Here is the second installment of our discussion on mental stimulation. As I mentioned previously, we can go beyond food dispensing toys to give our dogs a daily dosage of mental stimulation.
Some people get it right and understand the importance of a “sniff walk” for their dog. Indeed, for how we use sight to understand the world, our dogs smell it. Smell being their most reliable sense. By a “sniff walk” I mean taking your dog for a stroll where the distance covered is irrelevant in which we allow the dog to move at its own pace- taking as much time as he wants sniffing. This could be challenging for some folks because they do take their dog on a walk (yah!) but they have their own agenda. The walk must double as their fitness routine, so they just want to get it done fast. My advice to this bunch is to take their dog’s sniff walk as a bonus within their mental health. To see this as an opportunity to experience the surroundings in Slow mo. Wow! What a concept! We can also re-frame and think of our workout time as our workout time, aside from allowing it to be during the dog sniffing opportunities.
In addition to the sniff or slow walk, there are other ways we can hang out with our dogs and provide a rich environment for their brain and well-being. Here is an idea that I have witnessed to be very beneficial to dogs: I teach owners how to do some simple TTouches on their dog as part of my Developing the Confident Dog class.
This past Saturday, every participant in the class saw how quickly their dog went from alert (and some a bit stressed) to totally relaxed, choosing to lie down on their mats to receive the benefits of their human’s touch. Engaging your dog with TTouch can teach your dog’s nervous system to oscillate from fidgety to relaxed. The more your dog experiences these different modalities, the easier it will be for your dog to recuperate from an upsetting event or just to be able to relax when you are busy at home and can’t concentrate on your dog. TTouch is not a massage and is not petting either. It is its own modality that is relatively easy to learn and worth exploring. To learn more visit: www.TTouch.com.
One of my favorite things to do with my dogs is to play with them! We have all sorts of games and most of them involve an object or toy. I am defining play as any activity in which participants engage voluntarily and the only purpose is to have fun. The topic of play has been well researched and as a result there is ample information about what constitutes “good” play. Also, quite relevant is how can we play with our dogs in a manner that they find enjoyable and not threatening. If play is your “thing” look up the work of Marc Bekoff, www.marcbekoff.com – a leading authority in dog play and who has done tremendous work surrounding the emotional lives of animals.
I personally like it when my dogs invent their own games. I mostly follow their lead when they come up with a new activity that we can do together. Here are a couple of examples:
After their breakfast both Deuce and Rio go to our long hallway just off the kitchen. They both lie there with either one ball (more fun for Rio- perhaps less fun for Deuce) or a ball a piece. The game consists of one of us kicking the ball so that Rio goes after it. She gets tremendous pleasure in this. If Deuce was not that interested in balls I tend to wonder if Rio would enjoy the activity. For this particular game, I changed some of Rio’s “rules” and I make sure Deuce has another ball to keep as his own, or we take turns tossing the ball in such a manner that Deuce gets it sometimes too- not only Rio. Being able to get to a ball that lands unpredictably is where the fun is at.
Deuce and I have our own special game that consists of Deuce taking my sheepherding cues (we actually do go sheepherding) inside our home as he “herds” a ball. Not only is this game highly reinforcing for Deuce, but our herding practice with “real” sheep has improved tremendously.
I encourage you to be open to your dog’s definition of “games” and “fun”. I promise you that you will also reap the benefits as you see your blood pressure drop and your breathing become more fluid. At least mine dose whenever I choose to play with my dogs.
In closing, I strongly suggest people think of mental stimulation as a dog’s ability to problem solve. Again, the activities that can promote this are truly amazing, but here I want to refer to one that is so accessible to anyone willing to invest in learning how to shape behavior with a clicker. In essence shaping behavior is teaching a behavior by approximation. Think of it as a process similar (yet much more complex and interesting) than the popular game of “hot” and “cold” in which someone is getting clues as to the proximity of an object or a specific action it must do. To learn more visit: www.clickertraining.com
If you live in the Santa Fe area, I encourage to enroll in one of my classes. Yes, your dog will learn new skills but equally important you will learn how to adequately teach your dog to problem solve. In addition, you will learn training skills and games that you can incorporate at home as part of your dog’s mental stimulation routine.