There was a time in the long-ago when pet dogs roamed neighborhoods. They spent much of the day outdoors, running and interacting with other neighborhood dogs and their human neighbors, too. They scavenged around, napped when they felt like it and had LOTS of choices and control over where they went, what activities they engaged in, and whom they interacted with. Life is very different today, and many of those choices are over. It can be hard to be a dog these days.
It’s no wonder that dogs can become bored and sometimes anxious. Our human lives are busy. And here is the dog. Where does he/she fit into the routine? How do we human guardians provide appropriate social interaction, constructive play, adequate exercise – physical and (more important!!) mental, and enrichment activities to our dogs? Want to fatigue the dog? Exercise his brain!
What might that look like and what are the benefits to dogs and their guardians?
Serve meals in anything other than a conventional food bowl. If dogs seem to lose interest in their food, it is often not a function of the food, but rather the delivery. There are many simple ways to do this, including but certainly not limited to: food balls and discs, empty water bottles, and many other hard rubber devices in which to place dog kibble.
The benefit to the dog is a fun activity that harnesses problem-solving in productive ways. The benefit to the human is meal longevity and independent entertainment for the dog, freeing us up to do something else. Like prep our own dinner. And for those dogs who inhale their food, this method of feeding slows consumption which is much healthier for the animal.
Play with your dog. The way he likes to play the game. Tennis balls, squeak and bounce balls, flying discs (Frisbee or otherwise), plush or rope tug toys, deflated soccer balls. Observe your dog’s play style. Many dogs love a chance to “parade” with a toy and not immediately relinquish it because that is what the human expects or asks. Remember it’s your dog game. It’s also a grand time to incorporate some foundation training cues. Asking “Sit and Wait” before the ball launches or you offer up the tug toy keeps training fresh and fun as well as the dog’s arousal level at threshold.
The benefits to the dog are having some easy-going F-U-N with his favorite playmate (you). And getting a dose of physical exercise running down balls and flying discs. The benefits to humans are the dog’s satisfaction with the social interaction that play provides and a wonderful way to further build the connection between dog and human. No marathon playtimes needed. Several times a day for 5 minutes or so can work just great!
Provide items that your dog can gnaw on, chomp, shred and lick AND set up for him to engage in food searches. Items may include hard natural chews like split antlers and smoked marrow bones, consumables such as bully sticks and Himalayan sticks, lick mats, and snuffle mats. A food search item might be a rolled-up towel or blanket.
The benefits for the dog are opportunities for natural drive related activities. These are satisfying and fatiguing in ways that work better than physical exercise. Dogs enjoy this! Developing skills boosts any dog’s confidence and proficient food searchers have emerging nose work skills. I never met a dog who doesn’t love sniffing for a food target.
The benefits to the guardian include a fatigued dog who is not interested in looking for inappropriate, troublesome engagement and entertainment. These ideas are especially helpful during our busiest times of the day. When the dog has his own fun, independent activity, he does not need to seek attention from us.
Train in skills. Teach your dog foundation cues and learn to apply them in real life. A handful of foundation obedience cues is useful: obtaining eye contact, asking the dog to sit and lie down. Come when you call him. Wait or stay until verbally released. Learn to set your dog up for success in responding correctly when you ask these behaviors of her.
The benefits for the dog are using his wonderful learning abilities in a connected way with his human guardian and thriving in a lifestyle of “learn to earn” access to what he wants. Quality of life for the dog increases exponentially when he has opportunities to “work” and knows he can depend on his human guardians for information, clear directions, and feedback.
Many benefits overlap for the dog’s guardian. Everyone wants a calm pet dog who can accompany them on outings. When dogs know what to expect of their humans and there is a predictability in their environments, they are set up for higher thresholds, greater ability to cope with various situations and are calmer overall. There is no stress when we ask reliably trained in behaviors of our dogs!