Ways to Challenge Your Dog’s Mind and Body

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“But we walk him every day!” Many clients are confused or stuck as to why their dog still seems frustrated, bored or anxious even though they are getting their daily walk and family time. What may seem like enough to you may not be enough for your dog. Exercising your dog’s muscles is one thing, but what about his brain?

To really fulfill and satisfy your dog’s instincts and keep him stable and happy, we need to think about things from his point of view. In a natural situation he would be getting hours of exercise and socialising, as well as sniffing, discovering, hunting, problem solving and playing. This would all be done in an area much larger than the average backyard, so when you think “but we walk him for an hour every day” it may not be enough for your dog! Pack animals are designed to be just that, part of a pack – being alone would happen rarely and lead to vulnerability and stress.

Ways to Challenge Your DogNo amount of “training” can make up for a simple case of being bored or having unused energy, and this excess has to come out somewhere. Digging, chewing, barking, hyperactivity and aggression can very often be a direct result of not having the most basic of needs met.

Dogs have the intellectual and emotional capability of a human toddler, and if we considered leaving a toddler at home for hours at a time with no stimulation, security or company, it quickly hits home. We have unintentionally created an epidemic of canine prisoners, and we need to step up and become more aware of and responsible for our dogs’ mental health and well being, as well as their physical health.

Now we’ve thought a bit more about it, there are some simple yet powerful things you can do with your dogs to help them out.

Here are a few ideas to get you started!

*Most of these activities will suit all dogs, but feel free to add and modify things to suit your dog’s own breed or skill set and natural instincts. For example a border collie or kelpie will particularly enjoy chasing and focusing intensely on a specific target and will need high amounts of mental challenge, a terrier will enjoy short bursts of high physical intensity such as finding an object, tug of war and shaking, a husky will enjoy long challenging activities that cover a lot of ground and need stamina such as bike riding, pulling or hiking, and a beagle will want to use his nose to track and zone out while he finds the treasure. Variety is the key, break it up and experiment to find out what fulfils your dog!

  • Being with you. Involve your dog in as much as possible, even if they are just observing.
  • More time indoors. A dog who spends all of his time outside really needs another dog  for company, or you may need to consider allowing him to come inside to be with you when you’re home. If bad behaviour is preventing this, get some help! It’s much easier than you think to achieve a calm and well behaved inside dog. One or 2 hours when you go outside to interact with him unfortunately just won’t cut it, what’s he meant to do for the other 22 hours?
  • Get another dog. If you really can’t see yourself being able to handle another dog long term, or you’re unsure of the extra commitment or how it will impact on your current dog, consider fostering. This way you can see if the new dog fits in with your current situation and lifestyle, and not be bound. If you move or the new dog doesn’t get along with your current dog, you can swap or move it onto another fosterer. It is a myth that most foster or shelter dogs have issues, we see many great family dogs, that are simply rehomed due to unforseen circumstances. And some foster care organisations will even pay all expenses, all you need to do is care for the dog. A win-win.
  • Set your alarm an hour (or 2 !) earlier. Age, breed and energy level area all factors that will determine how much exercise your individual dog will need to be fulfilled. You may need to double or triple what you think is enough. Let’s face it, we could all do with more exercise ourselves!
  • Rides in the car. Even if it’s a quick trip to the shop to get milk, it counts. It gets your dog out of the house, allows exciting new smell and sight experiences and helps to practise being left alone for small amounts of time.
  • Chewing. Bones, bones, bones! Many people underestimate their dog’s need to chew. This seemingly basic activity not only relieves boredom and frustration but is extremely pleasurable and releases endorphins, as well as cleaning teeth and providing nutrition. If your dog has enough raw meaty bones in his life (Denta sticks and processed alternatives are not in the same league), it is very unlikely he will need to chew any of your stuff or release this frustration in other ways such as barking or digging. If you’re worried he’ll bury it and dig up your garden, tie him up temporarily while he has the bone and then take it away. (This is also a good idea if you have dogs who may fight over bones, this way they don’t miss out).
  • Tracking (searching by smell). We tend to forget that dogs spend a great amount of time in nature using their nose – to find mates, food and identify other dogs and territory. Create lots of opportunity for your dog to use his/her nose! For eg – Rather than just give them their meal “on a silver platter” so to speak, make them seek and find it! A great way to do this is to hide their food in as large an area as possible (the average backyard is fine but for a treat go and do it at a quiet park) and then ask your dog to go find it. It can be treats, the kibble portion of their diet or even a bone. If you are giving your dog ample sniffing time as part of structured “free” time, this may be enough, however most dogs will benefit from the added mental challenge of finding a specific target. Food is the obvious natural choice here, but this game can easily be modified into hide and seek with a favourite toy or ball also, and is great for structured indoor time. Make it easy at first until your dog understands the concept, and then adjust the difficulty so there is always an element of challenge. Hide the item under a blanket, under a bucket, in a box of scrunched up newspaper, up high somewhere etc to encourage problem solving and interest. And no peeking!
  • Ball throwing, games and toys. These are great and provide a balance of intensity to compliment other calm activities such as walking by your side. However! Make sure you keep these (calm vs high energy) in balance so you don’t end up with super fit but hyperactive dogs. We need to exercise their brains too, not just their bodies. It’s a good idea to keep specific toys you use to interact with your dog away (balls, tug of war toys) and bring them out when YOU decide to play rather than leaving them with your dog between sessions.  Ask your dog to be calm and wait for you give the signal to “go”. It is not ok for them to jump up and madly try to grab it as soon as they see it. End with calm. It helps to have a signal for this (I say “that’s enough” and give a hand signal) so your dog learns that he needs to switch from high energy to low energy when you say so. You may need to be fairly patient here at first until your dog gets it. When he is calm, put the toys away. A good tip is to always end the game BEFORE your dog is tired or bored, to ensure a positive and fresh response the next time.
  • Wearing a back-pack on walks. I have used these on all types of dogs with good results, especially those who seem to need the extra physical challenge. It gives your dog a “job” and drains more energy. And so handy to have your dog carry your keys, water, doggie bags and mobile! Be sure to buy one that sits forward and allows the weight to be carried over the dog’s shoulders where they are the strongest. We like BlackDog backpacks (order on our dog training products page).
  • Treadmill. Yes a treadmill! If you struggle to get outside enough to give your dog the exercise they need (long work hours, bad weather, illness etc) then get yourself a 2nd hand treadmill and teach your dog to work out this way. Obviously not the same as a real walk, however it is a fantastic alternative. Mentally challenging as well – it takes concentration and focus, and if you want to amp it up, add a backpack and put it on incline. First impressions count here, so take your time and make the experience and association positive. Be confident and take control of the situation to let your dog know he can relax and trust you. Let him feel he’s doing a job for you. Start with less than 5 mins and add a few minutes each few sessions when you feel your dog can happily handle more, building up to 20 mins or so. Always stop before your dog has had enough to ensure a fresh attitude next time. Many clients have had good success with hard to manage dogs by using this first to ‘take the edge off’ before going out. We use this at home ourselves to add some variety and challenge.
  • Obedience classes, flyball, agility and even Dances with Dogs! Treat these like a hockey game for your kids, don’t rely on them for good behaviour at home but they’re a great activity to do together! Dog Obedience Classes get you out and meeting new people too. Look online to find out what is around your local area.
  • Cycling or skateboarding with your dog. This is a fantastic way to burn more energy, add variety and add intensity. Make sure your dog walks at heel well first, start slowly and build up speed. To make the activity even safer and easier, there are some great bike attachments for dogs on the market such as the Springer or the Walky Dog  Bike Trainer.
  • Be creative and have fun! There are so many websites and links with heaps of other ideas for mental stimulation and different things to do with your dog. Enjoy!

Author: Emma Tucker

Emma has a deep understanding and passion for dog and human psychology and the way these relationships reflect each other. Her knowledge of dog behaviour is 2nd to none.

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