Animals have physical, mental and emotional needs. While walking can fulfil some of these needs, there are many other ways to enrich your pet's life! Considering a lot of my patients need restricted physical exercise, due to either health reasons, or walks can be overstimulating or stressful to them, I think this will be good information for my clients.
The “Learn-to-earn” protocol is a great way to introduce normal foraging behaviour to your dog. However, there are some limitations. Here are some non-food ideas to meet a dog's needs to boost extra enrichment opportunities.
Psychology of Play
What makes something engaging? It has to be relevant and matters to your dog. Personal preference is obviously very important, but there are many other factors:
Presentation: How interesting does the item/ activity look?
Sacristy /Abundance: It determines the value of the item and whether your dog wants to spend the energy to pursue it.
Novelty: Neuroscience research has shown something new and interesting stimulates the learning part of the brain. It has a significant effect on the engagement level and how much memory will retain on a learning task.
Social interaction: The ability to perform social play is essential for social species like humans and dogs. It helps increase bond and understanding of each other, and make the social group more stable.
Context: The place and time of the activity. Does your dog have the energy to engage? Are there other more interesting things happening around?
Previous exposure and learning: Is the level of difficulty appropriate to your dog? They will lose interest if it is too hard or too easy.
A word about novelty
It does not mean that you have to keep buying new toys. Simply rotating the toys by using a different set each day is adequate. You can present the same toy in a different way by hiding it or placing it in a location that is harder to reach. Look at what is involved when interacting with this toy, whether it is a physical skill (such as pushing with the paw, throwing it around or grabbing with teeth), a problem-solving skill or sensory detection. Modify them to increase the difficulty and change up the presentation.
Tugging is an innate behaviour for dogs and it can be a great game, and help to bond with the “opponent” through social play. Teach your dog to play with it gently, to let go when needed and to prevent accidentally biting on people’s hands. The keys include:
Use an appropriate toy. Choose the texture and types of toys your dog prefers and it needs to be long enough to maintain some distance between your hand and their teeth.
Allow them to “win”, so they can take the item and return it to you when they want another round. You can reward your dog with praise during the game when they let go of the toy, to teach them that using their mouth appropriately results in more fun.
Calm down after a tug game, and direct them onto a calming chew activity or rewarding training session.
Teach “take it” and “leave it” cues for further safety
Teach your dog to find a hidden toy or item that allows them to use their senses and memory.
There are different ways to teach this. You could let your dog watch you place an item in a hidden location while having another person holding onto your dog’s collar. Begin with an easily discovered location, such as a cardboard box or an upturned clear container. After your finish hiding the item, release them and allow them to discover the item. Praise them as they try to recover the object, such as sniffing and pawing at the container. If they recover it, they get more rewards. Gradually you can place the item in a more difficult location to find, and/or add in decoys to make it more challenging.
You can also add a smell to the object to teach your dog to become a detective! Examples are rubbing some herbs or a drop of gentle-smelling essential oil into the object.
Chewing and destroying items are innate behaviour for dogs to aid in foraging and to consume prey.
Selected the chew items carefully to minimise the risk of choking and splintering. Supervise them during the activity. Remove anything that is brittle and can splinter, such as bones, or where there is a risk of choke-sized pieces breaking away.
Cardboard boxes and toilet rolls are great chewing items (plus it is a way to reuse and upcycle a waste product!). Limit it if your dog swallows the pieces.
Set aside a designated digging area for your dog. It is completely normal behaviour for the purpose of foraging and making a den. Instead of suppressing your dog from doing so, give them the appropriate outlet to reduce digging in areas that you do not want to be destroyed.
This could be a sandpit, a crate without splinters or a partitioned area. Make sure the base is heavy enough so it does not tip over. You can first show them a toy that they like, and then partially bury this in the digging pit. Gradually bury this deeper as they learn. Make sure your dog is praised when they dig in the designated area! Also, be creative when designing this fun playground for your dog!
Playing with water can add extra sensory stimulation to your dog. It is important to introduce it gradually, particularly if your dog is uncertain about water. Experiment with offering your dog a shallow basin on the floor, and then allowing them to dip their paws, nose or head in this. Float a toy then allow them to find the item. It will be easier if they are familiar with a ‘find it’ or similar cue. A paddling pool can be a great addition to your dog’s environment. Some dogs also enjoy running through garden sprinklers. Always supervise if there are children in the paddling pool. You may need to give your dog a personal paddling pool in a separate area if the location is used by kids.
Fetch games are another fun bonding activity for you and your dog. Throw the toy and let them chase it. When they pick this up, call them back and praise them for returning, before throwing this again. If your dog is reluctant to release the toy, have several identical toys or toys of equal value and throw one in the opposite direction as soon as the first toy is picked up.
Indoor or garden obstacle course
Agility is really fun, and I strongly encourage you to try it out with your dog. If you don’t have time to enrol in a course, you can still do this based on items you already own. Be creative and you will find many household items that are suitable. Chairs or table legs to go under or weave around, a blanket draped over a garden or coffee table as a tunnel, soccer training cones and broom handles to create a mini-jump, a hula-hoop for jumping through, a small plastic stool for stepping up and a mat for sitting on.
Getting some ideas from YouTube videos may help the creation of your own obstacle course.
Introduce your dog to each piece of equipment individually. Lure them to move around these objects, step on them or jump over using a food or toy. Get excited, praise your dog and run with them for succeeding. Then introduce two elements of your obstacle course together, then a third element etc. Only add the extra elements as your dog has consistently mastered the previous stage.
Teaching your dog a new vocabulary or practising one they already know are great ways to engage the memory and learning centre of their brains. Instead of using food, offering toys rewards should be equally fun.