Do Dogs Benefit from ‘Wild Time’?

I just listened to a podcast on This American Life called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It’s about a terrier mix named Ray Ray who “lives in a comfy apartment in New York City” and gets the opportunity to do what his ancestors were bred to do—hunt and kill rats.
Ray Ray’s owner thinks her dog has a strong prey drive and would benefit from the opportunity to hunt and kill rats rather than be limited to eviscerating his stuffed dog toys, so they spend an evening with the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (Get it? R-A-T-S), a group of volunteers and their dogs who hunt rats in New York City. Long story short, Ray Ray doesn’t make a kill but does seem to enjoy his evening out.
While I applaud Ray Ray’s owner for attempting to enrich his life, the way she went about it was risky, to say the least. Letting your dog off-leash to chase and attack rats through piles of garbage on the side of the street is an invitation to injuries of all sorts.
But the bigger question remains, should dogs be given a chance to explore their wild sides? My answer is, “to a degree.”
Think about. Our ancestors were perfectly suited to run down and kill prey over long distances in hot weather. Modern humans still have the ability to run for extremely long distances and hunt for our food, but most of us use our physical and mental stamina in other endeavors.
The same logic can be applied to our dogs. Even though some breeds were bred to kill rats, or even lions, we don’t need to let them do exactly that to ensure they have a satisfying life.
What all dogs need is physical and mental exercise and a chance to socialize. Your average pet will thrive with some combination of

daily walks outside to enjoy new sights, smells, sounds and experiences
trips to the dog park to mingle with other dogs and run free
playtime, training sessions, and/or food puzzles to work the brain at home

Of course, some dogs do want to do more than the average pet. This is why activities like agility trials, search and rescue, field trials, weight pulling, and, for the Ray Rays of the world, barn hunting are becoming so popular. They give dogs a fun and safe outlet to explore different aspects of their nature.
But remember, the transformation from canine couch potato to super athlete involves a lot of hard work. I recently attended the Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium, a meeting of experts who are dedicated to preventing and treating injuries in dogs who participate in these types of endeavors. Mike Lardy, owner and Head Trainer of Handjem Retrievers, put what these dogs do into perspective when he explained:
Field trial retrievers are endurance sprinters that routinely retrieve multiple marks and blinds requiring total distance traveled in excess of one mile with individual retrieves at over 400 yards. They travel at speeds up to 25 miles per hour as they run through cover and complex terrain, on land and in the water, in conditions from subfreezing to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
There is simply no way for dogs to safely compete at this level in any activity without a lot of prior conditioning and an intense focus on their wellbeing.
So, if you think your dogs need some “wild time,” go for it. Just make sure you do so in a safe manner.