Mind Games

By Elisabeth Catalano, MA, CPDT, CDBC

The most common cause of behavioral problems in dogs is under-stimulation. Getting a daily dose of exercise, both physical and mental, is as necessary for a dog as food, water, and shelter.  However, most owners don’t realize the importance of this basic need. Dogs who are not stimulated sufficiently often end up suffering from boredom or anxiety and engaging in unwanted behaviors.

Back before they were domesticated, dogs were scavengers and hunters. A look at dogs that have become feral, such as village or island dogs, reveal that they return to those normal behavior patterns. Their days are full of hunting, scavenging, playing and mating and they remain quite active and busy. Pet dogs, on the other hand, spend a good deal of time at home waiting for their owners to return. Some are crated and some have the run of part, or all, of the house. In either case, they have no means to expend their energy or entertain themselves.

Too often, owners think that leaving toys for a dog to play with will be sufficient entertainment. However, toys that require humans to ‘activate’ them, like squeakies, balls, and tug toys are of no benefit when the dog is home alone.  It’s like being alone with a monopoly game! The game is only fun when others are included. The same is true for putting the dog in the backyard alone or even with another dog. The yard itself does not stimulate them to play or exercise and there is nothing new to investigate so, the result is a quick run and then a lot of boredom. Imagine reading the same news articles day after day.

Animals in zoos face similar problems. Captive wild animals are provided enrichment in the form of activities that mimic what life would be like for them in the wild. For example, animals that are hunters are fed using a device, usually some type of puzzle, that requires them to ‘catch’ their food. This problem solving helps keep them busy
and able to cope with their captivity by reducing boredom and the stress of inactivity.

So, what is an intelligent, incredibly social creature, like the dog, to do?   Find ways to pass the time of course. Unfortunately, this usually results in things that owners dislike, such as emptying the trash can, pulling up the carpet to see what is underneath, or chewing the furniture. Some dogs become so frustrated and irritable that they begin to show signs of aggression.

Frankly, with as little attention as dogs get, I’m amazed that there aren’t more suffering from behavior problems, and I see a fair few on a daily basis.

TYPES OF ENRICHMENT
The good news is, all of these problems can be easily avoided with just some forethought and preparation by dog owners. Luckily, now more than ever, there are a greater number of opportunities to enrich your dog’s mind and life. All you need to know now is what to look for. There are several types of enrichment options you can use. The
best solution is to combine a few of them so you can readily change things up so that the enrichment doesn’t get old. You may find that different types of enrichment are better suited to different times, seasons or age. Select a few and see which ones your dog seems to enjoy.

MENTAL STIMULATION
Mind games, that is things that are mentally stimulating, are an essential enrichment component and one of the easiest to achieve. Every dog needs a job to do. The particular job you choose for them should be suited to their breed and more importantly, what activities they enjoy. A dig box for a Terrier or Dachshund would be a veritable amusement park.

However, it is entirely possible that your retriever may not like balls, so you might need to be creative. Perhaps, bringing your slippers would be more satisfying. Likewise, you may be unable to find a flock of sheep for your herding dog. You can, however, engage in an activity that requires them to use the same skills. Treibball, for instance, is a sport where the dog moves (i.e., herds) large rubber balls into a defined space. Nosework, a scent detection sport, is amazingly stimulating and takes advantage of your dog’s greatest asset, his nose!  Food puzzles are perfect as a form of enrichment as they mimic foraging and encourage problem-solving. There are many to choose from and they are even available on Amazon.

Training, as long as it is positive, is probably the best stimulation because it has the added benefit of teaching necessary behaviors. Obedience training is great, but I personally prefer trick training because it tends to be more relaxed and fun for both owner and dog. Learning tricks can build confidence as well as building a repertoire of more useful behaviors, like turning on and off the lights or closing doors.

Using the senses can also be stimulating. A change of environment like a new park to visit isn’t a big deal to us but it is like a trip to Disneyland for your dog. Explore a new location, take walks in unfamiliar places and enjoy the view while your dog savors the smells. A change in view for dogs that are kenneled, or the opportunity to investigate new smells can enhance the quality of life. The introduction of novelty to your dog in the form of something new to climb on like a platform, go under or through like a play tunnel, or walk across can strengthen muscles, builds confidence and even stave off boredom. Even music can be beneficial as it can reduce stress and increase calmness.

SOCIAL ENRICHMENT
Another form of enrichment is to provide your dog with an active social life. Whenever appropriate, a social life should include contact with other dogs. Dog-friendly dogs can make new friends at local dog parks or in well run day camps. They can reunite with their regular doggie friends through scheduled play dates. Vary your playdates to include different locations to really pique their interest.  It is also very important to include humans in their social life too. There is no doubt that dogs, who have been domesticated to be companions, need interaction with us. Play with your dog, pet him and talk to him! You are the highlight of his day. Find things that your dog enjoys that you can do together. Consider taking a class with your dog. It doesn’t matter which one as long as you have fun and the interactions are positive. Take your dog with you to an outdoor cafe where he will meet new admirers. If your dog is uncomfortable with other dogs or people you will naturally have to tailor these activities to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE
Physical exercise is more than just a stroll around the neighborhood as most people find out to their dismay. For a dog to be truly exercised, they must run.  This is especially true of younger dogs who have a surplus of energy. Games like fetch, tug, and hide and seek are great ways to get your dog to burn off steam. Sports training like agility, flyball, disc dog and lure coursing combine thinking with physical activity and are a great outlet for active dogs.

THE OLD DOG
Enrichment is not just for young dogs, old dogs need it too, maybe even more.  A good enrichment program can help to keep cognitive dysfunction at bay. Just like humans, if the brain isn’t used regularly, it can begin to decline in its abilities.

BENEFITS
A good enrichment program will increase your dog’s quality of life and help them get the most enjoyment out of their lives for as long as possible. It will provide enjoyment for you as well, as you watch them become expert problem solvers, social butterflies, and rapid learners. Most importantly, it will enable them to keep those abilities into their senior years. Some progressive dog day camps provide structured programs of mental stimulation along with physical activity.  These facilities can make your job easier and even offer you guidance and suggestions to improve your own enrichment program at home. Playing mind games with your dog will enrich his life, strengthen your relationship and keep you together for longer.

ELISABETH CATALANO, CPDT, CDBC, is a professional dog trainer and behavior counselor with more than 20 years of experience in dealing with canine behavior problems. She is the Director of Behavior and Training of The Coventry School, Inc. for Dogs and Their People. Elisabeth is skilled in behavior modification techniques and is committed to scientifically based animal training and the use of positive reinforcement methods. She is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and The Animal Behavior Society.

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