Recently it’s become very popular for owners to put their dogs to work. I’m all in favor of this and believe it’s a wonderful way to help focus your dog, but it’s also something that has been greatly misunderstood in many different ways. I’d like to use this post to clear up some of those misunderstandings.
Before we dive into this topic, let me first define what I mean by a “job.” Many owners come to me saying that they have a Border Collie or a German Shepherd who needs to have a job. I think this started with Cesar Milan, who’s big on teaching dogs to work. Since then, other popular dog trainers have brought this concept further into the cultural vernacular.
I think that this concept is wonderful in theory, and that we should always look for opportunities to make it a reality. However, I think that owners often get confused because they want to give their dog a job instead of training it. It’s not uncommon for me to get a phone call from an owner who has a Border Collie or an Australian Shepherd or another breed that often excels at agility. They’ll say something along the lines of: “We need to deal with his aggression, so we’re trying to decide whether to do training with you or get him into agility so he can have a job.”
Owners frequently operate on this misunderstanding. They think that training and work operate on a “one or the other” basis, and that giving their dog a job will solve its behavior problems. Can it? Yes, to a degree—but only if that job is all-encompassing. You can’t take your herding dog to a class once a week under the impression that doing so will solve your dog’s aggression problem. In contrast, if you live on a farm and your dog herds every day, on the other hand, that could potentially solve a lot of problems.
You cannot expect, however, that getting your dog into herding or agility or canine nose work will get rid of his issues. I’m all in favor of those activities and believe that they can be part of a solution, but problems tend to reside in the dog’s body, mind, and home. They come from a lack of understanding, whether of rules, leadership, or self-control. Generally speaking, solutions to a lot of problems for high-energy dogs therefore come from changes in mindset and mentality. As the owner, you need to understand how to help your dog perceive the world. The icing on the cake is giving your dog a job.
In reality, having a job isn’t necessary for your dog. We solve dogs’ problems every day without resorting to this strategy. If you want to give your dog a job like protection or agility work in addition to his training in the areas I mentioned above, that’s an awesome one-two punch! So if that’s your strategy, then I support it completely. But before you get into hunting and herding, make sure you’ve taught your dog how to perceive the world in a way that is conducive to happiness, calmness, and obedience. You’ll be in much better shape for the future!