There is a new concept emerging in the dog training world. Well, it is not new, more like something we are becoming more aware of. It is something that has been lacking from our dog’s daily routine since we took working dogs and made them into house pets. Removing them from the traditional roles in which they were bred. The concept of integrating mental stimulation back into our dog’s lives plays an important role when it comes to behavior.
As a society, we generally have created lazy pets. They stay home all day and watch the world go by or spend too many hours kenneled while we go about our day. In many respects, we have created very dull lives for our pets. There is a disconnect between how we spoil our pets but fail to meet their mental and physical needs. This comes with a heavy toll on dogs especially. Dogs need a mental challenge and a way to release their instinctual behaviors. While it is true that dogs enjoy our companionship as much as we do theirs, love is not enough.
We love them, yet, it drives you mad when they chew the corner of the couch or steal food off the counter and eat the garbage. We have all had those days when the thought creeps into the back of your mind. You threaten to find them a new home. It can be difficult to put up with a dog with undesirable behaviors. At some point, we cannot deal with it anymore.
Undesirable behaviors may include barking, jumping, excitement and a general lack of manners. Or more serious issues like aggression where the animal may pose a risk to society.
When a dog is restless they tend to find other ways to expel pent-up energy. Their minds aren’t any different. Dog’s will find a way to soothe their frustrations. This often comes out in the form of an unwanted behavior.
These behaviors stem from a lack of training. Other factors include under socialization, boredom, and a lack of exercise. This translates into the dog finding its own way to meet its need for physical and mental stimulation. They can’t help that their brain was wired to want to chase, chew, dig, carry things in their mouths, herding the kids around the house etc.
We often forget that all dogs were originally bred to perform a job, a job that has since been taken away. Working dogs are the lucky ones, though many people feel bad that they have to work and are not always treated like pets. They are a valued member of a working partnership and treated with care and respect nonetheless. These dogs lead great lives. They get to be a dog, right down to their inner core and fulfill their need to act as instinct intended.
After looking at working dogs and seeing their satisfaction at work, look at the life your own dog lives. Focus your attention on Bella laying on the floor beside you. What have you done for her today to meet her mental needs? She has food, belly scratches, and a new toy. But have you done anything to provide her with an outlet for her most inner desire to be a dog on the most basic level? If Bella is from the terrier group, play with a toy, bringing that toy to life so she can hunt, stock and “kill” it. A hound would love some scent games or having food hidden around the house so she could sniff it out. A retriever would love nothing more than to be your trusty companion at your side. Tell her what a good dog she is when she fetches your slippers carries them proudly in her mouth. Instinctual behaviors have been ingrained in our dogs breeding. They need to be able to find a way to complete these tasks, whether they are asked to do them or not.
When our dogs do not have a release for these behaviors they turn into uncontrolled or bad behaviors and create issues.
Bad behaviors are a big problem. In North America, most animal re-homing agencies define adoptable pets as being both medically and behaviorally healthy. Behavioral problems are the second most common reason for euthanasia, coming after illness. Animal groups have different guidelines on what behaviors are acceptable. Resources available to rehab a behavioral animal are limited and costly. Many rescues and shelters are unable to keep behavioral dogs long term, due to the enormous strain on the system. The outcome may end in euthanasia. This is especially true in cases of resource guarding, and aggression but not limited to only extreme cases.
What can I do, as an owner, to help my dog?
We owe it to our pets to do the best we can for them. That means setting them up for success. Provide plenty of exercise. Socialize them with people and other animals. Take them to training and practice often. Push them mentally. When bad behaviors arise, first understand the behavior and what is causing it. Why has it started and what can we do to correct the problem? You can’t always stop the behavior, but you can work to change it. If you are dealing with an ingrained behavior find a way to use it to your advantage. Mold it into something useful. Embrace it. It is part of your dog.
The trick is to use a dog’s instincts as motivation and a reward for training them to act in a way you find appropriate.
- Prey Drive: A dog with high prey drive can easily be trained using toys as a reward.
- Do a Job: Dogs bred for retrieving would like something to carry around with them. Give them something to carry. You’ll be the best human ever! Teach them how to fetch the newspaper or find your car keys.
- Scent Games: Have a hound dog? Play scent games with them. Hide treats for them to find around the house. Try a snuffle mat (you may need to google that one if you’re unfamiliar). Take them to some nose work classes. Give a tracking a try.
- Provide Mental Challenges that engage the brain: Anxious, high-energy or high-strung dog? Use a food dispensing toy or slow feeding dog bowl in place of a regular bowl at meal times. These are great games to keep them occupied and their mind off other things. You may need to help show them how to use them in the beginning but soon they will have them mastered. These are useful tools for dogs that are cooped up for long hours of the day or under medical rest.
- Add an Element of Difficulty to Everyday Tasks: Enhance your walks. Dogs go into “Zombie mode” when they only walk. It is not tiring enough no matter how long or far you travel on your walks. Add in jumps, get them going over, on top of things, try some urban parkour.
- Allow your dog to perform the job they were bred for: Border Collie always running a circle around the kids? Time to find some sheep and try a hand at herding or agility. If your dog loves to dig give them a space where they are allowed to dig. A plastic child’s sandbox is perfect to have a controlled dig site.
- One word: OBEDIENCE: Your dog finds this mentally challenging. You will benefit from having a dog with manners. They will listen better. It will enhance your relationship, and you’ll have cool tricks to show off to friends.
There are so many dog sports, clubs, groups, and organizations available. The internet is your best source for finding them. Get out and try something new! Creating a better bond with your dog and meeting their needs, mind, body, and soul can be as fun as it is rewarding. Remember a tired dog is a good dog. A good dog equals a happy owner, and a happy owner keeps their good dog where they belong, at home.