Sunday, February 13, 2022

Understanding Your Dog's Needs

Every person on the planet can pretty much agree that all animals, including people, need a minimum of food, shelter, and clothing (safety gear for dogs).  But is that enough to make an animal's life enriching and have value?  In this post we are going to be going over some other things that greatly affect the quality of life we provide for our dogs.

Ditch the Bowl & Other Food Based Enrichment

Since food is one of the most basic needs, it's also one of the most basic enrichment activities that trainers recommend for their clients.  With a quick search on Google, YouTube, or Amazon you can get all kinds of great food based enrichment ideas that you can use with your dogs.  With all those resources readily available, I'm going to tell you about a few that my dogs love.

The Snuffle Box

Take a cardboard box and put 3-5 items from your recycle bin or around the house that are safe to be touched, mouthed, or chewed by your dog; plastic water bottles or bowls, rolled up newspaper balls, dog toys, basically anything that can get in the way but your dog can easily move around with their nose.  To get started, drop a few treats in the box and tell your dog to Find It or Search.  Once your dog gets the hang of the game, you can switch from using treats to using a portion or all of your dog's meal in the box.

There are also snuffle toys like mats and balls you can buy just about anywhere that sells pet supplies.  Nature is also a great place to sniff out food, so you can drop a handful of kibble in the yard for the dog to search through the grass for the food.  Azul started doing this as a young pup where we spent the after meal sitting in the front yard daily if weather permitted.  Still at almost 2 years old, he enjoys at least one meal a week sprinkled around somewhere outside.

The act of seeking is a natural instinct that all dogs are born with.  Certain breeds that were bred for nosework or hunting have an extra need to develop the seeking instinct in greater detail.  By teaching them how to forage for their meals and providing lots of opportunity to do that, we can often prevent some of the less desired behaviors of following a scent trail or seeking other forms of self entertainment.

Lickmats or stuffed toys

This is something that Cam has never really enjoyed, but he was punished in a former home for excessive licking of people so that likely has something to do with it.  Every other dog that I've tried out a lickmat with has found it extremely rewarding!  When Azul was just a baby, I used to spread some peanut butter inside a hollow toy or bone that he could easily fit is nose in to provide a calming activity before his afternoon nap time.  A stuffed kong or similar toy can be awesome for helping a young pup get used to a crate as well.  And now that Azul is older, he still wants to eat at least one meal a week on his lickmat, although the recipes we use now are much more complex.

The act of licking is a natural stress reliever so if your dog has something unexpected in their day, providing an extra opportunity for licking can help help turn that negative experience into a positive experience.

Using kibble for training

This is where the idea of "Ditch the Bowl" comes in, suggesting that you hand feed your dog during training sessions and enrichment feeders instead of a dog bowl.  This is great, but I simply don't have this much time in my day in a multiple dog household.  Instead I use a wide variety of feeding methods using a bowl for one of 2 meals a day and using alternative methods for the other meal.  It's more important that you find a feeding schedule that works for you and your dog, than it is to try to follow someone else's schedule.

The act of training by itself is often enrichment for our dogs!  If we tailor our training to incorporate concept style training, teaching our dogs life skills instead of solely focusing on getting behaviors, we tend to help their brain develop stronger connections.  Activating the brain and putting some of their mental energy to work to solve a problem is very enriching for most dogs.

When many people think about enrichment, this is where they stop as food related enrichment is the easiest to learn to use and apply to daily life.  But our dogs have other needs!

Can shelter be enriching?

I totally believe it is!  When we have a young puppy in the house we tend to confine them to one room of the house that is puppy proofed and as they grow and learn house manners we slowly add in other rooms of the house.  This is in part designed to help them feel safe and learn about their world around them.  Fast forward to our adult dogs, and we don't often think about what rooms they are enjoying on a day-to-day basis.  But just like people, dogs easily get bored without a change of scenery.  I have dog beds or rest spots in various rooms of my house allowing dogs to choose where they want to rest.  Most times they choose the room I'm in, so I try not to spend hours on end in the same room to help add variety to my dogs.  I recently repurposed an unused bedroom into a makeshift office & training room to provide myself a quiet place to retreat when other areas of the house are busy.  Azul and Cam are really enjoying that because they now have company in another area of the house at least for an hour or so every day.  I'm also lucky enough to have a large back porch that is gated off from the yard.  Azul loves to spend time out there throughout the day "reading the newspaper" to enjoy the smells in the neighborhood.

Not all dogs enjoy new environments!  Azul has always visited lots of different places with me as a Service Dog, therefore he enjoys getting out of the house to walk a trail or go shopping.  Cam on the other hand, has more anxiety in new places so he is happiest if we stick to the same 5-10 environments that he feels safe in, avoid busy trails with unknown dogs.  

Enrichment activities MUST be tailored to your dog's needs and preferences!

Clothing or Gear as Enriching

Azul is a minimalist when it comes to gear and clothing!  While he will tolerate anything I want to put on him, he doesn't enjoy it so we don't do it often.  Cam enjoys some minimal clothing such as a new collar or a fancy bandana put on after a good brushing session.  You can tell he enjoys it by an increased swagger he has when I first put it on him.  My boys don't really like any other clothing, but I've had dogs in the past that enjoyed playing dress up.  

The key here is doing things that your dog enjoys and avoid things that are not enjoyed.

Enrichment Sniffing

We already discussed this a bit under Food Enrichment, but allowing your dog to sniff when you are not feeding them is also amazingly enriching.  Let's face it, our dogs are limited to exploring environments that we give them access to.  Most dogs, living a people world are not allowed to go out and explore on their own and at their pace.  We do this to keep them SAFE, which is also important.  But it's also very important to provide them a chance to sniff and explore various environments at their pace.  This is one of the most common things that people leave out as we live in a world where keeping our dog in a heel position at our side is becoming far too normal.  Yes, there are times when you want or need your dog to be in a heel or stay close to you.  But then you need to give them the opportunity to sniff on their terms if you want to have a partnership with your dog.

We regularly take sniff-a-bouts on a longline through rural environments or large fields near parks and we rotate that with trail walks on a 6-10 ft lead that is focused on the enrichment needs of the dog I am walking.  Longline walks can be hard to get used to, but I have lots of videos with tips & tricks on my YouTube Channel.  Here is a video of Azul and I enjoying a short sniff-a-bout a few days ago.

Health & Hygiene that is Enriching

This is something we tend to overlook!  We sometimes have to take our dogs to the Vet for checkups or other needs, they need occasional baths, brushing, etc.  These things can be approached with the mind frame of, "This is what my dog needs so I'm just going to do it." OR "This is something I want my dog to enjoy in life!"  For people that want to help their dog enjoy some of life's necessities, this is where Cooperative Care training comes in.  With some time and proceeding at our dog's pace, we can desensitize them to nearly anything in the health & hygiene world as long as we start before they've had a fear based reaction to that activity.

Socially Interactive Enrichment

This is one that really has to be designed around your dog's needs, but all dogs have a basic need to be social.  For some dogs this means doing activities with "their people" or their family unit and for other dogs that means going out and meeting new people.  The absence of social interaction in a puppy's life can easily effect their desires for social interaction as adults.  Having spent the first year of his life in an outdoor kennel, Cam does not really enjoy new people invading his bubble.  While Azul on the other hand got a really great start to early socialization and not only loves meeting new people, but also craves that interaction.  Regardless of how our dogs feel about strangers, they have a basic need to feel safe and comfortable in their living environment and this comes from spending time with their family doing activities they enjoy.  People's lives are busy and we don't always take the time to talk to our dogs, or pet them, or cuddle with them, or whatever it is they most enjoy.  Playing games (not just physical exercise) with your dog daily can help fill their need for social interactions.

These are just a few examples of things that my dogs find enriching.  In my next blog, I'm going to be discussing what makes activities enriching for our dogs and how you can use your dog's natural abilities to find additional enrichment activities that are better suited for your dog.

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