Snuffleupagus

I always loved Mr. Snuffleupagus. Maybe that’s why I immediately found the idea of a snuffle mat appealing; I like the name. Too lazy to make one, I’d sort of been looking to get one for Cali, but hadn’t actually done anything.

Then, at my friend Tom’s house, I saw one for the first time. I knew that Cali would love it. The idea is that you bury kibble or treats in the mass of fleece strips, and the dog uses her nose to sniff and snuffle — and find the treats.

Cali loves food (she’s a golden, after all) and she loves using her nose. Perfect.

Tom told me that he got it from a fellow trainer who lives nearby. That’s “nearby” in Montana terms, which may not mean what you think it does.

In any case, Deni and I decided to take a nice drive one Sunday afternoon. We met trainer Joni Muir, who makes these mats during long Montana winters. We chose two colorful mats and were on our way.

Unsurprisingly, the highly food-focused girls needed little guidance. Their noses work just fine, thank you.

I took Cali’s upstairs. While I’m working, she often hangs out with me. When we need a break, I take a few minutes to hide treats in the fleece forest. I keep telling her not to watch while I hide them, but she doesn’t listen.

She then spends about 10 minutes finding them. She first does a survey of the entire mat and nabs the obvious ones. I’m using Charlee Bear treats, and they are always tucked out of sight. So the obvious ones are not obvious to me.

She then does a methodical up-and-down sniff of the entire mat, in rows. Then a second survey in columns. She is very thorough. Only once have I found a single overlooked (oversmelled?) Charlee Bear.

Koala joined us upstairs a few times while Deni was away, and I set them both up with their mats. Cali was a little pushy and got started a few seconds ahead of Koala, the instant I put the first mat on the floor. Even so, I think they had a photo finish, both scenting and scarfing their treats in a few minutes.

I suspect that, the more we use the mats, the more they will smell like food and the harder the girls will have to work to suss out the hidden treats. But their noses are so much more sensitive than mine that I can only speculate. Freshly hidden treat could smell completely different from day- or days-old treat residue. Only the dogs know!

 

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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.)

 

 

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

There should not be any free lunches. No free breakfasts or dinners either, not for high-energy puppies whose humans work and who therefore have excess energy to burn. Note that “puppy,” as used here, can apply to a dog of any dog of high energy and limited exercise opportunities.

My friends have a new puppy. Another friend is getting one next weekend. What possesses people to get puppies in Montana, just as winter is settling in, I will never understand. These puppies will have lots of energy. The weather will be cold and gray. When my friends get home from work, darkness will have fallen. It will still be there when they leave the next morning.

That means the puppy needs to play inside. Fetch games with soft toys are great, and teaching her to play “tug” might be a good idea. But it’s not enough. That’s where the “no free food” idea is key.

Many, many treat toy options are out there. These all operate on a simple principle: Humans put food inside the toy; puppies and dogs work to get it out, burning energy and developing their problem-solving skills in the process. They chew, lick, paw, chase … and don’t chew shoes or pillows, shred their beds or the furniture, or paw and dismember the furniture. They expend their energy in a desirable manner. Everyone wins.

The trick is figuring out which toys your dog will like. Jana was easy. Was there food in it? She liked it. The only problem was, she could also empty and spit-polish any treat toy in about 3 seconds flat.

Cali is less willing to work for her meals. She’ll leave a partially emptied Kong and wander off to do something more interesting. More interesting than food?! For a golden? Weird, right? She’s more engaged by the toys that randomly dispense kibble as the dog rolls and bats them around. Koala gets her lunch in one of those every day.

When a longtime friend had two young Labradors, she also kept her freezer filled with Kongs stuffed with kibble and peanut butter. Jana liked those, as well as kibble softened with broth and frozen. Freezing it slows the dog down. (A little. If she’s not Jana.) Want more creative — and more challenging — fillings? Google “Kong recipes.” It’s a thing. Really.

If you have a high-energy dog or a young puppy, pick out a few treat toys at your nearest pet store (or online) and try them out. Spending 15 minutes once every several days prepping the toys is an investment that will really pay off. Feed each meal (or part of each meal) in the toy, and encourage the dog to work for it. Feed from a bowl only after the dog has emptied the toy and only if you can’t reasonable feed him all he needs in treat toys. You’ll soon notice a calmer, better-behaved dog. Which naturally leads to a calmer, happier you.

 

Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!

It’s All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. She had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.

 

No More Toys

It’s so obvious that even the young girl at the park knew it: Taking toys to the dog park is a bad idea because the dogs might fight over them. So spoke the wise sage, who couldn’t have been older than eight.

And yet, for months (years?), I’ve been taking Cali to the park to play ball. She’s obsessed with her ball. Only her ball; she won’t touch any other ball. And when she’s there, she gets nervous if too many other dogs are playing nearby. They might take her ball. It has happened; and, with some dogs, it’s a challenge to get her precious ball back.

With all that I know about dogs, you’d think I would see the writing on the wall. Smell the coffee. Choose your cliché. I didn’t, until this morning, when Cali actually lunged at another dog.

Yes. Sweet, gentle Cali, who loves all humans and nearly all non-humans. Who wants to befriend the cats and birds and squirrels that Jana is trying so hard to chase. Cali, who comically crouches and grovels, trying to convince tiny Chihuahuas and toy poodles that she’s eager to play with or submit to — not harm — them.

Barley, who owns the above-mentioned wise child and their mom, is a goofy, energetic, one-year-old golden doodle. He’s at that precarious stage where he’s lost his “puppy license” but doesn’t yet understand all the rules of civilized dog play. When he gets out of bounds, the grown-up dogs at the park reprimand him rather than tolerating the puppyish misbehavior. Most are very appropriate; he usually reacts well, and the play continues. We are very lucky to have an extremely nice group of regular dogs and dog parents, and the dog play is nearly always healthy and energetic; I’ve rarely seen dogs behave aggressively.

Barley was inviting Cali to play. His energy might well have been too much for her; she’s pretty sensitive. But she usually just hunkers protectively over her ball and ignores the other dogs. Or picks up her ball and walks away.

At least, she did. Until today.

Barley ran by, seemingly trying to take her ball, and she jumped up and barked. She might have even growled a little. Cali!

I scolded her and was on my way over to leash her up and go when … she did it again! Barley’s mom was very nice about it, but I was mortified. Cali usually has better manners than that. And I should know better.

The truth is, I had been thinking about leaving the ball at home. I was not expecting Cali to lash out at another dog, but I was hoping to encourage her to play with the other dogs. When Alberta is here, Alberta plays with other dogs and tries to get Cali involved. It seems like such a great way for Cali to get exercise. A lot better than lying in the grass clutching her ball, anyhow.

So that’s it. No more toys at the dog park for Cali. And a big bonk on the head with a rolled-up newspaper for me.

What Is Dognition?

Jana dognition
In last week’s post, If Cali Were Brian Hare’s Dog…, I mentioned Dognition. What is it?
First: full disclosure. Jana and I were among the beta testers of the site, for which we received no pay, but Jana did receive the bandanna she’s shown wearing above. This is not a paid post or advertisement. It is my opinion, based on my experience with the site.
Brian Hare, whom I wrote about last week, is the co-founder and chief science officer. Dognition is a site that studies canine cognition through a series of games and experiments that site members do with their dogs, at home. The Dognition team includes some innovative canine cognition researchers. It is a clever way to gather a huge amount of information about a large variety of dogs. It’s also (usually) fun.
The initial set of games and exercises creates a “profile” of your dog. There are nine profile types, ranging from the “Ace,” a problem-solver with strong communication skills, to the “Protodog,” who, according to the brief description on the site, is “reminiscent of the first dogs that began their relationship with early mankind.” I am guessing that that’s a nice way of saying “can’t follow human gestures.” The writers on the site excel at couching bad news (“your dog flunked this test”) in very positive terms.
Renaissance DogJana is a Renaissance dog, good at a little bit of everything. I never finished the profile exercises for Cali, though.
The reasons are, I think, the site’s biggest drawback: Nearly all of the games require two people, and they are very hard to do alone. The site steps you through each set of exercises, and you have to enter information about your dog’s response before getting the next prompt. Another drawback (especially for multiple dog households) is that the exercises are repetitive.
I get it. They want data that they can use. They usually have a baseline exercise, which you do a few times, then the real one, which might have a few variations. For example, you might put a treat under a cup while showing the dog where it is. Then you might introduce a second cup, but still show the dog where the treat is. Then you might pretend to put treats under both cups but point to the right cup. Then you have someone hold the dog where she can’t see you and you hide the treat and point to the correct cup … you get the picture. You do each step three to five times. Jana can lose patience. When I am testing one dog, the other rapidly loses patience as she waits (and waits, and waits) for her turn. And I don’t have a second person here to cover Jana’s eyes or whatever else is needed.
So, those problems aside, I have learned a lot from Dognition. The site includes lots of articles and information on canine cognition. They do a good job of explaining the science behind the games and the profiles. And they send occasional tips, games, and suggestions that can be done by one person. I’ve gotten some great ideas for games to play with Jana and Cali and experiments to do with my students and their dogs. And I enjoyed finding watching Jana’s progress through the exercises. I’m curious about how much usable data the Dognition team has gathered and how they are using it.