A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

8 Resolutions to Improve Your Dog’s Life in the New Year

Jonas Merlin River

Ooh, look! Another blog post about New Year’s resolutions! Bet you didn’t see that coming!

That was a lot of exclamation points. I apologize.

For real, though. Whether you’ve already got your list of resolutions guaranteed to make this the best year ever, or you think the whole idea is a steaming pile of crap, I invite you to think about how your dog is going to fare this year.

If there is one thing the past 18 months have taught me, it’s that dogs’ lives are far too short and you have less time with them than you think.

Make the most of it. Whether you need to work on Sparky’s behavior problems or you just want to do something cool with him, there is no time like the present shiny new year.

Here are some ideas.

I will stop setting my dog up for failure

Look, I get it. Sometimes your dog gets into trouble and there isn’t a damn thing you could’ve done to prevent it. But if you know that your dog is likely to chew up the Wii remote or eat the expensive candy you hid in your closet, then it’s totally on you when he does. Don’t get shocked and offended – you’re the one with the big fancy brain in the relationship, after all.

Put the Wii remotes on a shelf where he can’t reach them. Make sure your closet door is closed before you leave for work.

This is called management and while it is not the same thing as training, it is an important part of the training process.

Check out this list of ways to prevent your dog from getting into trouble.

I will exercise my dog’s brain

We all know that physical exercise is important for a well-behaved dog. But mental exercise is even more important, and best of all, you can do it without leaving your house. (I can hear those of you sick of fitness resolutions cheering in relief)

Throw away Sparky’s food bowl. Play hide-and-seek. Buy or make a puzzle toy. When you do decide to leave the house and go for a walk, let Sparky’s nose lead the way and let him stop and sniff as much as he wants. All the fascinating smells will engage his brain and wear him out.

There are bigger and more time-consuming ways to stretch Sparky’s brain (see below), but start with these. Baby steps. See further below.

I will take an agility class or try another dog sport at least once

I will continue to preach the good news of dog sports training for as long as you people are willing to listen. Sports training can help with everyday behavior issues because it provides the complete package: physical and mental exercise, improvements in your training skills, and a closer bond between you and your dog.

It doesn’t have to be agility – the list of dog sports is always growing and you’re bound to find something that’s perfect for you and Sparky.

(If you’re dealing with serious behavior issues like reactivity or aggression, you probably shouldn’t take a class, but you can train at home – set up an agility course in your backyard or learn some frisbee tricks)

I will teach my dog to come when called

If you never teach your dog anything else, teach him this. A strong recall is one of the most important things you could ever train your dog to do. It can keep him out of all kinds of trouble, like traffic or dog fights.

I slacked off in 2013 and my own dogs’ response to the recall cue got sloppy, so I will be working on this resolution in 2014. I recently dropped a buttload of money on an online training course to help me make my dogs’ recalls as strong as possible. Seriously – it’s that important.

If you would prefer not to spend a buttload of money, I have a free basic guide to training the recall available for anyone who subscribes, for free, to the 3LostDogs email list. There’s also a Kindle version available for a couple bucks on Amazon.

I will listen to what my dog is saying

Learn your dog’s body language. Figure out what his habits, interests and fears are. If Sparky tells you he can’t do something, or he’s afraid of something, listen. Don’t force him into situations that make him uncomfortable. No matter how well trained, dogs are not robots. Sometimes they’ll tell you “no, I can’t do that” and that’s okay. It’s very unlikely that he’s rebelling and trying to take over the household.

And sometimes, your dog’s behavior problems are telling you something important: Aggression or “stubbornness” may indicate that he’s in pain.

Or maybe, your dog is like Jonas and he’s just trying to tell you which dog sport he wants to try.

I will settle in for the long haul

We tend to set ourselves up for failure with our new year plans: I’m going to go vegan and/or paleo and run a mile a day and work out five days a week and be more grateful and start working on my novel!

Same thing with dog plans: I’m going to overhaul Pandora’s behavior! We’re going to take an agility class and work on obedience commands and train her to stop being reactive toward strangers!

That shit never lasts. In February, we’re right back where we started. We forget that the person we will be in the new year is not superhuman, and in fact looks a lot like the person we were yesterday.

Dog training (also, life?) success gets accomplished through an accumulation of small improvements over a long period of time.

Don’t do everything at once. Start with one small change -feeding Pandora out of a Kong instead of a bowl, maybe- and start the snowball rolling. You probably won’t progress as fast as you want, but by the end of 2014, you’ll have a different dog.

I will celebrate my successes

Raising a dog, especially one with “issues,” can be a pain in the ass. Whether you’re dealing with serious problems or trying to improve your agility run time, it’s easy to get caught up in the pain-in-the-ass-ness of it all and overlook all the ways in which you’re making progress.

Try to take a step back and notice when things are going right. Did your bitey puppy go after a toy instead of your hands today? Did your rambunctious teenage dog refrain from stealing food from your toddler’s plate? Did your door dasher escape the house – but then come to you when you called him?

These are the small improvements I was talking about. You may still have a long way to go, but you’re getting there.

I will start a bucket list for my dog

A little over a year and a half ago, the first of the three lost dogs got sick. I was suddenly faced with the reality of losing her years before I expected to. So we created a small bucket list for her. We ended up with about six weeks of good days before she became too ill. Then she was gone and I was left to think about all the adventures I’d always talked about taking her on, adventures I would get around to someday, adventures we could now never take.

Now my other dogs are getting up there in age. Jonas is ten. Merlin, the baby of the family, is six, and even he is starting to slow down (well – slow for a border collie). I’ll be working on their adventure lists this year.

A canine bucket list doesn’t have to be full of complicated or expensive items. For my boys, just taking them on more trips to the local river counts.

Start thinking about it now – before your dog gets too old, sick, or injured. What cool stuff can you do to make your dog’s life more of an adventure?