It’s the end of the first week of 2024. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks. I feel like the new year prompts a lot of us to start reflecting on what we want in the new year and what we would like to leave behind. Last month I found myself doing what I had set out to do five years ago. A lot has happened for me personally over the last five years so it was a joy to see this naturally emerge. It has always been in the back of my mind whispering to me. I’d be out on a trail with my dogs and would think this is what I want to be doing. This is what I want to be offering the dogs I know; an experience, time outside of the city, time to make choices that align with being a dog, freedom, play and mutual enjoyment that naturally creates bonds.
Having the dogs out at the SniffSpots the last month and a half has been a natural convergence of all my experiences with dogs. I’m a Certified Canine Fitness Trainer because my young dog over a decade ago started having mobility issues. I wanted to learn everything I could to help her have the best quality of life and in turn learned a lot about exercise and how it benefits our dogs. It has been a joy to see the dogs really move their bodies.We don’t have to interrupt dogs when they start running full speed. They run up and down the hills naturally. They jump over logs and jump on rocks. We see these behaviors at the dog park but the movements are not as fluid. They are all used to jumping on things because we prompt them to jump on the logs that have been placed in the dog park. We use it as a way to settle the group. We can still do that in the forest but overall the dogs seem to do it out of pure enjoyment. It’s been fun to see dogs that are not as adept gaining better balance and being able to walk across logs they couldn’t a few weeks ago.
I have been managing play groups since 2006 and I have learned a lot over the years. I started out in the dog parks and then took over a dog daycare and returned back to the dog park in 2019. I learned a lot about the environment and that all environments have their limitations. We are blessed to have a few large dog parks in the area. Dogs need space to navigate healthy social behaviors. We don’t use the smaller parks for this reason. I see a lot of inappropriate play that eventually turns into a fight in the smaller parks. We see it at the larger parks too as most owners are not aware that not all play is healthy play but we have the space to steer the group away from these dogs. I found that most doggy daycares are just an extension of our artificial lifestyles. They have artificial turf, artificial lighting, the dogs are more active than they ever would be if they were given the freedom to be themselves and this all creates stress. A lot of dog daycares do not have outdoor space and if they do it is a small area for the number of dogs. They rarely have enough space for dogs to navigate healthy behaviors. No dog needs to play for 6-10 hours a day and especially the kind of play that a smaller environment creates. They are a great option for dogs with separation anxiety or dogs that need supervision the whole day but I found it was not the experience I wanted to provide the dogs in my care.
We have been loving the SniffSpots because we do not have the constraints we find in the dog park or that of a dog daycare. We are actually able to provide an enriching experience and allow the dogs to engage in more natural behaviors. In 2018, I went through Teena Patel’s Canine Enrichment Academy. I wanted to learn how to create the experiences dogs needed in my daycare. I had done all I knew how to create an environment that supports healthy behavior. We were members only, so the dogs knew their playmates and did not have to navigate the stress of play with strange dogs. We limited the number of dogs so the dogs had more space. We rotated and had dogs nap and we provided training and one on one experiences with the staff. It still didn’t seem like enough. I wanted more for the dogs. I had seen how dogs played at the dog parks and the dogs were not able to run like that in the facility or yards. So I started my search for what could be done and stumbled across Teena’s “daycare” Doglando. It’s not a daycare in our sense of the word, it is an enrichment center. But since most of us have no idea what that means I will use daycare. This post will be too short to get into what Doglando is but you can check out the website and see for yourself, (https://doglando.com/). My biggest takeaway from that experience was how much the environment influences behavior. I was convinced of this and began the process of shutting down our dog daycare in the city and looking for a property where I could provide enrichment.
I decided during this time that I wanted to move back home and do this in Seattle. Life derailed this dream as that business deal unraveled and I started over from scratch here. It was a joy to be back at the dog park because I saw how much more freedom the dogs have there than they did at the dog daycare. I have been able to implement much of what I learned about enrichment through our dog park adventures but the dog park has its limitations. The main limitation that has become starker since the pandemic is our lack of control over the other dogs at the park. We all know that the pandemic saw a rise in dogs and we are witnessing that at the park. The number of dogs in the park at the same time has gone up dramatically and there are many dogs who were not properly socialized because of the quarantine. We have done our best to navigate the park but it has increased the amount of management we have to do which detracts from our dogs’ experiences. We routinely have to limit where we are taking the dogs to avoid dogs who don’t belong in the park. With the increase in dogs we have also seen an increase in the amount of children at the park. This is an added stress for some of our dogs.
At the SniffSpot we have been able to step back and let the dogs make more choices. We guide them through experiences, play games with them and work on skill building but they also have time to be free and choose whether they want to explore or play. We’ve seen dogs who rarely play at the dog park play each time they are at the SniffSpot. We’ve seen dogs who follow at our heel through the dog park get adventurous and go down the trail following their nose. It has been a delight to watch the dogs intuitively try new things.
Our time at the SniffSpots has also coincided with some burnt out in the dog training sphere of the business. So many of the dogs I see have behavioral issues with fear, anxiety and reactivity. It is a product of our environment. All you need to do is look at the statistics on mental health in our human population to see that our dogs are mirroring the same issues. Training alone can not solve these problems. I’m often called to come help with a behavior problem only to find that the dog’s basic needs are not being met. A dog’s need for safety, security, trusting relationships, exercise, rest, proper diet, friends: humans and/or dog, mental stimulation and the power to choose are all essential to having a behaviorally healthy dog. Do No Harm Dog Training recently updated their pyramid of needs. You can see in this image where training needs sit. I believe that our time at the SniffSpot is enriching and fits the majority of the needs below training which allows us to be more effective in our training and behavior modification Our focus in 2024 will primarily be the SniffSpots and group training because doing our best to help shape emotional and behavioral well being is our primary focus.