How do I provide mental stimulation for my dog?

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.
A tired dog is a good dog.

Trainers are great at telling dog owners that their dogs’ “bad” behavior is due to boredom. The trainers might not always be as clear about what those dog owners should do about it.

Many people who have dogs also have jobs. Jobs that actually require them to show up someplace other than their home and work on things other than entertaining the dog. Unreasonable, right? So says Cali.

Fortunately for all of these dogs, a multibillion-dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of convincing us humans to fork over lots of money to purchase toys to entertain our dogs. Toys aren’t the only way to offer mental stimulation to a bored stay-at-home dog. Here are some ideas:

  • Long daily walks — This one is good for both of you! Let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. This could mean the walk takes a long time without covering much ground, but allowing for a smell walk every day — or dedicating part of an exercise walk to smell — will offer your dog more mental stimulation and make the walk much more fun.
  • Doggy daycare or hiking groups — Once or twice a week is enough for many dogs. Being with other dogs offers stimulation. Walking and sniffing in new places also does. Several hours of that can tire even the most indefatigable adolescent.
  • A class — You do have to be present for this one, but a rigorous class can provide mental and physical challenges that burn off some of that excess energy. Look for agility, Rally, nose work, basic manners, even prep for social therapy dog certification. Again, being around other dogs, even if they don’t really interact, is stimulating, as is learning new things. And you can practice for a few minutes each evening, giving you great bonding time with your dog and, you guessed it, challenging him and tiring him out. (Sense a theme here?)
  • Play games based on what you learned in that class — after doing nose work classes with both Jana and Cali, I played hide and seek games where I hid their “bait box,” the scent we used in class, and let them search. It takes only about 10 minutes to do 3-4 searches, and the dogs loved it.
  • Home-schooling — A trainer friend recommends books by Kyra Sundance for simple instructions on teaching your dog fun and easy tricks. It’s great for your relationship (unless you lose your patience …). Offer lots of treats, keep it fun, and keep sessions to about 5 minutes.
  • Treat toys — Last but certainly not least, treat toys are a staple. There’s a huge variety on the market. Some are interactive, which means you have to actually play with the dog … but many can be left with the dog when you go to work. Kongs are the most familiar, and there are literally thousands of “recipes” for stuffing Kongs if you Google it. Try several types and see what your dog likes. Experiment to find stuffings that the dog likes enough that she’ll keep working at the toy until it’s empty, but that she can’t lick clean in 5 minutes or less. Each dog is different: Jana could clean a Kong in seconds flat, but Cali loses interest when it’s still half full.
    A caveat: If you see that the dog is able to easily damage the toy, throw the toy away. You want durable toys that your dog loves but won’t destroy. Leave two or three with the dog when you head out to work in the morning. Hide them to make it even more challenging. If your dog loves treat toys, buy a bunch and rotate them. Keep it interesting. One friend who had two black Labs kept a large bin in her freezer filled with stuffed Kongs and other toys so she always had a supply ready. Inspect them every so often and toss the ones that are cracking, have chunks bitten out, or otherwise seem unsafe.
  • Safe chew toys — Identify safe chew toys and let the dog have access to these all the time. Consumables like rawhide are not safe and the dog should not have those when you are not around to supervise. I use antlers, but I know that there are many opinions on what is safe, ethical, etc. so you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.

Offering mental stimulation pays off; even if you do the stimulating activities in the evening after work, the dog will be less bored overall. This should result in less destructive behavior. If your dog is young, particularly those 6 months to about 2 or 3 years old, there is no amount of stimulation or exercise that will truly tire him out. But the more acceptable options you offer, the less time the dog will spend destroying your home, shoes, and clothing. (Also: Young, untrustworthy dogs should not have the run of the house when you are not there. But that is a whole separate discussion.)

 

 

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What’s OK When Puppies Play?

I’ve accompanied friends with young puppies to puppy play sessions several times over the past few months. (Playing with puppies and then sending them home with someone else is the best …)

Puppies often play in ways that seem rough and scary to their doting parents. Those other puppies might hurt Precious, the new owners fret.

Relax. Puppies are pretty sturdy. They also tend to be quite vocal if another puppy is too rough.

Great puppy play includes:

  • Lots of chasing. One puppy leads off and others chase her. Within a few seconds, the pair or group change direction and another puppy is in front. When to worry? If only one puppy is chased (same for adult dogs) or if the chasee seems to want to end the chase and the other dogs ignore the signals. If too many puppies or dogs are chasing a single dog and seem intently focused on that dog. Good chase is fluid, not targeted at a single puppy.
  • Lots of wrestling, mouthing, and tugging. Yes, puppies have nasty, needle-sharp teeth. All the more reason to let them practice biting — and inhibiting their bite — on each other, not on our arms and hands. They let each other know what hurts and when to back off. This is one of the primary reasons why new puppy owners should insist that their puppy stay with his litter until he’s 8 weeks old. Sure, they’re weaned and yeah, the breeder might be pressuring you to take your puppy home. But those few weeks (with teeth) of play with littermates are essential to teaching initial social skills and bite inhibition. Single puppies and those taken from their litters at 6 or 7 weeks, which is way too common, are at a serious disadvantage.
  • Frequent pauses where puppies check in with their people, get a drink, pee, rest under a bench … puppies who know when they need a break are smart and self-protective. Puppy owners might need to enforce breaks, though, because the little ones don’t always make good choices. Call your puppy over, give him a treat, and send him back to re-engage.

What crosses a line?

  • Watch puppies for signs of stress. A puppy that is scratching a lot is stressed, as is one who’s constantly seeking to avoid other dogs, clings to a person’s legs, hides under a bench for long periods of time.
  • Yelps signal distress. Some puppies do vocalize while happily playing, but a distressed-sounding yelp is a call for human intervention. De-escalate the play, let the yelping puppy catch her breath, then let them all play again. Puppies usually recover quickly from a minor scrape and don’t hold grudges.
  • Too much mounting and other pushy behavior. This is a fine line. Puppies do wrestle and climb on each other, and that’s fine. Puppies of vastly different sizes can play happily together. But if a puppy seems interested only in humping or pinning other puppies and is doing it over and over, or constantly seeks out a specific puppy to mount, that puppy needs a break. And possibly larger, older playmates who will teach and enforce more acceptable play rules.

Puppy play groups are a great way for puppies to work on their social skills while working off a fraction of that endless puppy energy. Don’t avoid them because you are worried that your delicate baby might get hurt — but do pay attention and intervene when needed. In fact, that guidance serves beyond puppyhood and in any situation where dogs of any age are playing together.

The Garden Is Going to the Dogs!

Cali, under the blossoming cherry trees, with her tennis ball.

It’s February in Montana, so reading an article about planning a “sensory garden” for dogs was a nice escape from the cold. Since Cali has staked her claim to the back yard of our house, though, and much landscaping is needed, it’s also great inspiration.

The first piece of advice is to watch how the dog uses the space — where she hangs out, where and what she sniffs. That’s easy. Cali’s favorite spot is under the cherry trees and next to the raspberries. In the summer, her favorite spot is in the raspberries, harvesting and eating as many berries as she can reach. But even in the winter, she’s most likely to be found in that corner of the garden.

Then, plan ways to enrich the garden for her enjoyment and mental stimulation. This means stimulating all of her senses.

Foremost for dogs is, of course, smell. Plant things that she enjoys sniffing. Ideally, plant several plants and flowers that will bloom and grow at different times of the year. Here in Montana, that’s a fairly small part of the year, so other senses will have to dominate in the winter.

For visual stimulation, the author of the article suggests rocks, logs, items of different heights to create variation.

To stimulate hearing, she suggests running water, wind chimes, or rustling plants. Those wouldn’t really work too well in a Montana winter either, but in our somewhat urban neighborhood, there is plenty of aural stimulation.

Cali surveys her yard from the deck
When not under the cherry trees, Cali enjoys her perch on the deck

Taste is a tough one. I have always discouraged my dogs from sampling the garden plants. Timo, my first dog, loved lemon verbena and once ate every single leaf from a small plant. The plant did not survive the assault, but Timo and the larger one coexisted happily for many years. As a puppy, Jana enjoyed harvesting strawberries and blackberries in our garden. Cali enjoys the cherries and raspberries in season, of course. But the suggestions of verbena, thyme, and other safe and appealing plants are worth considering.

Finally, tactile stimulation is essential. Cali loves to dig; I have thought about creating a digging spot for her in the garden. Another suggestion is using a variety of textures — grass, mulch (check and check) and paths made of stones or crushed granite, or even sand. We can definitely work more of that into our landscaping.

A final suggestion is creating opportunities for the dog to run around. When Cali has friends over, they do create a sort of circuit, looping into the cherry-tree corner and under the clotheslines.

Some other things to consider:

  • Know which plants are toxic to dogs and avoid these.
  • Use raised beds, pots, or plant borders to steer dogs away from no-go zones, like the vegetable patch. Interestingly, though Cali dug up all our baby tomato plants the day we planted them, she never bothered the vegetable gardens after that, even though she loves cucumbers, and the cukes were well within her reach. She quickly learned that the raised beds were my turf.
  • Consider your dog’s age and activity level. For some dogs, simple agility equipment or things they can climb or jump onto are a good addition.

The garden can be very appealing to humans, too. But too many yards are designed only for the people in the family. Since Cali spends exponentially more time in our yard than I do, it’s only fair to create a place she will enjoy fully!

3-Way Tug

Most of us probably think of “playing tug” as a one-person, one-dog game. Or a two-dog game. Or a two-team game: Those tug-o-war contests in management courses that intend to build teamwork feature two teams — two teams that are pitted against one another. It’s a reasonable understanding. The players are tugging at opposite ends of a rope, after all. There are only two ends.

But what happens when there are three dogs?

Option 1, one dog gets left out, is unacceptable.

Option 1a, the left-out dog has to play with Mom, is even worse.

Option 2, the third dog hassles the other two and badgers them into giving up their game, ends up making everyone miserable.

Enterprising dogs come up with Option 3, a solution that is better in so many ways.

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Option 3 is three-way tug. All three dogs get to engage, play, tug on the rope. No one wins. No one loses. No one is left out. Instead of tug being a zero-sum game, tug becomes an enjoyable, collaborative activity. The goal is having fun. And the more fun each dog has, the more fun they all have. Everyone wins. But Mom/auntie gets left out.

Actually, that is not true either. Mom gets to sit on the sidelines and take photos and enjoy the dogs enjoying themselves.

Truly, everyone wins.

So, what did I learn from watching Cali and her cousins invent and play three-way tug?

  • There are many ways to solve a problem.
  • It’s possible to find a solution that benefits everyone.
  • Collaboration is rewarding and, in some cases, a lot of fun.
  • Rather than sulking over being left out or bullying your friends, it’s possible to change the dynamic to something more positive.
  • Having fun until you’re too tired to stand, then taking a nice nap, is a better way to spend the afternoon than arguing or feeling resentful.
  • Dogs are smarter than people.

OK, I already knew that last one.

Dogs are great problem-solvers. They live in the moment and want to be part of whatever fun thing is happening. Maybe the solution was obvious; it didn’t take long for these three doggy friends to come up with it.

But if it’s so obvious, how come none of us ever thought of three-way tug?

 

 

Is Cali a Wagg’n Dog?

Cali plays with a new friend at Wagg'n indoor dog park

Last week, I wrote about dog parks in general. Here, I want to share Cali’s experience with an indoor dog park, Wagg’n, in Missoula. I think the concept is great. Missoula, Montana, has a lot of winter. Cold, gray winter. Plenty of fluffy snowy winter, too, the kind of days we want to play outside. But when it was 7 degrees, I was really happy to have an indoor play space available.

The park is set up nicely. It’s a huge warehouse-type space with a high ceiling — including several skylights, so it’s bright — and it is bright and clean. The floor is matted with recycled rubber mats, and there’s a potty area with fake grass, an efficient enzymatic cleaning system, and drinking fountains. It does not smell doggy or kennel-ey at all. There’s a double gate at the entrance, and there are always at least two staffers, usually three, on hand.

On the rare occasions that a dog has gotten out of hand while I’ve been there, the staff are calm and professional in how they de-escalate. I have never seen any dog show aggression while I’ve been there. The worst I’ve seen is overly exuberant play or a dog that keeps trying to engage another dog who is clearly saying he’s not interested, is overwhelmed, or is stressed out.

I have seen several dogs show signs of stress, however. Including Cali. Some dogs there for daycare spend their time under a sofa or on the lap of any available human, for example. Others hang out at the gate, trying to escape. Not good.

Cali is a bit of an enigma. She gets excited when we drive there, and she clearly knows where we’re going (it’s out by the Missoula airport in the middle of nowhere … we never drive that way when we’re going anywhere but Wagg’n). She’s excited when we get out of the car and happily — excitedly — greets the owner and staff. Then … she hangs back a bit when we head into the play area. She likes to be on the sofa or a bench, often with me, at first. Within a few minutes, though, she jumps into the fray and chooses a dog to play with. She can be a little bratty and pushy if the chosen dog doesn’t reciprocate … leading to intervention from me, Cali getting back on the sofa, etc.

She enjoys the playtime. She also spends a lot of time with me on the chairs there, drooling (a sign that she’s excited and/or stressed). She wants to go there, but while we’re there, I watch her pretty closely. When she’s had enough, which can be after 15 minutes or after an hour and a half, she wants to go. Now.

I wouldn’t leave Cali there all day for daycare or board her there. She’d be overwhelmed by that much stimulation and social time. Other dogs are fine with it; many of the regulars are happy and cheerful whenever I see them. But as a place to take a break, stretch her legs, and play, it’s great. And very necessary during a long, cold winter!

Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.

The current issue of the Whole Dog Journal has a section on dog parks. Though the article itself offers solid commentary and advice (of course it does; Pat Miller wrote it!), the sidebar with comments from several trainers is pretty negative. I’ve been to a lot of dog parks, so I figured this was a good chance to weigh in.

If you are thinking about heading out to the dog park, start with Miller’s seven things to consider, but don’t neglect an honest look at your dog(s), the dog’s needs, and your own circumstances.

My best dog park experience was in Petaluma, where Jana, Cali, and I walked to a local park every day (sometimes twice!). The park has posted off-leash dog run hours and is mostly fenced. When we discovered it shortly after moving to Petaluma, a regular group of dogs and their people could be found there. We soon became part of the 8 am crowd. Jana greeted each human and inspected their pockets and hands for treats, Cali occasionally played with suitable dogs but mostly bugged me to throw her ball, and I got to hang out with some fun and interesting dog-loving people. Over the three and a half years we lived in Petaluma, dogs passed away, new puppies joined the crowd, and the human group changed. Toward the end of our time there, Jana was gone, and Cali found the group of mainly young, high-energy dogs less to her liking. I was working in an office, so we went much earlier in the morning on weekdays and had the place mostly to ourselves. Weekends were more challenging.

Now, in our first Missoula, Montana, winter, we’ve joined Wagg’n, an indoor dog park. It’s also a daycare and boarding business, so the mix of dogs varies. We’re getting to know some of the daycare regulars, and Cali and I each have our favorites. Like the Petaluma park, it’s not divided into small- and large-dog areas, which would worry me more if I had a small dog. Cali’s not that interested in boisterous group play, but she usually finds one or two smaller dogs, goldens, or Labs to play with (she’s kind of a doggy racist and likes only retrievers and little dogs). Being inside changes the nature of the space considerably; it’s echo-ey in a way that an outdoor park is not, and dogs do play differently on the rubber-matted floor (with a nicely designed astroturf potty area) than they would on grass or dirt.

Before the weather turned cold and mornings became dark, we went to Jacob’s Island, Missoula’s downtown dog park, several times a week. We went early, though, on purpose, so Cali and I could play ball without her having to worry that some other dog would “steal” her ball.

These are my primary experiences of having a “regular” park, but I’ve been a drop-in visitor at dozens of dog parks. I’ve driven cross country multiple times with multiple dogs. And when traveling with dogs anywhere that’s more than about 4 hours, I generally look for a place to let the dog run and stretch her legs. Visiting dog parks “on the way” does not allow for the type of research that Miller advises, but I approach these visits as I would any new place I take my dogs. I watch for a few minutes to get a sense of the energy level, see what kinds of play the dogs are engaged in, and I look at whether the people are paying attention to their dogs or just looking at phones or talking to each other and “letting dogs be dogs.”

Like the trainers quoted in the WDJ article, I’ve heard lots of dog park horror stories, and I know that a bad experience can lead to serious injury (or worse); at minimum, it can set back your training and socialization goals considerable, shake your dog’s confidence, or lead him to fear other dogs. Though I have never personally had a bad dog park experience, I am not unaware of the risks.

I won’t take a dog into a park where I see lots of wild or rough play or people who are not paying attention to the dogs. If I cannot tell which people go with which dogs, I take that as a bad sign. The people need to be obviously watching what is going on with their dogs; otherwise, how can they intervene if needed? The person has to be the dog’s advocate and protector in any social situation, whether with other dogs or with humans (especially if children are around). I’ve leashed up my dogs and left parks where the dynamic changes, a particularly troublesome dog enters, or I feel that things are getting too wild.

At the same time, looking for dog parks is as much a part of my road-trip planning as looking for pet-friendly hotels. I can’t imagine asking my dog to spend 8-10 hours in the car without giving her a chance to run and play. Often, just wanting to throw the ball for a few minutes, I look for a corner or end of the park with fewer dogs and head there. If another dog seems overly interested in Cali’s ball, rather than subject her to the stress of worrying about it, I’ll pick up the ball and instead lead Cali on a brisk walk around the perimeter of the park.

The bottom line is that, while aware of potential problems with dog parks, I am usually willing to try out a park and find a way to make it work for my dog and our needs at the moment. I’d never leave Cali unsupervised, and that means no phone either — eyes on the dog at all times (I do sometimes take photos). It also means watching other dogs and intervening if they are rough, pushy, or overwhelming to Cali. Finally, it means being ready to pick up and leave quickly if necessary.

Two Rude Jerks Go Out For a Walk

As Cali and I were walking to the park, we saw a woman with a small terrier-looking dog. I said hello and she did too. Cali was taking a long sniff of the grass near some trash bins, so I moved aside to let them pass.

As we walked behind them, I noticed that the little dog kept picking up his rear right paw. He had impeccable leash manners, which means that the woman wouldn’t be able to see his back paws, since he was walking right next to her (paying attention, Cali?). Also, despite a lot of rain this winter, dry season has arrived. Stiff grass stubble is everywhere, as are foxtails. Cali comes home from walks full of tiny burrs. In other words, prickly things that could easily get embedded in a paw are everywhere.

So I said to the woman, “Your dog is picking up his paw; he might have something stuck in it.”

Her reply: “I’m a good pet owner.”

Is it me or was that an oddly hostile and/or defensive response? Quashing the impulse to say something defensive in return, I said, “I thought he might have a thorn or something in it. That happens to my dog a lot around here.”

She softened a little, I think, and told me that her dog has a congenital knee problem and that’s why he does that.

But, really, is the assumption that I am criticizing your parenting the go-to response for most people? That’s a sad comment on society.

Or maybe it is me. Because, a few blocks later, we encountered another dog walker. As I tend to, I detoured into the street to avoid passing close to an unfamiliar dog on a narrow stretch of the sidewalk. The other walker said, two or three times, “He’s friendly.”

When we were closer, I said, “My dog is nervous around unfamiliar dogs.”

All perfectly normal … except the implication that I was assuming negative things about her dog. Do I radiate an air of disapproval and judgment? (Please do not answer that question.)

The last encounter in this bizarrely social morning was at the park. This time, Cali was the jerk, running off an overly friendly poodle who showed too much interest in her ball. The joke was on Cali, though, because, while she was running him off and then I was reprimanding her, Maui, a dog Cali used to consider a friend, actually stole her ball. We beat an embarrassed retreat before she could challenge Maui to a duel.

I am going back to 7 a.m. walks; the park is empty and the other dog walkers are also trying to avoid dog encounters. That all makes it easier to avoid offending the entire dog and dog-owning population of Petaluma.