball, beach, swimming and food). You can’t make her do things she finds boring – like tricks – but she will give her everything to tasks she finds meaningful – like nosework training. She is very persistent and can’t stop thinking about something once she’s got it in her head. On the other hand, all of this is what makes her special and unique. Accepting her for who she is, all of who she is, has helped me forgive myself for some of my own traits I felt ashamed of for a long time.

Ever since we got Grace, I wonder how she feels about not being the only dog anymore. I wish I could tell her that we got a second dog largely because of her – it’s not because she isn’t enough, it is because she means so much to us.

We got a puppy and go through all the work it involves because…

… we want her to have a friend to accompany her on explorations in the forest – places we can’t share with her

…we want her to have someone who she can enjoy the beach with someone just like she does

…we want to have someone to hold us up when the day comes we have to say goodbye to her.

That is how much she means to us – as much as we love Grace, there will never be another dog who makes such a big impact on our lives and leave such big, furry bear paw prints in our hearts.

Fresh start

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I’ve wanted to start this blog for over a year, but life got in the way. Two weeks ago we welcomed a new family member, Grace, and I thought now is a good time to start documenting our experiences of keeping two dogs busy.

Two weeks in, I have realised how much work I have done with Nell over the past 4 years, and how much I have learned about dog minds through her. And yet, with a puppy I am starting from scratch because I need to teach her everything about the world. A lot of my expectations of what is easy for an adult dog are being challenged and I need to take a step back to figure out how exactly do I nurture Grace to be the dog I want to share the next 15 years of my life with.

I met Nell when she was 2.5 years and, quite frankly, a bit of a nightmare. My husband had done a good job with the puppy training basics and she was a confident and stable dog, but she had bad manners in public and didn’t know how to control herself, which resulted in a lot of tension. That tension, in turn, made everything worse because Nell could sense it and the trust between her and my husband was fragile.

When I started to share my daily life with Nell in a small London flat, she got on all of our nerves so I decided to wonder what is WRONG with this dog. After researching working cocker spaniels, I understood that a lot of things that annoyed us about Nell were things that she was genetically wired to do: she was intense outside because of her hunting drive, destructive because she was bored, and followed us around in the house because she has been bred to be the hunter’s close companion and tune into their emotions, gestures and facial expressions.

Most importantly, I understood that she needed a JOB.
As one website put it, the clue is in the name: if you don’t give a working cocker a job, they will become self-employed and it won’t be work that you want them to do.

That’s how I started my journey of learning about canine mental enrichment, and learning about how to give this active dog of ours the life that made her happy. Over the past 4 years I have bought over 50 activity toys and learned a lot about the different ways to entertain a busy doggy mind.

Every dog is different, so finding the right thing is likely to mean trial and error and in this blog I want to share some of our experiences so that others can benefit from them. What works or us may not work for you, or the other way around so please feel free to comment.

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Elina, Nell & Grace

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Grace, 16 weeks

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Nell, 7 years

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