The Wrong Kind of Fun
Let me tell you guys a story. This is one that I think most dog owners have experienced at one time or another with their dogs and one that can contribute to a lot of frustration. Let’s talk about when dogs are having the wrong kind of fun.
Right and Wrong Fun
I recently bought my dogs two large stuffed toys. A red triceratops and a purple stegosaurus (sadly with no thagomizer). When I saw them I knew I was likely going to be buying them, and so I took one off the shelf to get a closer look at them. I mean come on, they were brightly colored dinosaurs, who could resist getting a better look?
These were a pair of extra sturdy stuffed toys, the kind that boasts reinforced seams, multiple layers of “skin” and a far cry from just a basic stuffed toy. They were also very dense in a way that a regular stuffed toy isn’t. Naturally the price reflects the extra work that has gone into these toys. To be honest I didn’t look at the price, because I knew it would be more than I wanted to spend, and I justified it by being the holidays.
And frankly because that’s what dog trainers do with their money; we spend it all on dogs. Holiday or no. I could go on about how I do this quite often to product test for clients, but I digress.
Before I was even done paying for the rest of my purchases and out the door I was already imagining how happy and excited my dogs would be with the new toys. I should explain, I don’t tend to buy stuffed toys for my dogs, we stick mainly jolly balls and other similar rubber type toys. So the extra novelty was definitely going to kick their excitement and enjoyment up a notch or two.
I loaded up my things, had the two dinos riding shotgun, and drove home in a state of anticipation. I could hardly wait to see what my crew would make of them.
They were a hit. My girls were of course extremely excited at my return, but then when I presented them with these new toys it was game on!
With a flurry of sniffy and furious tail wagging, they both explored the toys and experimented with different ways to carry them. Pip, my Gsd, also voiced her joy hilariously while carrying around her new toy, which meant that my home also had sporadic muffled barking. They were having a blast running around the room with the toys, carrying them all the while, and just generally being goofballs. It was great.
And then the play changed.
Forte was no longer contented with carrying her toy around. I don’t blame her because they are quite heavy for their size, and Forte is not that large. So running around with an unwieldly toy is tiring for sure, especially when her normal toys are so much lighter.
She set her toy down, stood on it with her front paws, put her head down, and started to bite into the toy, worrying the back of the stegosaurus.
It was at this point that I verbally interrupted her and asked her if she could kindly not destroy her toy.
She of course stopped, got excited that I was talking to her, bit the hell out of her toy so she could carry it more, and then did a few more laps of the room. When she saw that I was not in fact going to play with her and her toy, she slowed and put it down again.
And again began to scissor at the toy with her molars.
Again I interrupted her, and a seed of frustration took hold.
As we all know there is no such thing as a stuffed toy of any sort that is indestructible. Yes there are materials that are tougher, there are toys that are stuffed better or have no stuffing, there are all sorts of variations that strive to make the toys more durable. The molars of a dog though are meant to slice, just like scissors, and they do this job well. A cloth like material, even leather, is not going to stand up that well if a dog’s jaw is able to get the right leverage on it and use those teeth.
So I had spent my money to get these toys, one of which was literally beginning to be destroyed in front of me, and that was not the purpose that I bought them for! I mean if I would have wanted to destroy these toys I’d have took them out back and set them on fire. Which come to think of it likely wouldn’t have been as effective as what Forte’s teeth were doing.
At this stage it’s safe to say I was irritated. Within a handful of minutes Forte had very successfully chewed a few of the stegosaurus’s fins off it’s back, bit a hole into it’s side, and pulled bits of stuffing out. My malinois was demonstrating her single mindedness at a task.
Pip, while not as destructive, was also beginning to chew and scissor on the toy that she had. It felt almost like both of my dogs had betrayed me somehow. We were having a great time, that devolved into a feeling like I had just lit my money on fire.
This wasn’t fun anymore. And if the human isn’t having fun, no one can have fun, right? I took the toys away, and put the girls in the yard so I could clean up the bits of stuffing that were strewn around my living room floor.
Play time was done and for me ended on a sour note.
A Difference in Opinion
It is time for introspection.
This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of owning and training dogs. Many owners get a taste of this and do not like what they see, or find it much easier to forgo this completely and ignore the lessons that can be learned. Many don’t seem to know that there is something of value to learn, and instead they are at odds with their dogs.
This is why I think our dogs can be one of our best teachers. Because one way or another we will be confronted by our flaws, by the little things that we’ve ignored about ourselves, or that we’ve blatantly told ourselves we don’t have issues with. Society rewards conformity after all, and there is safety in conforming isn’t there? Leave it to our dogs to yank away the curtain and reveal the truth of who we are to ourselves in spite of our efforts!
In this case for me this meant that I was having an issue with my dogs. We had a period of time of acceptable fun, running and carrying the toys, thrashing them around, light chewing, and just general tomfoolery.
Then there came a switch into what I deemed unacceptable.
The fun that my dogs were having was wrong.
Because I said so.
And because the human wasn’t having fun anymore, the human put an end to the fun. The toys were taken, the activity stopped. If I can’t have it no one can!
My present self is saddened by my past self in this scenario.
My dogs were not acting unexpectedly. I knew the toys wouldn’t last forever and I know that all toys that enter my home will eventually leave in a very sorry state. I in fact buy toys with this in mind. Including these.
Forte has a history of scissoring toys with her teeth if she can. She is a malinois and so the act of biting and gripping a toy a certain way is very fulfilling for her. If that is impossible or the toy has bits to bite off then she will downshift into the scissoring with her molars, or chewing the bits off the toy. This is 100% known to me, and 100% NORMAL dog behavior.
None of my dogs eat toys. There is no choking or obstruction danger. They do not guard toys, they don’t do anything really that is dangerous with them, they don’t fight each other for them. Letting my dogs destroy something just results in a mess. No harm done.
I myself didn’t intend to use these toys. They’re dog toys for my dogs, not a type of toy that is easy for us to play with together, they’re just too bulky, dense, and unwieldly. These are dog toys strictly for my dogs to play with and enjoy. I gave them the toys with that intent.
So knowing all of that, WHY was it appropriate for me to want to step in and say, “No, no, no, you can’t have fun like that. That is the wrong fun, and you are wrong.”?
And the real answer is that it wasn’t.
The situation was safe, no danger at all. These were toys I had no claim or desire to have. I bought them for my dogs to have fun with. You know, the whole purpose of toys.
But of course, not fun like that. Dumb human.
I made a choice in that moment to step in and try to end my dog’s enjoyment for no other reason than a selfish one. I wasn’t having fun, my emotional state changed. And so my view of the activity itself shifted and I imposed myself into the situation in a way that was unnecessary.
My intervention stopped nothing. It didn’t repair the toys. It didn’t prevent me from having to pick up stuffing. It didn’t stop an accident from happening. It didn’t prevent the destruction of some heirloom. I gained nothing, except irritation. Which was my own doing…
I lost something. I took away their fun and stopped a fun time. We had less joy collectively. All because my opinion was different than my dogs. That’s all it was. A difference in opinion.
I’m sure if you asked my dogs if chewing up toys and destuffing them was fun, they would with zero hesitation tell you absolutely it was fun. That it’s great and probably one of the best features of stuffed toys. The dogs love them because they’re destroyable, they rip in a satisfying manner, and mimic patterns of tearing into prey after a successful hunt. Very deep and satisfying patterns etched into the predator soul.
I am also sure that if you asked my dogs why I was interrupting their fun, why I ultimately ended their fun, they wouldn’t be able to explain it. Why is the human irritated? They don’t know, except it’s something to do with them.
Letting Go - I.E. it's Not About Me
The reality is that my irritation doesn’t belong in their fun. It’s not productive, and does nothing to add to the situation. So my remaining choice is to let go. I am not the fun police, I am there to monitor safety and to promote fun.
Every owner has moments like this. Times when your dog is doing something harmless, but an activity that for whatever reason irks you. Maybe it creates a minor inconvenience, maybe it is something that forces you to change a pattern slightly, or makes a routine less efficient. Or maybe there is an irrational fear of some sort lingering that you’ve not addressed yet. Or maybe what your dog is doing goes contrary to what people have told you a dog should do or what’s appropriate in that moment.
To be clear I’m talking about situations that aren’t dangerous, where there isn’t the potential for injury, where it is simply some activity that has switched our emotional state to some sort of discomfort. And because of that discomfort we often feel like we have to gain control of the situation, stop the dog, and try to regain our state of comfort.
In these situations we very rarely get the dog to respond in the exact way that would restore our inner balance and reverse the turmoil inside. In fact I would say that it’s nearly impossible for the dog to act in such a manner because perfection just isn’t what the world is about. So we lose. We stop the dog in the moment maybe, but the toy has already been torn. There’s no un-tearing the fabric.
Those emotions are still there and are not going back into the bottle. In my experience they’re also a worse state than had nothing been done and often they linger like some bad smell. And on top of this, the joy was cut short.
My whole point is this. Knowing when to pick your battles is important. We are the stewards of our dogs and part of that responsibility means providing a good life for them. Their lives are very short, painfully so, and there is a lot of happiness to experience in that brief time. Let them.
There is also a dark side to not letting go. When a dog knows that their owner will step in and stop an activity that can actually make the dog more driven to do it. The activity can become much more valuable to the dog and now they actively look for opportunities to do it. Which can easily create a cycle of unwanted behavior, and grows the conflict between the dog and owner, which diminishes their bond. It can create serious issues; resource guarding problems, almost compulsive ingestion of items, massive recall problems, the list goes on and none of it is good.
We are our dog’s guides and partners. Not their dictators and fun police. Let the little things go and you’ll find that there is more peace and joy to go around.
I have since let my dogs interact with THEIR toys to their heart’s content. The toys look like they’ve been through a war, and they’re still losing. But that’s the fate of all toys that come into our home. And good practice for me to continue to grow and stretch my “let it go” muscle.