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.)



Over the Top

Jana, a white golden retriever, smile happily as she shows off the sand coating her entire body.
Jana was happiest at the beach, covered in as much sand as she could rub into her fur.

Two people sent me this article for the July 4 New York Times on the absurd lengths that people go to to “pamper” their pets. I am skeptical that it is truly pampering for many (most?) pets. It’s really what the human owners think of as pampering or as necessary; I do not think that the pets themselves would choose … OK, where do I start:

Neuticals? Too easy. These fake manly bits exist exclusively for the humans who cannot get past the horror of neutering … a human. Dogs don’t care. In fact, dogs who suffer miserably when forced to live in a human world following human rules are generally far less frustrated, less anxious, and possibly less aggressive post-alteration. Many more of them actually get to remain in their comfy homes, too.

Gender non-conforming pets? Since the reasons given for what is termed “gender reassignment surgery” in pets sound plausibly medically justified, I am not too upset about the examples given. But the discussion of gender-(non)conformity and pets is … absurd. The ideas of gender come from the humans. The dogs go about their doggy lives peeing in whatever position  works best for them and don’t give each other any grief about how (or where) they do it. We could learn from them. And, yes, they mount one another, even if they are female. It’s not all about sex; sometimes it’s about status or control. It’s a very doggy thing to do, even if it is rude.

The idiotic haircuts and styling are a step too far. Even dogs who enjoy going to the groomer — and most dogs don’t — don’t need all that fuss and oh-so-human bother. Let dogs be dogs.

Which brings us to the worst offense: Cosmetic surgery. I cannot believe there are vets who would do this, but I guess in any profession, there are some who are just in it for the money. “Popular procedures include tummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts,” according to the NYT article. Seriously? Isn’t there a veterinary code of ethics? In what universe is forcing unnecessary surgery on a sentient, sensitive, loving being who cannot (and would not) consent even close to ethical?

Again: Let dogs be dogs. Want to pamper your dog? Forget the spa and the glitter. Head for the dog beach or a nice creek. Spend a couple of hours walking in a forest, preferably where the dog can safely be off leash. Heck, stay home, toss a ball for a few hours (“Heaven …” Cali murmurs), and fire up the grill. Throw an extra burger or steak on for your best buddy. (“Is that even possible …?” Cali wonders. “Does it have to be a tofu hot dog?”). Wrap up with a long belly rub (for the dog) while you watch TV together (DOGTV is not necessary or even very interesting to many dogs) or sit outside and stargaze.

Dogs love to be pampered, sure. But their idea of pampering is not the same as ours. If the spa really wanted to appeal to the dogs, they’d replace the oatmeal soak and blueberry facial with a “rotten fish roll” — and I don’t mean bread. Or, they’d swap out the mud “mask” for a (post-shampoo) chance to wallow in a mud bath — then shake off in an all-white room provisioned with a freshly laundered white bedspread and pristine rug to roll on. That’s the ticket!

A Journey — or a Destination?

Cookie, please

Jana and Cali have vastly different understandings of our morning walks. Each girl’s interpretation also describes her approach to life.

For Cali, the point of the walk is the destination. She wants to be at the park with every cell in her body. The closer we get, the harder it is for her to contain her excitement. She does her little skip-walk dance, where she bounces ahead, remembers, bounces back, walks nicely for two steps, can no longer contain her excitement, bounces ahead, remembers … I think she burns more calories doing this dance than she does at the park. Mostly because she spends too much time at the park jealously guarding her ball rather than running around chasing it.

Jana, on the other hand, is all about the journey. Even at the park, she’s on her journey. She investigates everything along the way with her full attention. Everything. Clumps of grass. Leaves, wood chips, tendrils of ivy trailing on the sidewalk, fence posts, trees … She looks and sniffs from every angle, breathing deeply and considering the nuances of the scent. Only then is she ready to move on … to the next leaf.

At the park, she sniffs and samples the grass, which is very fresh, green, and wet these days. She then rolls in it. Her favorite thing happened the other day: The mower was just finishing up, which meant that she got to roll in the freshly cut grass, turning herself light green in the process. I think “freshly cut grass” is her favorite scent. If I had shampoo that smelled like that, she’d willingly bathe every day.

Since walking the two of them presents certain logistical challenges, with one full steam ahead and the other moseying along … I tried taking them for individual walks. Jana was having none of it. She wanted to go with us. She’d bring me my boots, stand by the door, push her way out the door if I was leashing Cali, use all of her considerable expressive talent to communicate: Take me too! So maybe her walks are a little bit about the destination too.

Which is great, because Cali also has that bit of balance. Her delight in the journey is evident when we meet other people along the way. Her excitement is channeled at them as she beelines for this new best friend. Tail wagging, huge smile on her face, she eagerly waits for the person to greet her. Most do. To her credit, Cali brushes off the rare crushing rejection with aplomb. We’re on our way to the park, after all!

Older, Wiser … and Far More Painful

Opening birthday presents helps keep Jana young and happy!

We celebrated Jana’s twelfth birthday recently. Her friend Leti (also a golden retriever) just turned 15.  These girls still walk to the park nearly every day and enjoy a vigorous roll in the grass. They make the rounds, saying hello to the other dogs’ people and trying to cadge a cookie or two from each human.

I do everything I can to see that Jana’s quality of life remains high. Despite their good health, both girls are showing signs of their age. Jana has severe arthritis and wakes up feeling stiff and painful many mornings. Though she’s usually very sharp mentally, I’ve noticed a few senior moments, when she seems to be a bit confused.

Hoping to deal with both those issues — without breaking the budget — I’ve put together a regime of supplements and exercises that help Jana a lot. If you have an aging dog, some of this might be helpful. I have no veterinary training, but I do check everything with my vet and vet techs before I try it on Jana, and I recommend that you do the same:

  • Even Cali, age 2, is taking a small amount of glucosamine each morning. It helps ease joint pain. Some people take it, too, particularly for knee pain.
  • New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel. Jana takes one green mussel capsule daily, emptied onto her breakfast. Like glucosamine, it can help people and dogs with joint pain. Jana behaves very differently when she’s talking it — asking to go on walks and soliciting tug games — so I am convinced that it helps.
  • Fish oil. Each girl gets two fish oil capsules a day. The omega-3 is as beneficial for them as it is for humans, and the dogs like the fishy taste. They get sardines once or twice a week as a treat for the same reason.
  • Coconut oil. A spoonful a day is great for their skin and coat. Coconut oil also might help with brain energy and metabolism (Thanks to Tom Morrare for sending me the link to this great article!), and it has anti-inflammatory properties (in lab rats, anyhow).
  • Turmeric, another anti-inflammatory. Jana likes spicy food; for some dogs, turmeric capsules or tablets might work better than the powder. Also, the bright orange powder stains everything it touches. If your dog is prone to tummy issues, you might want to use tablets.
  • Rimadyl or one of the generic equivalents. The active ingredient, carprofen, is an NSAID for dogs. It reduces inflammation and therefore pain. It also can cause liver damage if given in high dosages or for a very long time. Since I have started giving it to Jana regularly, I will make sure to get bloodwork done every six months.
  • Cold laser therapy. Jana goes about once a month. Some dogs get it more often; some less. Figuring out the frequency is a complex formula that factors in cost and distance and time. The treatment really seems to help keep Jana limber and, if not pain-free, certainly far less painful. It stimulates blood flow, healing the tissues and reducing inflammation, thereby reducing pain. I get Jana as many laser therapy sessions as I can so I can reduce the amount of Rimadyl she takes.
  • Jana does daily exercises on an inflated exercise disc, as recommended by her laser therapist. The idea is for Jana to strengthen the muscles that support her arthritic joints. She’s also working her core and having a great time. She’ll “dance” (prance, alternating paws) and turn around on the disc and balance with front or back feet. Cali usually joins in.
  • Treat toys. There are many. Jana’s favorites are Squirrel Dude and Nobbly Nubbly, both from PetSafe, and the Kyjen Cagey Cube. Other dogs will like different toys; these are the ones that hold Jana’s interest, even if I give them to her over and over again.

There are other options that we have not tried (or haven’t tried yet) or haven’t liked: Adequan injections, for example, which is used for arthritis pain; acupuncture, which Jana didn’t react well to; surgery; massages and body work; Chinese herbal treatments … the list is long. If you find something that works for you, let the Thinking Dog know at!

The important elements are to keep the dog moving and challenged — physically and mentally — and as pain-free as possible. Jana has jobs as well: She gets the morning paper, brings my shoes when we’re getting ready to go for a walk, and picks up the bowls after each (doggy) meal. She loves interactive toys where food or a tennis ball are hidden or trapped (her favorites are mentioned above); she’ll spend a long time trying to figure them out, whereas Cali gives up much more quickly.

It’s also important to make sure your older dog has a comfortable bed (in Jana’s case, so that she can sleep next to it) and is warm in cold and damp weather. I’ve put down rubber mats so she no longer slips on the bamboo and linoleum floors. I haven’t gotten her a ramp or stairs yet, but I do have to help her into the car.

My goals are to reduce Jana’s pain without heavy use of pharmaceuticals and maintain her quality of life. I started with the supplements and only added a small amount of Rimadyl when Jana was clearly painful. I want to accomplish all of this at what I consider a reasonable cost. Obviously, this means something different to everyone. And I understand that not everyone is willing to spend several minutes measuring out supplements at each meal or hours schlepping a dog to a laser appointment. Every individual dog and family needs to figure out what works best for them.


The Happiest Dog on Earth

Calis signatiure Feb3 2015
Cali Was Here (Photo by Christina Phelps)

Cali’s pawprint from a recent beach day. It’s so fitting that her pawprint looks like a smiley face. Cali really is the happiest dog I have even known. She greets each morning (actually, since she gets up well before the sun, I could say that she anticipates each morning) with pure joy. She grabs a toy and waves it in my face or jumps on the bed to give me kisses or just wags her whole rear half — whatever works to get me out of bed. Lazy Mom.

She then grabs a favorite toy and runs outside where she runs around, wagging and smiling. (Yes, I can tell she’s smiling, even if she has a large toy in her mouth.) A few hugs and cuddles, more wags, and she’s off to take care of morning business.
Sometimes, in the afternoon, when she’s bored and I am working too much, she loses the smile and gives me the bored teenager sigh. But she perks up immediately when I say a magic word (“park” or “play” or “walk”).
Anticipation kicks in again sometimes. I apparently have a habit of saying, “OK,” when I am about to get up from the computer. It triggers a wild frenzy of dancing and tail wagging. Same thing happens — this is a bit embarrassing — when the end music to my latest Netflix TV series comes on each night. Cali might be comfortably napping on the huge memory foam dog bed (having kicked Jana off, no doubt), but at the first bars of music, she’s up and dancing toward the door.
Am I really that predictable (yes). More to the point, what does this tell us about dogs?
The ability to remember experiences, learn from them, and anticipate new ones based partly on those memories is a huge element of what makes humans conscious and engaged in society. Same thing is true for dogs. While I doubt that Cali lies around wondering what we’re doing next weekend or worrying about how we’ll pay for her next bag of SoJo’s (she leaves that to me), she often appears to anticipate good things happening in her future.
She seems to expect that, at 4 p.m., I will stop working and Play With the Dogs. At 5 p.m., dinner had better be in the bowl. While following a routine does not, in itself, mean that dogs are thinking, planning, or anticipating, it’s clear to me that she anticipates these events. And that her clock runs a bit fast.
Even more interesting is her certainty, whenever we get on 101 South, that fun things are in store for dogs. Not all car trips end up being fun for the dogs. She’s been on car trips that started with getting on 101 South … and ended in Florida, many long, dull days later. Sometimes, I just run errands. Mostly, though, we are heading to Berkeley, to visit Cali’s sister Dora or hang out with her friend Virgil. Sometimes we end up in San Francisco with Jana’s longtime pal Christine at the beach. So the odds of fun are strongly in Cali’s favor.
That’s enough for her. Cali’s sunny personality reflects her natural optimism. And what is optimism if not a belief that good things are bound to happen in the future?

Communication Goes Two Ways

An entire industry, dog training, is dedicated to teaching dogs to understand what we want. Even dog owners who don’t go to training classes or hire private trainers spend a lot of time trying to communicate to their dogs (and often being frustrated at their apparent failures). Literally hundreds of books offer tips for teaching dogs to understand what we tell them.
What about helping us understand what our dogs are saying?
Our dogs are excellent communicators. Even the ones who don’t seem all that smart because they never do what their moms and dads ask probably are reading Mom, Dad, and all other humans better than any human ever could. Those dogs are also, most likely, using their whole bodies, putting heart and soul into trying to tell those very humans what they need, want, and feel.
We’re just very poor listeners.
Dogs use their tails, their ears, their hackles, their voices to communicate. A slight lift of a lip tells a story, as do exposed teeth, a lowered head, a low, slow tail wag. Each bark, yip, and growl has a different meaning. All dog owners should strive for a general understanding of what dogs in general say with their bodies.
The most important place to start, I think, is recognizing when a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. Since some of the body language can look similar to friendly or happy dog body language, many people miss important signs.
For example, that wagging tail. It means a happy dog, right? Not always. Dogs’ tail wags are very nuanced. A tail held high and wagged fast generally means an excited or happy dog, but a lower, slower wag can be a sign of apprehension or discomfort. If the tail is stiff, or the tail is moving slowly and the rest of the dog’s body is stiff, you are not looking at a happy dog.

Cali relaxed

“Smiling dogs” are another area of confusion. If the dog’s lips are pulled back in what looks like a smile, and her eyes are soft and her tail is wagging loosely, she’s happy. But if the eyes are hard or are darting between you and someone or something else or the hackles are up, you are more likely looking at a stress smile. That dog is scared or stressed.
Take a look at these photos of Cali (when she was a much younger puppy). The right-hand photo shows her with soft eyes, and her mouth is relaxed. She looks soft. Happy. But the photo on the left (below) shows stress. Her eyes are hard and scared. Her mouth is more rigid.

Cali stress

Other signs of stress? Sweaty paws, furrowed brow, ears plastered back against the head, repeated lip licking or yawning, tail low or tucked, stiff posture, and panting. Many dogs will refuse treats in a stressful situation. Watch for avoidance behaviors: Some will sniff the ground when faced with a strange dog or even try to walk away.
A general understanding of what dogs’ body language means is important for anyone who spends time around dogs. But it’s even more valuable to invest some effort in learning your own dog’s body language and vocal vocabulary. What are her stress signs? How does she show you affection, share joy, express empathy? Learning her cues will strengthen your relationship.
Then, you can take the next step and start giving your dog ways to ask for what she needs!