Enriching Our Dog’s Lives

by Deb Levasseur CTB

Doug Cullen Sparkle Tucker silhouette-001.jpg sharpened

Dogs also really enjoy going for walks with us without being pressured to meet strangers of both the two and four-legged variety. Simply stopping to chat with someone can cause some dogs to feel stress. Photo by Marcia Herman

Have you ever wondered how you could enhance your dog’s daily life with a few simple activities? The essentials to sustain a dog’s life are food, water, shelter, urination and defecation, basic health care, and approximately 16 hours of sleep per day. However, most of us aspire to do more for our dogs than meet their basic needs. After all, they are our best friends and members of our families. In this article, I will detail the activities dogs generally prefer and dislike as well as share a list of activities to engage your dog.

Dogs are very curious animals and are natural scavengers, hunters, protectors, and diggers. Dogs naturally love to explore with their noses. This is by far their superlative sense, much like vision is to humans. Dogs also love to chew. I would go as far as to say that it is a basic need for dogs to chew sturdy bones and toys on a regular basis. Dogs love to relax with their humans as well. They are very content to curl up by our feet while we are reading or watching television. They need human affection and quality time with us. A box of boundless toys can be meaningless if we do not engage our dogs and have fun with them. This is also a very healthy activity for humans as well. We often do not take enough time out of our busy day to play and spend quality time with our dogs. Dogs also really enjoy going for walks with us without being pressured to meet strangers of both the two and four-legged variety. Simply stopping to chat with someone can cause some dogs to feel stress. Letting strangers pet your dog can put him over his tolerance threshold. Tolerance of a situation is not the same as enjoyment. Digging is another activity dogs enjoy. Dogs dig to bury and find treasures and to create a cool place to lie. Dogs enjoy learning new things and having a simple job to do. Finally, they enjoy playing with their dog friends that they know and get along with well.

On the other hand, dogs do not enjoy getting revved up with excitement. It is important to note that excitement does not necessarily mean happiness. Think about this in human terms. If you are really excited to give a speech or get onto a plane, does this mean you are happy? When a dog gets overly excited to go for a walk, this is actually very stressful for him. When your dog barks and jumps up, his body is going through chemical changes that will take him hours or even days to recover from. Adrenaline (epinephrine) will release cortisol, a hormone that causes stress, which puts him in a fight-or-flight response mode. Adrenaline is cleared from the body fairly quickly, but cortisol can stay in the body anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If another stressor is added while the dog still has heightened levels of cortisol in his system, this can cause the animal to be edgy and never able to truly relax. He is essentially constantly in the flight-or-fight mode. This stress can lead to many health and behaviour problems. It would be much kinder to our dogs to teach them to relax and stay calm instead of encouraging them to become exited. Stress is one of the main causes for behavioural problems, so when addressing these problems it is important to explore the cause and not only the symptoms.

Here are some other things that dogs do not like:

  • Being forced to chase balls, sticks, or Frisbees
  • Being forced to hang out with dogs they do not like
  • Being over-trained or forced to compete
  • Experiencing a sudden change in environment
  • Experiencing boredom and loneliness
  • Going new places when they have not been properly socialized
  • Not having positive leadership in their environment
  • Not knowing a clear and fair set of boundaries and guidelines to live within
  • Not being able to acquire enough quality sleep
  • Not being treated for any health issues

You notice I have used the word “forced” in regards to playing fetch. While some dogs truly get enjoyment from playing fetch, most become stressed from frustrating games like chasing a ball. It is important to note that even if your dog seems to enjoy high-stress games, it is best to keep these to one to two times per week. It is recommended to replace this activity with nose work and relaxing walks on most days. Your dog’s adrenaline runs very high when chasing balls and therefore so does his cortisol levels. Balance, as with everything, must be considered. Also, not all dogs are not social butterflies. Some dogs do not enjoy playing with other dogs and that is perfectly normal. We should accept and embrace our dogs’ qualities and not try to make them into something they are not naturally. What is fun for one dog may be a nightmare for another.

Finally, and most importantly, mental stimulation is more important than physical exercise for dogs. This is the also the same for humans. If you were locked in a small room for two weeks and could only bring one item, would you pick a treadmill or a television? Most would choose the activity that provides more mental stimulation. When people exercise their dogs they get tired dogs, not relaxed dogs. They also end up with very well-conditioned dogs who need more exercise to achieve the same level of exhaustion. They rely on that exhaustion so that the dog will not get into trouble.

Here are some excellent and simple ways to add important mental stimulation into your dog’s life:

  1. Enrichment areas

Set up enrichment areas in your home and your yard once per week. This can be done with old boxes, shoes, garbage cans, and other items in your home. Sprinkle food treats over these items and let your dog enjoy rooting for rewards. After just 10 minutes of this, you will have a very content and relaxed dog. Researchers have found in shelter situations dogs that were offered nose work were much less stressed and were adopted quicker than dogs that were not able to participate in this activity.

  1. Enrichment Walks

These are walks where you go to new places that have a lot of smells and you let your dog sniff and explore. This is not a walk for exercise. Your dog should be allowed to guide you around the area and take in all the wonderful new and exciting aromas. Some examples of places you could go are: wooded areas, parks, new streets, gas stations, stores, train or bus stations, garbage storage bins etc.

  1. Digging Pits

Build a sand box type of area and bury bones, food treats, and chew toys in the sand. Bring your dog to the area and have him search. This activity has the added bonus that it will stop your dog from digging in your garden and flower beds. He will soon learn that this is best spot in the yard to dig and will enjoy many hours of pleasure. If your yard is not fenced in, perhaps you can consider fencing a small area or an inexpensive pre-fabricated dog run.

  1. Nose Work
    You can start by simply hiding some smelly treats around your house and asking him to go find. Another example of this is box searches. Hide food treats in various boxes or cups and then get your dog to find the treat. Let your dog smell everything before you start. Your dog will enjoy using his brain to figure this game out and will get better with practice. You can also bring a few old shoe boxes and treats to a nearby fenced area and have him hunt there. This also serves as a natural and safe outlet for his natural hunting instincts and prey drive. Your dog will be less stressed and more content and happier if he does regular nose work.

Conflict between dogs and humans often occurs when people think dogs should come knowing how we want them to live inside our (human) home environment. Most issues people have with dogs would not be a problem for the dog if he were living in the wild. If we keep in mind what dogs were born to do and what they truly enjoy, our dogs will be happier and less stressed. As dog owners, it is our job to teach our dogs everything we want them to know. This sets them up for success by reducing stress and giving them a fulfilling life. You have the power to help your dog live his life to the fullest. To dogs, life is an adventure, let’s give them that adventure.

You may find out more information on this subject by contacting me, Deb Levasseur, by e-mail at deblevasseur@rogers.com and asking for the sign-in information for my free online course entitled “Enriching Our Dog’s Lives”.

Deb Levasseur CTB (Certified Trainer and Behaviour Consultant).
President and Founder of the Maritime Greyhound Adoption Program
New Brunswick Canada
mgap.ca

May not be reprinted or distributed in whole or part without permission given from the author. ©

CG SP 13 This article may be seen in its original form by purchasing the issue from which it came.

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