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.)

 

 

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.

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.

 

A New Puppy!

No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.

Socialization

We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!

Food

We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.

Toys

I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.

A play pen

Little Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's dog bed
Cali appreciated the comfort of her big sister’s dog bed from her first day home. She never chewed on or ripped it. Not all puppies are as wise.

I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!

Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.

Grooming

I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.

Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.

Sleep

I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.

It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.

Buyer Beware!

Cali came from the best breeder I know! Do your research before taking home an adorable puppy.

I shouldn’t even need to say this … but don’t ever buy a puppy online.

First of all, you’re exposing yourself to scams. Unfortunately, internet fraud is very, very common, and people are not above making a buck by offering nonexistent puppies for sale to gullible people, lured in with adorable puppy photos. Read more in this Washington Post article, “How much is that doggy on the website.”

A law passed a few years ago attempted to crack down on internet puppy sales by requiring that seller have a physical location where buyers could see and pick up the puppies, but that’s hard to enforce.

A second problem with puppy purchases is, of course, the likelihood of purchasing a puppy mill puppy. This is terrible for so many reasons, among them: It feeds a business model that is based on mistreating dogs; the breeding dogs are often not only mistreated, they are unhealthy and could pass genetic, temperamental, and other flaws on to their puppies; and the puppies’ first weeks are spent in unhealthy, frightening, and damaging conditions. This makes everything from house training to manners and socialization far more challenging and sets up new puppy owners for a lot of unnecessary challenges and, often, failure.

One way to avoid puppy mill puppies is not purchasing online. Another is not purchasing at pet stores. If the risk of puppy mill puppies isn’t enough to convince you, consider that you and your family could also get sick. Another Washington Post article (shout out here to the best newspaper in America!) has more: “People are getting sick from a bacterial disease — and pet-store puppies might be to blame.”

Where should you get a puppy?

If you are particular about getting a specific breed, look for a reputable breeder. Good signs include:

  • Very thorough interview before breeder will even consider selling you a puppy
  • Breeder will not ship puppy to you; you must pick up the puppy in person
  • Breeder does not breed huge numbers of litters
  • Breeder insists on taking puppy back if you change your mind
  • Breeder knows where “her” dogs are; all of them, even older puppies whelped years ago
  • Breeder can prove that genetic and health checks are done on all breeding dogs
  • Even better — you know dogs who came from this breeder

If you’re less attached to getting a purebred puppy, look at breed rescue and other shelters and rescues in your area. The plus: you will meet your dog before taking him home. The minus: no guarantees on breeding, health, temperament, or early experiences. These dogs could come with a lot of baggage. Then again, so can a well-bred puppy. Don’t believe me? Read The Education of Will for a harrowing example.

The bottom line is, there are no guarantees, but choosing your puppy carefully is an essential first step. Relationships are hard, even when they’re with adorable four-footed fuzzballs.

 

Cali Overcomes a Setback

Regular readers may be following the saga of Cali at the dog park. To bring the ball or not to bring the ball?

After getting some wonderful feedback from several readers, I decided to give the “no ball” regimen another shot. I stopped taking the ball to the park and started actively encouraging Cali to play with other dogs.

An important note here: I go to the same park at roughly the same time nearly every day. The same group of dogs is there. Occasionally, I am early or late, or there’s a new dog or an infrequent visitor. But I know most of the dogs there. A dog park with lots of unfamiliar dogs would not necessarily be a good place to encourage a shy dog to play with other dogs. But (mostly) I know that the dogs — and owners — are good people.

So, after several days spent mainly with Cali sitting, staring at me, willing me, trying to mind meld me: “Throw a ball … Throw a ball” while I talked to the amused other dog people, it happened. She played with another dog. 

She played with Daisy, a sweet Rhodesian ridgeback. She played with Zoe, a small mixed-breed. She had a great time with Bella, a gorgeous young Bernese mountain dog. She even played with Ronen, a large black Lab who’s a good friend of Alberta’s but more energetic than Cali usually will tolerate. She ran in circles around Lola and Lila and Lizzie as they played, barking and play bowing, but lacking the confidence to fully join in. She tried to engage other dogs, too, not always sure but definitely making the effort.

These bursts of play were short, but exhilarating. She returned, panting and smiling, to sit next to me and, yes, stare and mind-meld. But it was great progress.

Then the husky showed up.

I’d seen this young female husky a few times, and she seemed intense and high-energy, but otherwise fine. On this morning, though, her mom had decided to bring treats (really good ones, it seems) to try to work on the young dog’s recall.

Mom pulled out treats. Cali wandered over to investigate. I called Cali back. She came (good girl!!) but then wandered over again. Mom was calling her dog all this time. I called Cali back but, before she came back to me, the Husky saw Mom, treats — and another dog closing in. She attacked. I called Cali again, Cali ran toward me, but the husky ran after her and grabbed her again. Cali cried. I screamed at the husky as I ran toward them. I had a leash in my hand and swatted at the husky, who backed up. I grabbed Cali.

Cali and I went over to our usual group of people and I checked her for damage (there was none) and we all told her what a good girl she was. We then left. I was worried that the experience would dampen her enthusiasm for the park and make her fear other dogs.

On the walk home, she warily eyed a friendly dog who wanted to say hi. She tucked her tail and looked at me. We kept our distance.

But the next morning, she was eager to go to the park. We were early, and there were few dogs there, but she did play with a small terrier mix. The next morning, our usual friends were there, and Cali played briefly with a new puppy on her first visit to the park. And she barked and circled Lola and her friends as they played. So it seems that the attack hasn’t slowed Cali’s progress. What a relief.

Even so, if I see any huskies in the park, I am steering clear.

Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.