In Part I, I briefly described basic behavioral enrichment concepts and ideas for physical activities to try with your dog(s). This part is going to focus on how to stimulate your canine’s brain—which is just as important as getting enough exercise!
Brain Exercises for Your Dog
Humans have six million olfactory receptors, whereas dogs have up to 300 million. Not only that, but the part of the brain that analyzes smells is 40 times bigger in dogs than humans. Dogs learn about the world they live in through their sense of smell, so it’s important to provide activities that fulfill this need.
Nose work takes advantage of a dog’s innate scent capability. Make a game out of hiding their food or play hide-and-seek with treats. You can even build obstacle courses for your dog out of boxes, sturdy containers, and portable stairs. Rub the scent in various locations, hiding the meal or the preferred treat in the toughest place to find. You can even hide favorite treats and toys all over the house or yard! Not only does this encourage the dog to problem solve, but it also builds confidence!
Ideally, every dog owner should have a few different types of puzzle toys. All you have to do it fill it up with healthy treats, place it on the floor near your dog, and they get mental enrichment and physical stimulation without you having to do anything but watch and be proud and/or entertained. In the photos below, you will see Anja completing three different puzzles (and looking VERY proud after she finished them all). Being a German Shepherd, it’s important for her to get plenty of mental stimulation, and these puzzles are amazing! There are lots of different kinds of puzzles out there, so my advice is to look online since that’s where you will find the best variety to choose from.
More often than not, it seems that after puppyhood, and once the basic obedience commands have been taught, cognitive challenges tend to drop off. Obedience training helps to establish boundaries with your dog—which is incredibly important because dogs look to their pack leaders (i.e., you, the owner) for not only direction but also protection.
Obedience training is very important when it comes to nurturing a healthy human-animal relationship and creating a socially compatible pet. Obedience-trained dogs often lead happier and healthier lives than their non-trained canine(s). If dogs learn to not jump up on strangers, sit or lie quietly when asked, and walk politely on lead, they will be more likely to spend time with their owners in public and in the home, and will spend less time alone.
Just as toys can teach toddlers eye-hand coordination, they can teach dogs eye-paw (or eye-mouth) coordination. This is a tough game that takes time to learn, so you and your dog will have to work together for hours, since it can take days or weeks to perfect this activity.
Remember to find wooden rings with natural dyes rather than plastic, since your dog will be biting down on these rings quite a bit. The size you’ll want to buy depends on the size of your dog and his dexterity with his mouth.
The Name Game
So your dog can put toys away, but can he/she put toys away by name? A great game to play with your dog is teaching him/her the name of specific toys, and then sending/asking him/her to go get that particular toy. It just takes a lot of repetition to teach the name (and I mean A LOT of repetition).
One way to get started is to hold a toy, say its name, let your dog grab it, then reward your dog for grabbing the toy. Let’s say it’s a stuffed toy named Duckie. Hold Duckie in one hand, say “Duckie,” let your dog grab Duckie, and give a reward (can be a treat or verbal praise). Repeat this 20 or 30 times. Then set Duckie next to a very different toy of equal value, like a ball toy named “Ball”. Say “Duckie” to your dog and if your dog selects Duckie, give a reward. If your dog doesn’t select Duckie but selects Ball instead, say nothing but place Ball back next to Duckie. Say “Duckie” again and let your dog choose. Once your dog is consistently selecting Duckie, place it next to another different toy, and repeat the steps until your dog is always choosing Duckie over other toys.
Going to get the mail, making a quick stop at a friend’s house, getting your morning coffee from Starbucks (or Peet’s if you prefer), or a spin through the car wash (as long as this doesn’t cause anxiety) will expose your dog(s) to a variety of different stimuli.
Although I don’t have dogs, I’ve taken my cats on errands to help get them used to riding in the car, as well as helping them to understand that every time they ride in the car, it doesn’t mean they’re going to the vet! This has made our visits to the vet much less stressful, so I suggest you try it if your canine(s) experiences anxiety when going to the vet.
Plus, your canine friend(s) will just be happy to just go with you wherever you go! However, if you do decide to bring your dog(s) to run errands, I would recommend leaving them at home on days when you will need to leave them unattended in your car for longer durations of time (unless it’s a nice, cool day out).
Give Your Dog a Job
Every dog needs a job, whether it’s carrying a backpack on the hike or fetching a ball. It helps boost their self-esteem when they feel like they’re contributing to their pack. However, some dogs play an important role beyond their immediate human family. They help keep us safe, assist those with disabilities, and manage our livestock (I will discuss this topic more in Part III).
Some easy jobs to try at home could be engaging your dog in a game of Frisbee, getting involved in a sport like agility or Flyball (which I mentioned in Part I). Take your pup for a long walk, hike, or swim (physically and mentally stimulating). Ask your dog to get the mail or put their toys away. There are SO many options! You just have to find the right job for your dog(s).
A last, and critical part of giving your dog a job, is to find something that fulfills your dog’s breed. For example, if you have a retriever, nothing will leave it more satisfied than a hearty game of fetch. Hounds would be delighted to complete a task that requires smelling or digging.
- As a dog owner, it’s your responsibility to find activities your dog enjoys. Not only will this help them, but it will also help you and your family to lead less stressful lives if you’re not constantly dealing with a bored canine.
- Be patient with your dog during the learning process—it can take some time for them to become comfortable with the activity and/or the environment (e.g., agility facility).
- Be creative! Start using your imagination! Make an obstacle course out of furniture and household items, make your own puzzles, or come up with a new game to play.
- Take a few minutes to search for breed-specific activities for your canine(s). There is SO MUCH information out there (whether it’s online, books, magazines, etc.), and your dog(s) will thank you for helping them fulfill their duties!
Well, that’s it for now! Thanks for stopping by, and remember, stay tuned for Part III: Breed-Specific Activities to Do with Your Canine(s)—coming later this week!
Until next time,
Ayriel, and the Ohana Animal Hospital Staff