The Earthy Life
Published: January 3, 2013
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Question: I have two boys, seven and nine, who love to wrestle with Sparky, our 4-year-old lab mix adopted from a shelter when he was six months old. Lately, the wrestling has gotten a bit rough, and last night Sparky actually ripped my younger boy's shirt. How can I get Sparky to play more gently?
First of all, thank you for your loyalty to Sparky, seeking solutions and being willing to work through this with him. You are right to be concerned. If left unaddressed, the chances are this behavior will escalate and one of the kids may be hurt.
Dogs are pack animals, and Sparky is a high-energy young dog. By nature, pups play wildly and sometimes fiercely both to learn valuable skills and to burn off excess energy, much like human children. A major difference, though, is that dogs are much stronger and tougher than we two-legged creatures are. Nips and scratches that canines don't even notice can do serious harm to a young child.
Sparky views your children as his pack, and is treating them as he would litter mates. Your job is to:
1) Give Sparky acceptable ways to burn off his energy
2) Teach your children how to assert themselves as Sparky's pack leaders versus pack mates
A lot of people with fenced backyards think that just opening the door and letting their dog out will ensure enough exercise, but this is not so. Not only does your dog need more exercise, but he needs more stimulation. Playing games, like fetch and frisbee, can go a long way towards his needs. Some dogs even enjoy chasing bubbles, or you might consider signing your dog and children up for agility training, which will stimulate your dog, give him an outlet for all that energy and help the kids establish themselves as pack leaders.
Another terrific way to burn off energy while helping the kids assert themselves as pack leaders is to take Sparky for lots of long, brisk walks - ideally for a total of two or more hours a day. It may be best to play fetch or frisbee with him first, as when he is slightly less energetic it will be easier for you to walk him. Make sure when anyone walks Sparky, he does not pull on the leash or decide where you will be going.
About this column
Since relocating to northeastern Pennsylvania in 2007, the non-profit Indraloka Animal Sanctuary has been caring for hundreds of rescued animals for years and has learned much about them and from them about caring for ourselves and the environment. Email your questions on holistic care for animals, ourselves and the environment to firstname.lastname@example.org with "The Earthy Life" in the subject line. We will answer with stories of mistakes made, lessons learned and blessings shared. For more information, visit www.indraloka.org.