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Your Puppy Is Not Your Fur Baby

Why the fur baby mindset is especially bad for sporting dogs.

Your Puppy Is Not Your Fur Baby

The fur baby movement isn’t great if used as an excuse to spoil dogs and ignore what they need to be healthy and happy. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Is there anything more cringe-worthy than a couple who speaks in baby talk to one-another? While adults who engage in that type of communication can trigger your desire to escape through the nearest wall in Hulk style, there really isn’t any harm in it. It’s off-putting to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot but doesn’t extend beyond that.

A parallel, but way more harmful societal trend, is the “fur baby movement.” This mindset has taken hold in the general pet-owning ranks and is now leaching into the sporting dog world. Before I get into the negatives, it’s only fair to point out a few positives of this new way of thinking.

First off, it has contributed to the movement away from fear- or punishment-based training, two styles that rely on praise and positive reinforcement. It has also, at least tangentially, led to many folks asking how they can give their dogs a better life, both physically and mentally. That’s two checks in the win column, but with any new way of thinking there often comes a reckoning. This is easiest to see in many dogs, simply by looking at them.

Puppy is not a fur baby
We often think of dogs as only needing physical exercise to be healthy, but that’s not true. They need jobs and tasks to address their mental health needs as well, which is important in all dogs but absolutely crucial in sporting breeds. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Physical Health 

According to Lead Veterinarian at Merrick Pet Care, Dr. RuthAnn Lobos, sporting dog owners intuitively know what their dogs need in order to be healthy and happy, and this can lead to issues if we don’t give them just that. “We recognize boredom in our dogs, and realize that we need to do something,” Lobos said. “This leads to guilt, and guilt often leads us to give our dogs extra treats.”

Puppy is not a fur baby
One of the biggest issues with all dogs, but especially sporting breeds, is overfeeding. Treat training is a good tool for obedience work with puppies, but using extra food to pacify a bored dog is a recipe for health issues. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Food rewards are a double-edged sword, because there are many ways to use treats to mark positive dog behavior. But this, according to Lobos, requires an eye toward overall calorie intake with our dogs. “We have studies that show the harmful effects of obesity on lung capacity. We use treats as a pacifier, but don’t really understand that something like a Kong full of peanut butter could equal three days’ worth of calories.”

Just like with our own general population, obesity in our dogs is a real issue. Staving off boredom with food, or assuaging guilt with treats, is a recipe for an unhealthy, unhappy dog. This also trends toward a negative exercise cycle because as our dogs get heavier, we tend to ask them to move less, or provide fewer opportunities for the exercise they need. This isn’t good for any dog, but is often amplified in sporting dogs due to their higher drive levels and need-a-job hardwiring.


Mental Health 

I recently received a text from a horse trainer friend who dabbles in dog training. She sent me a short video of a yellow Lab she was dog-sitting that showed the retriever was in a bottled-lightning mood. My friend followed it up by saying the dog had just run alongside of her as she rode five miles of horse trails.

Mindless physical activity in our dogs is better than no activity, but it doesn’t wear high-drive dogs out without a much-needed mental component. Dr. Anne Valuska is a behavior scientist with Purina who understands this issue better than most. “You can’t ignore when a dog has been bred to work,” Valuska said. “If you see negative behaviors in your dog after they’ve had their physical needs met, it’s time to address the mental side.”

Puppy is not a fur baby
A sporting dog with a job is usually a happy, healthy dog. Challenging tasks that require thinking and the usage of their noses are the best way to keep them active all year long, while also helping them avoid undesirable behaviors in the house. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Valuska recommends setting up situations where dogs have to use all of their senses, but primarily their noses, to locate a reward. She also encourages people to give their dogs a chance to run off-leash and sniff to their heart’s content, but to not lean so heavily on this type of activity that they forgo structured tasks. “Pet owners often equate a lack of boundaries with love, but just like with children, that’s a recipe for trouble,” Valuska said. “Hierarchies exist everywhere in nature, including wild canids. Dominant animals in a pack are always mom and dad, and they set the rules for the rest of the pack.”  

Give Your Dog What They Need

The desire and ability to engage in structured tasks, is literally gene-deep in our dogs. It allows them to thrive and is necessary for them to learn to work with us as a team—not against us for their own gain. It’s also an essential component to taking the edge off of any dog, which can help to tamp down undesirable behaviors.

Puppy is not a fur baby
We all want our dogs to be healthy and happy, but treating them like spoiled children isn’t the way to get there. Dogs have specific physical and mental needs, which require us to acknowledge that they really aren’t fur babies after all. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

The fur baby movement isn’t great if it is used by pet owners as a convenient excuse to spoil their dogs and ignore what our four-legged cohorts need to be healthy and happy. This is true for all dogs, but can manifest itself in serious issues with sporting dogs—dogs that boast generations upon generations of job-oriented bloodlines. Because of this, it’s best to understand what working dogs really need to have a good life, and then provide them with daily opportunities to fulfill those needs.


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