A quick recap. In Enrichment for Dogs – Part One: Helping Canines Live in Our Human World, we examined why under-stimulation is a pervasive and serious welfare issue for dogs and how environmental enrichment can improve the well-being of our canine pals. Part Two: Training Games and Interactive Food Toys looks at force-free training as behavioral enrichment and describes how getting creative with puzzle-like toys can keep a pup occupied and stimulated doing what many dogs do very well, solving a problem to get food.
Based on that foundation, let’s take a closer look at some common doggy behaviors that many guardians find problematic: digging, chewing, and sniffing (i.e., every tree and hydrant for minutes on end while out for a walk.) By now, you might be starting to put it all together and think, “Maybe my dog isn’t misbehaving. Perhaps these activities are simply highly enriching, rewarding, and reinforcing. How can I redirect Fido to a behavior that’s more acceptable to us both?” In this post, we’ll answer that question, as well as look at one more enrichment strategy – giving dogs choices.
Chewing is a very natural behavior for dogs. Luckily, there are now many chew toy options on the market, from synthetics like nylon bones to organics such as bully sticks, raw or smoked bones and antlers. Chew bones are great; just make sure that they are safe and don’t cause tooth problems. Speak to your veterinarian to find out which are safe for your dog, and then explore which textures, shapes and tastes your inquisitive canine most likes.
Or you might choose to make your own sweet potato chews. It’s easy! All you need is an oven (set on dehydrate) or an actual dehydrator: Cut potato into wedges, lay on a cookie tray, bake on low/dehydrate setting until desired texture (approximately 14-16 hours, depending on oven strength and size of potato pieces).
And while we’re on the topic of choosing…
Give dogs choices. As humans, we gain confidence through life experiences. We learn from them and grow. Being allowed to make decisions and have control over our own choices is what helps us to develop confidence. Even though dogs aren’t human, they are sentient beings, with emotions and a zest for life. Based on this, I would say that giving dogs opportunities to make decisions and have control over outcomes will help them.
If you are constantly giving directions, telling your dog what to do, when to do it, how to do it, then they will always rely on you for instructions. Instead, help teach them to rely on their own ability to make good choices, rather than depending on you to do the thinking for them.
Allow dogs to learn on their own. Unleash adventure! Encourage exploration (as long as it’s safe for them and others). Consider “hunting” games or sports that allow them to be dogs — meaning, the types of activities where humans aren’t telling them what to do all the time (see below).
Ultimately, while it’s great when dogs “check in” with us, it’s also nice to see them being independent, showing us that they know how to make these life choices.
If your dog is a digger, to set everyone up for success, you can decide if you want to give Fluffy a legal outlet for this innate behavior, or completely redirect her to an alternate behavior. Here are some ideas for both of those scenarios:
Have you ever stopped to notice just how enthusiastic dogs are when they are using their noses? In fact, the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than that part of a human’s brain!
Often the human world doesn’t allow dogs a chance to sniff for as long or as thoroughly as they might like. You can bump up your dog’s mental—and by extension, physical—health with some easy interventions, like the following:
In K9 Nose Work classes, dogs learn how to search for a specific odor or odors and find the source. It is a sport that is based on your dog’s natural instinct to hunt and sniff out prey. This fun activity will benefit your dog by building his confidence while exercising his mind and body. You will enjoy watching your dog work and it will deepen the bond between you, even if you do not do it competitively.
Pet parents whose dogs are wild with energy and have a hard time focusing, often note that these dogs tend to be more relaxed after the introduction of Nose Work to their routine. The self-directed nature of this activity requires them to focus on a single (extremely enjoyable) job, helping their brains get better at completing a task without their guardians’ instruction and management. Nose Work, herding, and tracking encourage dogs to use their doggy skills. We are there to give them a ride and make sure they don’t get injured (and marvel at how amazing dogs can be).
To get the maximum brain and bonding benefits of scent training in class, allow your dog to pull you to the start-line, as you want an enthusiastic dog who is going to utilize their skills. Once you give the cue to “search,” allow the dog to do their job. Give them the freedom to hunt and problem-solve. Avoid giving them directions and telling them what to do (after the initial cue is given). This is their environment. Again, we’re just there to keep them safe.
Hopefully these tips and ideas provide some inspiration and a clear answer to the question posed at the beginning of the post, “How can I redirect Fido to a behavior that’s more acceptable to us both?” In short, the answer is fun and games!
We will wrap up this blog series by reviewing how incorporating strategic enrichment into our dogs’ lives improves their welfare and can prevent some common problems pet parents face, thereby strengthening the human-canine relationship.
Until then, here’s to pawsitively enriching adventures with your inquisitive canine!