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Few of us would believe that our dogs would be perfectly happy just lying around without any physical or mental stimulation, any more than we would think that our children could properly develop without play. Maybe the problem is that we can so easily plough on with our busy lives without giving it very much thought.
It’s easy to see how much our dogs love the enrichment provided by walks and by games that involve chasing and fetching toys but, in a world where so much of our time – and theirs – is spent indoors, finding a few ways to provide mental stimulation is not only a fun thing to do but also a necessary component of their wellbeing.
Enrichment is so important because it allows our dogs to be dogs, and the mental stimulation it can provide gives them something positive and meaningful to do. If we cast our minds back to how the relationship between dog and man first developed, we can see that many dogs love to work, but we may find it rather more difficult in this digital world to find useful or valuable things for them to work at.
Not only that, but, because these activities help keep the dog focused and relieve boredom, they are really useful in reducing the opportunities for our dogs to engage in unwanted or destructive behavioural issues such as barking or eating the sofa.
Here are a number of things that you can play with your dog to offer them enrichment and there’s an added bonus, as some of these activities can be useful for those days when windy or colder weather makes going out a little less attractive or in the Summer weather when it’s too hot outside to go on walks but you still wish to give your dog some enrichment in the cool of the indoors. Many of these ideas can be used either inside or outside – this can be very helpful in the variable British weather!
‘Find it’ and ‘Nose work’ exercises for dogs
‘Nose work’ games such as “find the toy” or “find the treats”. Dogs are just as individual as people and have different responses to rewards. If we compare a Labrador for whom food is a far greater motivator than toys or games, with a Springer spaniel for whom a ball is the principal focus and food/treats come a very distinctive second, then it’s easy to see how personality and/or breed traits may affect their, and your own preferences. Whichever reward you choose, allow your dog to see you hiding a number of treats or toys around the room then give the cue word to release the dog to find each one, praising him or her profusely when each one is ‘discovered’.
It’s important that you and your family use the same cue word to release the dog and that you praise the dog at each discovery so that the dog soon becomes familiar with the rules of the game. After a short time, you can add a further dimension by hiding the rewards without the dog seeing you, maybe keeping the dog in a different room, and then starting the game by saying the cue word.
Other variations can be the age-old game of hiding something under one of three cups and then releasing the dog to find the elusive reward or getting the dog to discover which hand holds the reward.
Teaching your dog to “go and find” is another variation and this can expand the area of play to other rooms or both indoors and outdoors. The rules are similar to the games discussed above but require the dog to have confidence in you allowing him to find the reward and, on occasion, helping him to do so. This is not dissimilar, in the dog’s mind, to the two of you working together in a find and retrieve game and encourages partnership between you. If you combine the game with his favourite toys and appropriate treat rewards the level of fun will escalate considerably but if you have children in the same room, you may need to exercise a little caution as the dog’s excitement and focus increases.
Tug of war
Playing tug of war is an age-old favourite with dogs and there are plenty of toys that are designed with this in mind. It can be played indoors or outdoors (or both!) and provides both physical and mental stimulation as it mimics an activity that, in the wild, dogs would naturally do between themselves. Make sure you allow your dog to win sometimes – not only does this make the game far more interesting for the dog but it encourages the relationship between you as it makes the dog more confident and more willing to learn.
Teach your dog a new trick
Dogs love to learn new tricks and very few dogs consider themselves too old for such an activity. Just make sure that the trick is not something that diminishes your dog’s feeling of comfort with you or makes the dog embarrassed.
Tricks should be motivational and fun – not something that makes the dog look amusing for human entertainment. Teaching your dog to lie down, roll over, to weave in and out of your legs takes very little time and, with the reinforcement of rewards, can be great fun for you both!
Hide and seek
Hide and seek has been a firm favourite with children for thousands of years and dogs love it too. If your dog has difficulty with the stay command, you may need to enrol another person in the game to restrain the dog while you go off and hide but, with work and perseverance, the need for extra help should soon reduce.
Interactive toys for dogs
Stuffing a toy, such as an interactive treat snake, with suitable food or treats is another favourite and keeping the stuffed toy in the freezer overnight is a great way to provide mental stimulation for your dog.
Depending on the toy selected, this may last for up to half an hour for many dogs but, as a word of caution, this is best done on a floor where any stickiness or mess can easily be cleaned up.
‘Activity mats’ are a favourite with many dogs and are also available from the Breakthrough website. This version has removable options to make the mat vary in levels of difficulty, so that you can swap the elements to stop your dog getting bored.
Others, such as ‘Licky mats’ comprise a flat, soft plastic mat which is covered in short, soft plastic teeth into which you rub any of a number of doggy-delicious foods. The dog has to work to remove all the foodstuff from between all the little teeth on the mat and this provides several minutes of fun and activity.
However, if you are feeding Breakthrough, you won’t want to upset the nutritional balance that makes Breakthrough work, so you should avoid these general food-orientated options and use only frozen water or Breakthrough TrainUp treats in the activity toys.
Breakthrough TrainUp treats are designed to complement feeding with the Breakthrough diets and can be particularly useful in this context. Remember that, whether you use TrainUp treats or Breakthrough kibble, all foodstuffs have some calorific value and the value of any treats or food used as a distraction should be deducted from the daily feeding allowance so that you can be sure that no more than 10% of your pet’s daily feeding allowance should come from treats of any kind.
Interactive toys can be great fun too. Many of these will dispense treats or small kibbles as they are pushed around the floor. There are a number of such toys available and the Buster Cube and Activity Ball – available from Breakthrough or OSCAR’s online.
Alternatively, you can make your own with a stable, bucket or paddling pool full of the appropriately sized plastic balls that children use in a play pit. Hiding toys or several treats at the bottom of the bucket means that the dog has to navigate past all of the balls to get to the rewards.
One point of caution – it’s really important that your dog should not be left alone and unsupervised with anything that can be chewed to the point of destruction – such as children’s toys which are not designed for this purpose – or anything where parts of the activity toy can be detached and possibly eaten by the dog. Be sure to regularly check for signs of wear and tear that could cause injury.
Of course, there is no limit to the type of games and toys that you can use with your dog and the investment of just a short period of time into the training will be beneficial to both you and your dog.
When all else fails, remember that dogs need to chew. Chewing is an essential part of every dog’s make up and provides important physiological as well as mentally rewarding exercise that should be as much a part of our dogs’ daily routines as regular exercise. Just as you would with toys, make sure that the chews that you provide are safe and appropriate for your dog.
If in any doubt, your veterinary surgeon will be happy to advise you.