Pet parents bringing their furry companions home for the first time are usually prepared to meet their basic physical needs like food, water, and
shelter. However, just as important - but much less discussed - are their psychological and emotional needs: needs that must be met for them
to achieve behavioral health and balance. Failing to meet these needs can fuel, and in some cases cause, serious behavioral problems in our dogs. But by getting it right we can help set our dogs
up to be the best versions of themselves, lower overall stress, and greatly
speed up the learning process when training.
WHAT ARE PSYCHOLOGICAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS?
Providing outlets for physical exercise is relatively common knowledge amongst dog owners but many of us fail to provide adequate outlets for our dog’s big beautiful brains! Dog brains are powerful things, and to be balanced and healthy they must be able to fulfill their basic“doggy functions”: like foraging, exploring, chewing, problem solving, searching and sniffing. In fact, some working breeds have breed-specific needs to consider. Retrievers need opportunities to search and carry, terriers often battle an insatiable need to explore, and herders need to chase and problem solve in order to feel their best. When these powerful working brains are not given the opportunity to perform their function we often see an emergence of behavior problems like reactivity and hyperactivity, as well as destructive and attention seeking tendencies.
HOW DO WE FULFILL THESE NEEDS?
Not all pet parents have equal access to fields of diggable dirt, climbable mountains, and herd-able livestock. In fact, many of our clients care for their canines from the high rises of New York City! Luckily, we have developed innovative and creative solutions to canine enrichment and by providing the following, every pet parent can ensure that their dog’s behavioral health needs are being adequately met.
1. Working for Meals
Dogs have a natural instinct to hunt, forage, and scavenge for food. One of our favorite ways to give dogs jobs is to appeal to this instinct and make them work for their meals. When we dump their kibble in a boring old bowl, we deny our dogs the opportunity to use their brains and bodies to get their daily allotted calories. Increased physical activity, burning of calories, and greater protection from later-in-life cognitive decline are just a few of the benefits of such an activity.
If it seems somewhat unfair to make them work to eat, consider that they actually prefer food rewards that they earn through problem-solving efforts, over those that are readily available. Even dogs themselves are aware that they only stand to benefit from working for their meals! Here are some easy ways to feed dogs their meals, all the while engaging their natural impulses:
- Snuffle them from cardboard boxes
Pause before you throw away your next amazon delivery box, or cereal container because this could be the highlight of your dogs week! Scatter your dogs meal in an old box, fill the box with paper, or your dogs toys and let them go nuts shredding, tearing, and snuffling around the toys to get to their dinner.
- Hide it in the yard or around the house
Scatter your dog's kibble in the yard and let them sniff and snuffle every piece up. For apartment dwellers hiding your dogs meal around a room and cueing them to "find it" (perhaps encouraging them to search and sniff out the goods) can be a wonderful alternative to bowl feeding.
- Put it in a Work-to-Eat toy
Work-to-Eat toys are interactive food dispensing toys specially designed to stimulate and engage a canine mind. The Whole Dog Journal's 2019 food toy review is a great way to get yourself acquainted with the different types and we would highly recommend checking out some of our personal favorites from Nina Ottosson.
2. Chewing & Licking
Another way to give dogs a job is to engage their impulses to lick and chew. In addition to improving overall oral health, chewing and licking promotes the secretion of neurochemicals that are vital to dogs’ wellbeing.
Restricted, kibble-based diets deprive our dogs of opportunities to perform these natural and necessary behaviors so it is important to create additional opportunities by incorporating the following items into their daily routine: stuffed Kongs, bully sticks, stuffed marrow bones, pig ears, yak chews, or LickiMats.
By freezing these items, you can extend the amount of the time that your dog spends chewing or licking them. For particularly busy pet parents, individually sourcing all of these items might be a daunting or downright impossible task. If this is the case, dog subscription boxes such as a Real Dog Box or BullyMake Box offer convenient and customizable monthly deliveries right to your home.
Depending on the breed, dogs have anywhere from 125 million to 300 million scent receptors in their noses. When comparing this to humans' measly 5 million receptors, it becomes clear that sniffing is way more important to the mental functioning of dogs than it is to us. However, humans are often the ones that control how much access dogs have to sniffing material. We pick when they can sniff, where they can sniff, and how long they can sniff for, and we often do it according to our own needs.
We must give our dogs opportunities to engage their olfactory senses on their own terms in order for them to be fully satisfied. One way we can do this is by taking our dogs for long sniffing-specific walks (preferably in nature) that are separate from their relief walks, and letting their noses be the guides. Long lines are great for dogs who don't yet know how to come when called, as they allow your dog to move through their environment naturally - exploring and engaging their natural doggy functions. Hiding meals, and encouraging snuffling during these walks - as discussed above - is another great way to encourage a pup to discover their olfactory senses.
4. Communicating & Learning
Every dog, independent of its age or breed, has the need to learn and communicate. Dogs are constantly seeking out, analyzing, and responding to the information around them. Channeling these learning impulses into appropriate channels such as training can keep our dogs using their brains, without getting themselves into trouble.
If you are looking for an easy and reinforcing way to dive into the world of dog training, taking a Tricks or basic manners class with your dog is a great first step. Teaching your dog tricks will help you develop your attention and problem-solving skills, while giving your dog an appropriate activity through which they can exercise their powerful brains. That’s not to mention the endless entertainment you will enjoy with your tricks star-in-the-making!
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
This brings us back to the question: why should you care if your dog is bored?
Whether it’s excessive jumping, barking, destructive chewing, or reactivity, many of the behavioral concerns that lead people to seek out a trainer’s help can be partially attributed to or exacerbated by a lack of appropriate enrichment. Good news is that, in some cases, it's an easy fix! A dog that is chewing on a bully stick once a day, has a decreased need to chew on your antique chair’s legs. A dog that spends 30 minutes snuffling out her breakfast from an old Amazon box, or doing a quick tricks training session, is too busy snoozing contently to bark at sounds of the neighbors moving around next door. So get creative and invest some time and maybe a bit of money in some therapeutic enrichment opportunities for your best friend. Trust us, they'll thank you.