Thursday, February 5, 2009

The cure for boredom

Did you ever hear that saying "too smart for your own good"? Well that saying takes on a whole new meaning when it applies to dogs. When I was training, we used to tell people with smart puppies all the time: "the good news is that you have a very smart puppy. The BAD news is that you have a very smart puppy." Smart dogs tend to get into a little more mischief, and tend to keep their people on their toes just a little bit more. And when you have a herding dog, this "smarty pants" attitude gets multiplied. BY TEN. When you have a herding dog that could probably do your taxes if you asked them to, your life probably isn't going to be boring. In fact, it is probably going to be the EXTREME opposite of boring! And no time is this more evident than when your dog cant get their regular exercise (which is usually the daily equivalent of running a triathlon), and you find yourself suddenly stuck with them in the house.

Now if you really think about it, it all makes sense. I mean, Shelties were bred to be out day after day moving and protecting their flocks. And doing that job was made a bit more challenging when the croft (farm) was only a small spit of land that is home to some of the worlds worst weather. You have to be able to move your sheep up and down the rocky shore according to the tides. You have to bark (loudly...and sharply...and a lot) to keep birds of prey and other predators away from your lambs. And because you live on such a tiny island, you have to be wary of strangers, but be completely loyal and biddable so your human can let you know what needs to be done.

These daily tasks made our Shelties who they are today. It explains their vocality, their sometimes aloofness with strangers and their extremely high intelligence. A good working dog will be biddable enough to listen to what his shepherd asks, but intelligent enough in his own mind to be able to decide what is best for the flock. And to make these decisions in a split second. These early demands on our furry Shetland friends made them the amazing "all around" versatile companions that they are today. But these good attributes also present a bit of a challenge. I don't know about you, but I am not able to keep a small flock of Shetland Sheep for my girls to herd and protect in my back yard. And most people, I think, are in the same situation. 9If you're not, and have some sheep, can we come over??) So it is up to us to give our dogs something else to do; they need an outlet for all of that instinctual intelligence and energy. If we do not provide our dogs with jobs, they will start to invent some of their own. And these self-discovered jobs are usually not at all to our liking. Most involve chewing, nuisance barking, herding inappropriate things (kids on bikes, joggers, CARS...), but some become a bit darker and even more troublesome: OCD behaviors, self-mutilation, and aggression. We owe it to our little buddies to make sure that they have things to keep their bodies and minds busy so that we don't have to deal with the pain and heart-ache of losing them when their behaviors spiral out of control.

So what are we city and suburb dwellers to do? Well the obvious things are to get them out doing those jobs that they were originally bred to do! Herding (for our guys), hunting, lure-coursing, earth-dog and carting are just some of the jobs that people can get their dogs involved in to keep them busy. And although I threw in those other jobs because not all of this only applies to herding breeds (how many terriers that you know still live in barns and hunt rats every day for work?) but all of those aforementioned jobs our Shelties can do too! If you check out the AWSS site (Association of Working Shetland Sheepdogs-link on sidebar), and their yahoo group ( then you'll find pictures and stories of these amazing dogs doing it all! And if those jobs don't suit your kids, there are always agility and obedience too. But what can you do in the mean time? What can you do if you suddenly find yourself house-bound because of illness in the middle of winter? I mean, what can you do so your SHELTIES stop STARING at you because they're bored??? You make stuff up!

I've officially been home from the hospital now for about 2 weeks. When it came to my girls, at first it was great. I think we missed each other so much (from my 12 day hospital stay) that all they wanted to do was snuggle, and be close to me. That lasted about A DAY. After that, they went back to their "lets go play!" mode. I sat them both down and explained that as I still cannot BREATHE, and although I am home and not going to work, (because I'm not able to drive), we cannot go to the park, or for our favorite walks in the woods. I also cannot sit outside and throw your ball/Frisbee for an hour. And finally, no, there will be no agility practice. As intelligent as they are, you'd think that they would remember. I think they just "yessed" me to death. They smiled and nodded their little Sheltie heads, and then Heidi proceeded to pick up her ball and drop in at my feet. As I mentioned in the last entry, it is slightly frowned upon that I give into this version of Jedi mind tricks, because if things break as a direct result of my lack of ball-throwing skills, I'm going to be in BIG trouble. Again, I explain this to the Shelties: "If I throw the ball, and something breaks, mom wont CARE how much fun you had chasing the ball. And she wont CARE how fast you brought it back. And she DEFINITELY wont CARE about how you dodged the falling object as you ran by it. Shes just going to CARE about what ever is broken, and we're going to find ourselves living outside in a cardboard box." I think that, again, they weren't really listening, as the only word that seemed to register was "outside". So, after taking the ball away (and throwing a handful of cookies on the floor to keep them busy while I hid it-Heidi will continue to stare for HOURS at the spot where it is if she knows...) I started to think of some other things we can do to "keep busy". Here's what we came up with:

1. THE BUSTER CUBE!!- Possibly the best dog toy (besides our forever friend, "Chuck-It") ever invented. I owe a steak dinner to whom ever it was who thought up this toy and brought it to households chock full of "Sheltie-boredom". It is SO GREAT! You just put some cookies in the hole on the top, shake it up (which gets the cookies lost in the vortex inside of the "cube") and then put it down and watch the fun! Now, not all dogs get the fun of "Buster Cube". I started both my girls on it as babies. Heidi is OCD about it now (playing for much longer than is necessary, even when its EMPTY) but Shelby never got the game. What she DID learn, however, is that Heidi isn't the best cookie hunter when the cookies pop out of the hole, so she follows her around to inhale anything that Heidi misses. She looks like a little Sheltie-shaped, furry vulture; but it is a little bit of an insight into how smart Shelby is. Why do all the work? Let some one else get dizzy rolling the cube around, and still reap the rewards! Now, the problem with "Buster Cube" is that it only lasts as long as the treats inside. I mean, even though Heidi will probably play with an empty cube for HOURS, it just isn't nice to let her do it. The cube works very similarly to positive training: offer a behavior (Heidi flings "cube" across floor) and you get a reward (cookie pops out). Later, when they get to be professionals (like Heidi) you can set it so not as many rewards come out. So, now they're getting rewarded only every 7th time they roll the cube. THIS is why people get addicted to slot machines! And Heidi sure is addicted!! I'm afraid I'm going to have to sign her up for BCA (Buster Cubes Annonymous).

2. Sheltie WARS!- My girls love to tug. They will probably tug until all of their teeth fall out. They will tug any where, any time. This can be both a blessing and a curse. We use it for rewards for agility (we have special tuggy leashes too!) and its a great energy burner if you're in a small space. And we sure know the value of it when we can't get out and burn off some steam!! The girls will tug with me any time, and will also start Sheltie WARS! and play tug with each other. It is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, watching my girls play tug. Heidi has the wide, sweeping head flail, and Shelby has the short-burst-of-energy, kill-it-till-it's-dead head jerk. When they REALLY get into it, they sound like two rabid wolverines fighting over a scrap of meat. I have actually had people on the phone ask me if I am having a dog fight. I have to explain to them that no, those are just my two 20lb "mini-Lassies" playing tug. They usually hang up still sounding skeptical. No wonder why I don't get many visitors...

3. BULLY SPRINGS!- I am SO careful with what I give to my girls for food and treats. I am much more anal about what they eat, vs. what I eat. I will not give them rawhide (choking hazard) and not give them Greenies (intestinal blockage hazard). I will, however, give them bully sticks. I don't like the straight ones because I think they're too hard. (Heidi cracked two teeth once, and ended up with a nasty abscess) but I will give them the softer "springs". They LOVE them! As I said before, my girls are essentially furry garbage disposals on legs. But they really do get excited when they see these particular curly treats. They don't last THAT long (especially with Shelby the "annihilator") but they are good to keep them busy and keep their teeth and jaws in shape. Oh, and they're usually so focused on keeping the "spring" between their paws, that they will even temporarily stop staring at me...(key word is "temporarily")

4. Sheltie Speedway!- OK, I finally caved. I picked up the ball, and THREW IT. But WHERE I threw it is the key. I figured that if I closed ALL of the doors in the upstairs hallway, then there really isn't anything that I can break (still knocking on wood, though. With my luck I'll probably huck it so hard it will put a dent in the drywall...). The good news is that I can now let them run down a (fairly short) runway, and still have everything intact. The bad news is that I'm not "technically" supposed to go up stairs, so...we don't get to play Sheltie Speedway very often. But I think Ive provided enough entertainment regardless, don't you??

Well, just for kicks, I decided to allow one more game to take place as well. This one is specific to Heidi, as Shelby seems to smart to include herself in such a silly pasttime. This game is:

KILL THE SHOVEL!!- Heidi likes to chase things. A LOT. In the winter, it happens to be the snow shovel. In the spring and fall, it is the rake. She takes the summer off. Much to my mothers chagrin, this is something that I find HILARIOUS! On one of our favorite blogs, "Three Woofs and a Woo", "Food Lady" posted somethings that make her a rotten dog owner. Things that her dogs do that she probably shouldn't be laughing at, but they're too funny not too. THIS is one of those situations. What makes it even funnier is the fact that this dog will seemingly chase anything that moves...except sheep!! Here are some pictures of Heidi "Killing the Shovel":

So I think my girls are a little bit happier and a little more exercised this week, now that Ive been giving them some more to do. I really REALLY hope that Spring comes soon, and by that time, I'll hopefully be able to breath too! But in the mean time, I'll keep them occupied with treats and toys, and myself occupied with sharing the stories of my stuey-pendous Shelties!