Tired of Dog Enrichment? Your Dog Might Be, Too.

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Dog Enrichment is a popular buzzword these days, especially for dog parents who are staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are books, websites, social media groups, podcasts, videos, all promoting ways to help fill a dog’s mental, emotional, and physical needs — even spreadsheets to track enrichment opportunities and where there may be gaps that can be filled. As with all things, dog enrichment efforts can be taken to the extreme, and dog parents may feel pressured to fill their dog’s days with enrichment in order to be a good pet parent. Sometimes a dog just needs a break from it all. And so do pet parents.

Let’s take a step back and assess things.

For dogs that spend a lot of time alone or in an environment devoid of stimulation and opportunities to perform natural behaviours, providing more enrichment is beneficial.  Enrichment can help reduce stress, improve health, and prevent unwanted problem behaviours. But when is it too much?

To begin with, dogs require a lot more sleep/rest each day than many people realize.  Individual dogs differ, of course, but some sources suggest 12 to 14 hours a day, and some suggest 17+ hours a day correlates with fewer stress-related behaviour problems. A dog’s health and behaviour will suffer if a dog’s day is constantly interrupted by activities or if the dog’s environment doesn’t allow the dog to nap (e.g. too much activity in the home, too much guarding of the window or yard as people and dogs pass by, too many sudden environmental changes such as construction noises).

As well as sufficient sleep, dogs benefit from unscheduled time. Structure and routine are very beneficial for dogs, absolutely. But free-time needs to be included in the dog’s schedule so the dog can learn how to settle on his/her own and entertain themselves.  Obviously, one must ensure the dog’s environment for free time is such that a dog can entertain themselves safely and appropriately. For example, for puppies, chewers, dogs with housetraining issues, or dogs that tend to get into mischief, barriers/expens can be used to contain the dog to an area with a variety of toys, a bed, water and food dishes, and a potty area for accidents.

Providing enrichment activities for your dog doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or expensive.

Free-time to sniff and explore on walks is also essential for a dog’s well-being and to help reduce behaviour problems. Dogs experience the world largely though their noses, and if they are rarely allowed to stop and sniff (safe) things on a walk, a walk can become a frustrating, unpleasant experience for them. Letting a dog sniff and explore on a walk — if not the entire walk, then at least a portion of it — can do wonders for lowering a dog’s stress levels. Using a longer flat leash (3 to 4 meters) can allow you to shorten the leash to 1 or 2 meters when needed, but let it out to 3 or 4 meters when it’s safe to do so; a longer leash can allow a dog to move more freely and naturally through their environment, and training for loose leash walking skills will allow the dog to walk nicely on any length of leash. There is recent scientific evidencethat dogs on longer leashes sniff more and that sniffing lowers a dog’s heart rate.

Let the dog choose the activities he/she enjoys is also important for a dog’s wellbeing. Sometimes people enrol dogs in activities without considering if the dogs are enjoying the activities or not. Sometimes the environments for the dog sports are too intense for the dog. Sometimes the human has become too competitive and has taken the fun out of it for the dog. Sometimes there are too many of the activities in a week and the dog has not been allowed to rest between activities. Free work for dogs (unstructured time where dogs freely engage with various items in a space) is a trend that is helping dog parents understand their dogs’ preferences for activities. I would argue that for dogs that are not stressed when walking on a leash, a relaxing sniff and stroll on a long leash in a natural environment provides a similar opportunity to learn about a dog’s preferences.

Mealtimes can provide opportunities for mental stimulation and the expression of natural behaviours. Rather than feeding the dog from a bowl, try a food dispensing toy (e.g. a kibble ball, a hollow rubber toy, or a snuffle mat) or feeding a meal by hiding bits of it around the house, scattering it in a room, or laying food trails in the yard.

And finally, Cooperative Care training is a perfect opportunity to provide enrichment for practical purposes. Teaching dogs to love the grooming table, sand their own nails, rest their chin in your lap, happily swallow a pill — all of these things can be taught in a fun way for you and your dog. These “tricks” become practical skills and allow you to turn these necessary activities into relationship building activities.

For more information about dog enrichment, training, and behaviour, contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA. 

Dog Park Design

Changing Behaviour Through Environmental Design

Dog park 2 May 16

Understanding the behaviours and needs of the primary users of a space is essential to creating one that is accessible, usable, safe, and attractive.

Creating a dog park involves much more than putting a fence around a section of open space. It’s essential that architects, city planners, developers, etc. consult a professional educated in dog behaviour early in the design phase because the problems that plague dog parks can be dramatically reduced (even prevented) simply by altering its design. 

Common Dog Park Problems (That Can Be Addressed Through Design):

  • Dog Conflicts
  • Defecation
  • Dog Owner Behaviour
  • Damage to Landscape
  • Security/Safety
  • Problems for Nearby Residents

Many of these problems can be addressed in the design phase 

Dog Park Consulting Services

Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class.