Seeking is Fatiguing!

I write so much about enrichment, nose work and mental games on this blog, and yet I realized after a fantastic “Creative Behavior Outlets” seminar last weekend that I am not even close to taking full advantage of how great brain work can be for Johnnie!  I had been so focused on walking the energy out of her that I lost track of how useful food puzzles and mental stimulation can be in tiring her out as well. Thank goodness I had the Your Dog’s Friend seminar to remind me of the gold mine I was missing out on!

The seminar was led by Leslie Clifton, CPDT-KA of Look What I Can Do Dog Training, and she spent lots of time explaining how to exhaust your dog without running them around for hours. She demonstrated lots of different kinds of food puzzles, as well as went over different “Find it!” games and home-made food puzzles. The best thing I came home with after that workshop was the idea that “seeking is fatiguing.” Whenever your dog is searching for how or where to get his food (an important natural canine behavior, by the way), he is working his brain. You can often see the concentration in his scrunched up forehead – a sure sign that those thinking wheels are turning.  Twenty minutes of mental games is thought to be equivalent to sixty minutes of vigorous exercise!

I immediately went out and bought a Kong Wobbler for Johnnie that will make her work for her kibble. She no longer eats her meals out of a bowl, ever. She either eats them from a stuffed kong (kibble & pumpkin mixed together and frozen), from her Kong Wobbler, or through “Find It” games. You can also use old Gatorade bottles or other various food puzzles. I have known about these tricks for so long, and yet I hadn’t been regularly implementing them with Johnnie!  Doh!  Now it takes her about 15 – 20 minutes per meal to finish all her kibble, instead of the 2 -3 it was taking out of a bowl before, and I can really tell the difference in how it keeps her energy levels lower (check out the photo below – she was so sleepy she knew there was food left in her puzzle and she still tucked herself into bed. . . an enrichment miracle!).  I am still kicking myself for not consistently using these puzzles for the first few weeks I had her :-).

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Toy puzzles for dinner give us another opportunity to practice Johnnie’s “wait” cue as well.

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Later this week I will go into other ways we keep Johnnie’s puppy brain occupied so that she expresses her natural behaviors in an appropriate manner. Stay tuned!

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To adopt Johnnie Cash the food-puzzle-lover, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Lessons from AFF: The Joys of Enrichment

I’ve always been a fan of kongs and toy puzzles and nose work, but I never truly realized how they fit into the bigger picture of enrichment. Enrichment is so essential to a dog’s happiness and mental well being because it allows them outlets to use their doggy senses. I learned that it doesn’t only encompass the taste and smell senses in the form of food games, but also visual, hearing, and touching exercises. Enrichment can be fun, easy, and cheap – and for what a dog gets out of it, the extra effort is one hundred percent worth it.

In shelters, dogs are often so bored, overwhelmed, and stressed that they can quickly start displaying negative behaviors that are unfortunately sometimes a poor representation to the dog’s true personality. Enrichment activities help to postpone or prevent the onset of these behaviors by stimulating the dog’s senses and wearing them out mentally.  The dogs then in turn show better to adopters because they are either preoccupied working on their puzzles and therefore not barking, or they’re just so tired from all their work to get the treats or whatever that they’re mellow in their kennels.

At Animal Farm we learned about all kinds of different enrichment activities.  The most well known ones are the kinds involving food that are supposed to be tricky and keep the dog busy for a while, including frozen stuffed kongs, busy buckets, and ice treats. Frozen stuffed kongs are self explanatory, but remember that you can stuff them with all sorts of different foods and treats (just make sure you’re not feeding your dog three meals in the process). Busy buckets are small pails that you fill with different things to do, smell, and taste. The point is to stuff them very tightly so that it’s a challenge for the dog to get each fun object out – try to flip your busy bucket upside down without anything falling out! Ice treats are also pretty self explanatory. Fill a bucket with different bones, balls, treat toys, etc. then add a little bit of kibble – fill with water, freeze, and you’re done. All of these toys can include your dog’s normal meal contents to make dinner a fun and difficult exercise! Busy buckets were a total blessing with our energetic housemate Birdie; they would keep her quiet and still for more than thirty seconds!

Smell is also, as expected, a very good way to engage dogs. In shelters, simple PVC pipes with holes drilled in them can be a world of smells for a dog. Fill it with something smelly, like dirty hamster shavings (gross for humans but jackpot for dogs), and close the endings to create an interesting activity for the dogs. You can hang them around their kennel or you can put them in the exercise yard where the dogs are walked to give them something to investigate while they get their potty break. Even short, simple activities like this can make a big difference in a dog’s mental well being.

I could write forever about other ways to help make a dog’s living environment – home or shelter – more positively stimulating, but all of this and more is on AFF’s website. There you can find a plethora of information about enrichment, including step-by-step instructions and explanations about the benefits. Remember that these are not just beneficial for shelter dogs, but for your own pets as well! All dogs can use an excuse to work their sniffer, tongue or noggin. A tired dog, whether mentally or physically, is a happier dog!


Clicker Training: “Kong”

Otis – like many other dogs that had limited exposure to the world as a puppy – is rather clueless about a lot of concepts. We take so many behaviors our dogs do for granted as “natural activities” that they’re just born knowing – like playing, sniffing out treats, working for food, etc. In reality though, dogs often need help learning these skills. Additionally, even though these behaviors might not come naturally to some pups, they can be so beneficial (see: Chick’s love of play on Love & a Six-Foot Leash).

I’ve written before about Otis’ mental block when it comes to retrieving food out of a Kong. If it didn’t just naturally come out, he’d stare at it then promptly give up. He got better when it came time to slurp up yummy, frozen peanut butter – but he just couldn’t figure out how to make solid kibble (or other treats, for that matter) fall out of the Kong.

This is where FosterGrandma and I stepped in. After my last post about Otie’s difficulties with food puzzles, you all gave me a ton of great suggestions about how to help him figure it out. I have yet to try, well, (oops – confession time) most of them, but what my mom and I did do with him was some clicker training. When in doubt with an insecure, unsure dog – clicker train!

Our intent was to teach Otis to use his paw to move the Kong and make the kibble fall out. He’s already been exposed to the clicker, so he knows to expect a treat upon it’s use. We started by clicking and treating any time he moved his paw towards the Kong. Then we clicked and treated any time he touched the Kong. Slowly he got the hang of it, and we were able to pair the verbal “Kong” cue with him touching the toy.

It got to the point that whenever he was stuck, we just said, “Kong” and it would help him get the kibble out. Then he started using it all on his own!

He hasn’t caught on to using it all of the time yet, but he’s better than he was before we practiced this command. Plus, now whenever he is stuck we can just remind him that “Kong!” helps to get the kibble out. Chances he realizes the connection? Not sure. But, for now, it is support to his pretty wimpy valiant Kong-tackling efforts.

Next up is to try the recommendation of sticking his absolute favorite treat down at the bottom so that he doesn’t want to give up on fishing it out, and we’ll see how he does. That and then only feeding him from the Kong so he’ll have to figure out how to get his whole dinner out or go hungry – though I’m a little nervous he would let himself starve, the silly pup! But that’s a project for another day. In the mean time, I’ll just be proud of his most recent accomplishment.

For more information on adopting Honey Bunches of Otis, go to his Adopt Me page to learn more about him and how to get in touch.