Busy Dogs are Good Dogs
Every dog – and every animal, in fact – has social, mental, and physical needs that must be met to ensure a healthy and happy life. Over the 13,000 years or more of domestication, dogs have been bred into a wide variety of sizes and shapes and for a wide range of tasks, such as hunting, retrieving, herding, and pulling sleds. The type and amount of mental and physical stimulation required by any dog will depend on age, breed, health, and even individual differences.
Building a positive relationship
Dogs make wonderful family pets because of their social nature. Social times with your pet not only are important to meet mental and physical needs, but also can make your dog more content, improve your relationship, and help your dog learn what you want to communicate during training. When these needs are not met, a dog may exhibit destructive behaviors, such as raiding the garbage, digging, soiling inside the house, seeking attention, biting, and jumping up on people.
To help build a good relationship between you and your dog, always focus on rewarding what is desirable rather than punishing what is undesirable. If you focus only on trying to stop undesirable behavior, you might instead contribute to mental distress, abnormal behavior (such as excessive grooming and spinning), and stress-induced diseases. Reward-based obedience training, fetching, and agility training are activities that have benefits on many different levels.
Keeping the brain busy
Reinforcement-based training is an enjoyable way to keep the brain busy. It will improve your ability to communicate with your dog as well as ensure multiple positive interactions. Food, play, affection, and even walks are important rewards that can and should be used to develop and reinforce desirable behavior. By predictably and consistently giving rewards only for behaviors that you want your dog to learn, your dog gains control and understanding of which behaviors earn rewards and which do not. Having your dog work for food, treats, and toys (for example, making her respond to the “sit” command first) is more mentally stimulating for the dog and provides you with many more opportunities for reward-based training. Teaching new tasks for each reward, clicker training (learning which behaviors get a click and a reward), and playing games in which your pet is taught to search for food or toys are all techniques that can stimulate your dog to use her brain. When you are not around, providing toys that your dog must learn to manipulate to get food is another form of environmental enrichment that stimulates the brain. Keeping the brain active has even been shown to delay or prevent the onset of brain aging – so use it or lose it!
Keeping the body busy
Keeping the body busy is essential for maintaining good physical health and lean body weight, as well as providing an outlet for the daily activities in which your dog would otherwise engage. Choose games and activities that are fun and practical for you but also designed for your dog to use the natural instincts of her breed. For example, herding dogs may be most suited to games that involve running and chasing, or even herding trails; hunting dogs may benefit from retrieving games; terriers may enjoy having a pit in which to dig; and sled dogs may enjoy activities such as pulling a cart. Agility training, flyball, herding trials, and Frisbee competitions are also fun and positive ways to provide physical and mental stimulation. But also keep in mind that because of health or age some dogs may be less able to perform strenuous physical activities; in these cases, medication or diet for any underlying pain and some alternate activities such as shorter walks, tug toys, and food puzzles may be more feasible ways to keep the brain and body enriched.
Play and exercise also provide important social time together and can be used to improve training. Walks, jogging, chase games, retrieving, playing with food, hide-and-seek with pieces of food, and even tug toys (provided that the dog will drop them voluntarily without aggression) are just a few examples of interactive games. Dogs can also expand energy and improve their social skills by playing with other pets.
There are times when your dog will need to spend time on her own. Pets that have a regular and appropriate social enrichment program may use these times to nap and rest. It’s often most comforting and safest for both the pet and the family to use a consistent location (a room, crate, dog bed, or pen) for resting and napping when you are not there. Feeding and chew toys can also be left in this area to keep your dog occupied.
Some dogs may still be energetic and want to engage in further play at times when they need to be left alone. These dogs can be given an opportunity to occupy their alone time by playing with toys. Multiple meals and feeding toys are an excellent way to have your dog focus on desirable activities when you are not around to supervise. Many toys are designed to be stuffed, coated, or filled with food, treats, or chews and require some form of manipulation to dispense the food. Other options are foods that promote dental health by requiring more tiem to chew and timing devices that deliver food or toys throughout the day. Your pet’s interest in these and all toys can be maintained if most of your dog’s daily ration is fed from them, special treats are added, and the toys are novel. Therefore, it may be best to rotate the toys to maintain interest rather than making the same ones constantly available. Again, your pet should be confined to a safe, stimulating, dog-proof area so destructive behavior and soiling in other parts of the home can be prevented.
Working for food requires mental and physical activity. While working for food means that your pet will expend time and energy in food acquisition, the amount of calories given in feeding toys must be counted as part of your dog’s daily total. After you add up all the calories from the training treats, food toys, and chews, you can give your dog a small bowl of food with her remaining calories and nutrition at the end of the day. After eliminating one last time before bedtime, your dog should be ready to settle down for a night of sleep.