Humans and dogs play the same games.
- Denise Fenzi
Humans and dogs play the same games.
- Denise Fenzi
Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.
We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.
The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.
As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.
The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.
So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!
Roadwork involves training your dog to trot alongside a bike, golf cart, or other vehicle. Bicycle roadwork is required for the Schutzhund AD (endurance test) for a distance of 12.5 miles, but even dogs who will never compete in Schutzhund may enjoy learning to do roadwork. Roadwork can be a great way to keep up with an active dog who requires lots of physical exercise.
It’s important not to start roadwork until a dog’s growth plates have closed completely (at about 18 months of age for most dogs), and to train the foundation behaviors well before starting for safety. This activity is best for structurally sound dogs who are under good verbal control and do not have any desire to chase vehicles.
First of all, a dog must understand how to walk nicely on leash without pulling. Teach your dog that he only gets to go forward when the leash is slack by stopping every time the leash gets tight.
Next, condition your dog to wear a comfortable harness. This is important for safety, since if either your dog or you should “wipe out” you don’t want him wearing a regular collar and potentially injuring his neck. The harness you select should have a spot for the leash to attach over the dog’s shoulders. No-pull harnesses or other devices aren’t appropriate for roadwork. To get your dog used to wearing the harness, put the harness on prior to feeding meals for about a week, then take it off when your dog is done eating. Begin using it on regular leash walks until your dog is happy and comfortable wearing it.
Finally, teach your dog the “whoa” and “leave it” cues. These are important safety cues.
“Whoa” means “stop immediately.” Start using it on walks by saying “whoa,” then stepping in front of your dog to stop his forward motion. Click and treat when he pauses. Gradually fade how far you need to step in front of him before he stops, until he is stopping on the verbal cue alone. Once he’s reliable with this, introduce the “whoa” cue at higher speeds, such as when you are power-walking, jogging, or running.
“Leave it” means “that’s not your’s” and can be used when your dog shows interest in sniffing, chasing the bunny that just ran across your path, or snatching up some tasty roadkill. “Leave it” is a basic obedience command that is taught in most training programs.
If using a bike, make sure that you wear a helmet. An attachment specifically made to hook your dog to the bike, such as the Springer or WalkyDog, is highly recommended. If using a car or golf cart, choose a sturdy 6′ leash (you’ll have to roll down the driver’s side window if using a car).
Be careful about where you run your dog. Running on pavement is hard on a dog’s joints and can cause his paw pads to become torn or worn away. Dirt or grass is best. Abandoned country roads, flat fields, bike paths, or empty parking lots are all possible places to do roadwork. In the beginning stages, check your dog’s paw pads and toenails regularly for wear and tear, and only work for short distances. Consider when you run your dog as well, paying attention to potentially hazardous weather.
When you first introduce your dog to roadwork, start off slowly. Make sure your dog is running far enough away from your vehicle that his feet are far, far away from the wheels. If he runs too close to you at first, utilize a second person to run alongside him on the opposite side as the vehicle and reward him for maintaining distance. You can even have your helper put him on a second leash if necessary. Dogs should be 4′ – 6′ away from the wheels for any motorized vehicle (such as golf carts).
Your dog’s safety should always be your number one concern, and if your dog ever begins to show any inclination to chase or bite at the wheels, pull on leash, or engage in any other behavior that may be dangerous, it is your responsibility to immediately stop doing roadwork and re-assess your dog’s suitability for this activity.
Dogs love running. However, keep your dog at a trot the majority of the time you are doing roadwork. While it’s okay to occasionally go a bit faster if your pooch enjoys it, trotting is the best speed for safety and conditioning. Make sure to warm him up and cool him down during each session.
For active, well-trained dogs, roadwork can be a lot of fun and is also a great source of conditioning and exercise. My dogs enjoy doing roadwork alongside a bike on local bike paths in the summer, and alongside the car on abandoned dirt roads in the spring and fall.
Have you ever done roadwork with your dog? Share in the comments section below!
We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?
The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.
Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.
For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.
Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.
Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.
While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.
The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.
In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!
Thank you to Lois Stanfield for those wonderful images of Layla lure coursing!
Can you spot what’s wrong with my dog in these pictures (hint: it has to do with her physical appearance)? Answer on Monday!
I don’t ever take my dogs to the dog park. The idea of the dog park is a great one: a safe place where dogs can play together and run free. However, in reality, I find that dog parks cause more issues than they solve, so I turn instead to other options for my own dogs.
There are several major problems with dog parks. The largest issue I personally have with public dog parks is the lack of oversight available for who attends them. I do not know the physical or behavioral health status of any of the dogs who attend, and the risk of exposing my dog to a sick or aggressive dog is much higher than with any other means of socialization. Unvaccinated dogs or those who are carrying parasites or viruses (such as kennel cough) are all possibilities. Since my dogs are healthy and are provided with appropriate immunizations and parasite control, this alone wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, behaviorally unhealthy dogs are a much bigger risk.
The largest problem with dog parks is that owners are often oblivious to or unconcerned about the behavior of their dogs. Many owners spend time at the dog park chatting with each other or on their phones, not even watching their dog. Dog parks are not appropriate places to bring dogs for remedial socialization, yet many people attempt to do just that. Many well-meaning people also bring their new or unsocialized dogs to the dog park with no idea of the dog’s comfort level around other dogs, a doggy version of “trial by fire.” Working as a dog behavior consultant, I receive calls and emails on a regular basis from people whose dog has either injured or been injured by another dog at the dog park. These calls range from a dog who has developed fear issues after being playfully jumped by a much larger dog at the dog park to a dog who literally ripped the ear off another dog when the two got into a scuffle over a ball.
There’s a saying among trainers: “if you go to the dog park long enough, something bad will happen.” While there are certainly lots of friendly, well-socialized, and healthy dogs who attend the dog park, it’s impossible to totally protect your dog from bad experiences in such an uncontrolled environment. This may not be a big deal for well-socialized, balanced, stable dogs, who will just shake off the bad experience and continue on. Young (under two years old), fearful, or easily upset dogs may not be so blase about the experience, however. One traumatic experience can set a dog up for a lifetime of fear or reactivity, something we trainers see all too heartbreakingly often.
As if this weren’t enough, I also avoid the dog park because of what my dog is likely to learn there. The average dog park attendee is an adolescent, setting the stage for a canine version of The Lord of the Flies since there are few adults around to keep order. Rude, pushy, and over-aroused behavior is often the norm. Practicing such behaviors teaches the dog that this is how he should interact with others of his species, and now we have a canine Tarzan or bully in the making.
Recall issues (where the dog refuses to come when called, or worse yet, plays “keep away” from his owner) are common at dog parks, and are a common reason why owners call me for training help. Dogs quickly learn that coming to their owners ends the fun, and start to avoid being caught. One client recently called me after she had to spend nearly four hours trying to catch her dog! She was finally able to snare the wayward pooch after her dog darted into the smaller fenced-in entrance area to greet a new dog.
So, how do I socialize my dogs? There are many great ways for your dog to enjoy the company of his own kind that are much safer and more enjoyable for all involved.
My dogs enjoy regular playdates with doggy friends. Playdates are based on my dogs’ age and play preferences, with my older dogs enjoying side-by-side walks (both on and off-leash) with their buddies and the new puppy enjoying regular off-leash chase and wrestling games with her friends. Ask around to find play partners for your dog: friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors are all great networks to tap. If one of you has a fenced-in yard, meet there for some off-leash play. Fenced-in tennis courts, baseball fields, and other such areas are also often available at local parks. One creative client of mine rented a neighbor’s fenced-in yard when she couldn’t find any other alternatives! A well-run doggy daycare can also provide your dog with regular access to other playmates, and you can feel comfortable knowing that the other dogs who attend daycare are also vaccinated and friendly.
Finally, my dogs receive regular socialization through training classes and dog sports. While the dogs may not directly interact with one another in these venues, they are still a vital piece of the socialization puzzle. Learning to focus on you and remain calm in the presence of other dogs is an important life skill. Human children are given time to play with one another and run around during recess, but also learn to sit still and focus in the classroom at school. Similarly, I don’t want my dog getting overly excited every time she sees another dog because she thinks she’s going to get to play. A dog who squeals and bucks at the end of the leash every time he sees another dog is not a well-socialized dog no matter how friendly he is, because he’s never learned how to control himself around his own species. Imagine if a human teenager or adult acted like that! Social behavior also includes the ability to just hang out calmly with members of one’s own species.
Some dog parks are better than others, and I may be more likely to attend a dog park with lots of space and trails than our local parks where dogs and people congregate around picnic tables. However, I honestly believe that there are better alternatives to the dog park. Providing socialization opportunities for my dogs is important, but that includes the responsibility to make sure that those opportunities are always safe and positive.
So, how do you socialize your dog(s)? Do you use dog parks, and if so, what do you do to ensure your dog’s safety? How are your local dog parks laid out? What socialization opportunities does your dog enjoy the most? Please share your stories and opinions in the comments below!