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How to have fun with a dog who won’t chase a ball?

Growing up with hounds, I learned how to handle the high energy, rambunctious pups. Give them something to do, run with them, get an automated ball thrower (if you have to save your throwing arm), find them friends to play with. In short, tire them out.


My life style and resident cat was not ready for an exuberant companion so I opted for a 3 month long search for the right dog who didn’t need 3 runs a day. Watson is a sweet 5yr old lab mix from TN. His calmness is by nature not by age – I’m not sure if he ever had a puppy phase. Watson’s move to MA was uneventful but he was scared and unfamiliar grounds and noises, and is still timid in new situations. He doesn’t chase balls, is not a fan of being in dog groups and runs as fasts as a tortoise in the middle of traffic, and he is scared of deep water. Did I mention he doesn’t chase balls? I was the one asking for a calm dog but now, I had a problem. How do you socialize with or enrich a dog who doesn’t seem to be interested in much of the usual dog activities? Keep looking, asking, and Googling.


We had attended Good Manners classes in Animal Rescue League of Boston as a bonding activity and decided to try “sniffing for fun”. If you have a dog who doesn’t seem to be interested much of anything or needs an activity to tire out his brain, I highly recommend nose work (scent work, sniffing for fun). We love sniffing for fun classes and made friends through ARL Boston’s classes but best part of nose work is you don’t even need a class to get started; throw a treat on the ground and say “find it” (you don’t need to even make a sound, trust me!). You can keep throwing the treats farther away, hide them in boxes, pair them with scents, toys , etc. I’ve observed dogs with different personalities wait anxiously for their turn to sniff out the tin can full of birch scent, and they are so proud of themselves when they find it.


Scent training is fun and enriching for your dog but what’s in it for you? Sniffing a room looks slow but it is by no means easy! Solving a puzzle (where is the source of that smell, how can I find it, and what treat do I get when I do) tires out their brain so it is also great for energetic working dogs. In addition, you can use skills they learned in the training to encourage a timid dog to explore more. Or help an excited dog focus.


This summer, the only way I could get Watson out for potty after a thunderstorm (so scary!) was the phrase “find it” as I threw a bunch on hot dog pieces on the ground. I continue to use the scent game to help him get used to unfamiliar spaces, be brave enough to go in the mailroom or to “exercise” him indoors in 0F (or -17C) weather - even a calm, collected dog gets antsy in the winter. I guess this doormat of a lab was mixed with a hound, not an exuberant but a methodical one.


-Zeynep I, BDA member


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