Couple learns their working dog needs job to do

Kathy Antoniotti / Akron Beacon Journal /

An Akron, Ohio, couple was confounded when their rescued great Pyrenees mountain dog began scattering her food around the kitchen and burying it under throw rugs.

Jim Michel, a retired postal worker, began searching for reasons why the normally calm 6-year-old Maddie began exhibiting the bizarre behavior. His wife, Jeanette Michel, noted that it started while they were caring for their son’s puppy.

“She started taking food from her bowl and giving it to the puppy. She was trying to make sure the puppy ate,” Jeanette Michel said.

Maddie’s ancestors were bred in the Pyrenees mountain range between southern France and northern Spain to protect livestock. The dogs are famed for their calm, composed demeanor. Their patience makes them great companions for children, and their loyalty makes them great pets.

The couple took the normally docile dog to their veterinarian for a physical exam. In March, the couple appealed to the Beacon Journal’s pet expert panel that answers questions from readers about animal issues each week.

Dr. Elizabeth Feltes, of the Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, suggested that the couple put her food inside enrichment toys so she would have to “work” for it.

Feltes’ answer sparked an “aha” moment.

“It all started to make sense. Maddie is a working dog and needs to be challenged. She needed a job to do,” Jim Michel said.

Maddie and Jeanette Michel, a retired grade-school teacher, had worked as a Doggie Brigade team at Akron Children’s Hospital. They were forced to give up the activity when she began volunteering at the hospital.

“Her favorite place was the registration area where kids would wait for surgery,” Jeanette Michel said.

“She sensed the kids’ nervousness. She would go over and place her head in their laps. It would break your heart,” said Jim Michel.

After getting Dr. Feltes’ advice, the couple began pulling out toys that Maddie had never shown any interest in. They loaded one with kibble, making a game out of feeding time. Over the span of five days, Maddie gradually learned a new job, spinning the toys around to release her food.

When the toy is empty of food and Maddie is finished eating, she noses it under an antique dry sink in the foyer, where the Michels will find it and refill it at feeding time.

Maddie no longer spreads food, they said.

“Slowly but surely, the problem is disappearing,” the Firestone Park, Ohio, couple wrote in May. “We have the occasional piece from her toy on the floor, and we have to retrieve the toy from under the dry sink but that is a pleasure.”

Dr. Feltes said she was glad the problem has been solved.

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