The spoon theory was originally created by Christine Miserandino and used by people suffering from chronic illnesses. In short, a person has a certain amounts of spoons each day when they wake up. Each task or activity takes up a certain amount of spoons and when they have used up their spoons, they need time to rest and recharge. The amount of spoons they have each day can vary depending on whether they are having a good or bad day but by managing their spoons, they can help avoid burnout, whether physical or mental.

So how does this apply to dogs?

A well socialised dog can appear to have a large or even limitless supply of spoons, whereas a fearful or reactive dog has much fewer. The real difference between human spoons and dog spoons is that humans get to pick how they spend their spoons on a daily basis, but it’s our responsibility to make sure we spend our dog’s spoons wisely, and more importantly, recognise when they’ve ran out and our dog’s need time to recharge and collect some more spoons. You can increase your dog’s spoon allowance over time with counter-conditioning, desensitising and general confidence building.

Why is managing spoons important?

Managing spoons can be helpful to every dog (and every human!) to make sure they don’t get to crisis point. We all know what we’re like at the end of a bad day… Let’s say we had a rubbish night’s sleep, then had a bad day at work and you feel really stressed, get home late and everyone wants to know what’s for dinner! After a bad day, you’re much more likely to snap at them in a temper than on a good day! Well, it’s the same for dogs!

We’ve all heard of stories of a dog ‘biting out of nowhere’ but let’s look at an example…

Charlie, a 4 year old cocker spaniel has bitten a child. The child is known to the family but doesn’t visit the house often so Charlie has only met them a few times, he’s always been really friendly and the child loves dogs and just wanted a cuddle. Charlie has always been really good with children, he lives with 2 and they cuddle and play with him all the time and he’s really tolerant and has never acted like this.

What we haven’t heard about is that Charlie had an upset tummy the night before so he had his owners up 3 times in the night to go outside. He went on his morning and afternoon walks like usual since he seemed to have perked up and they’d taken him in the car to the beach to cheer him up, one of his favourite walks! He’d had loads of fun playing with his ball and met loads of dogs, had a good play with some dogs he sees regularly and made a few new friends too! Back at home, he had his dinner and was ready to cosy up and have a nice big sleep when the visitors arrived with their child who ran up to him for a cuddle.

If we look at the diagram above, we can see that Charlie was low on spoons that day since he wasn’t very well. He then used up so many spoons going for walks, meeting other dogs, playing with his ball and taking a trip in the car… He’d had a fun day, but he was well and truly out of spoons and ready for a big snooze so he could collect some spoons for the next day. Poor Charlie was at the end of his tether when a child came running up to him for a cuddle and without thinking, snapped to try and ask for some space.

It’s not all about stopping dogs from biting though! Managing spoons can help dogs relax in general. If your dog is restless, barks a lot, lunges and pulls on the lead or generally appears stressed, anxious or fearful, spoon counting can really help!

How do I know my dog is losing spoons?

Every single activity throughout a day causes your dog to lose spoons. The amount will vary for each dog and each activity but even if your dog appears to handle a situation well, or is having fun, it’s important to remember it’s still using up spoons and these effects accumulate throughout the day.

Taken from DTC Canine Body Language Student Manual

You can look for signs of stress in your dog which is an indicator their spoons are very close to being used up:

  • Pacing
  • Whining or barking
  • Ears pinned back
  • Yawning, drooling, licking, panting
  • Whale eyes (wide eyes with lots of white showing)
  • Leaning away
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Changes in body posture

Another important point to remember is that if your dog has a particular bad day (it happens, we’re all human and that’s life!), it can take up to 72 hours for them to recollect all their spoons again.

Taken from DTC Canine Body Language Student Manual

How can I help?

By being aware of your dog’s spoons, you can help make sure that your dog lives a happy and low stress life. And let’s be honest, that’s much more fun and less stressful for the humans too!

It’s our job to manage their spoons as best as we can. For some dogs, that might mean walking in less busy areas where they won’t see as many dogs they don’t know, not walking at rush hour so they can avoid traffic or leaving your dog at home instead of taking them along to the pub that night.

When your dog first arrives with you, they will be very low on spoons after a long journey from Spain. Even a UK foster dog will be lower on spoons when they arrive. Try to keep their world small for the first few weeks. Avoid that first bath, or the trip to the pet shop. Ask your friends and family to wait a couple of weeks until they all descend on the house to see your amazingly cute new arrival. It can be hard to resist showing off your new family member, but you have all the time in the world to do it when they are ready!

How can I help my dog collect more spoons?

There’s lots of things you can do to help your dog collect more spoons. Providing them with a safe space to rest where they won’t be disturbed is really important. A dog’s brain is wired very differently to ours and providing mental stimulation can have a real calming effect and you can build these into your daily routine. Try some scatter feeding, foraging activities and licking enrichment as part of their day.

Freedom to move and freedom to make choices is also a really healthy way of keeping hold of spoons and dogs thrive on routine too!

One very common mistake is exercising your anxious dog to shatter them and help them settle and get some sleep, but actually this can make things so much worse. Whilst stimulation is very important for dogs, sometimes it’s better to skip a walk in favour of some enrichment at home! Think about whether your dog can really face those passing cars, the off lead dog at the park getting in their face again or the well meaning neighbour coming a bit too close before leaving the house… Or would some snuffling today help them face tomorrow’s walk a bit better?

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