With the Coronavirus outbreak in full swing and more employees working from home, people are spending more time with their pets than ever. While our dogs may love the extra attention, it is not always feasible to be focused on Fluffy during the day.
The reality is that pet owners working from home need to work. As surprising as it is, most employers do not consider our pet a cute addition to the video conference call or enjoy hearing them bark and play in the background. What is a stressed out, overworked pet owner to do?
Cognitive enrichment may be able to help you. The reality is that dogs get bored, just like people do, and when they get bored, they find ways to entertain themselves. Sometimes that can be displayed through frustration barking, destruction, whining, or an inability to be alone during the day. These behaviors are indicative of stress in your pup while causing you frustration, stress and anxiety as well.
Cognitive enrichment allows a dog to use their brain to problem solve, to think and to get more enjoyment out of life. Just like us, dogs need to use their brains, they enjoy learning and they feel satisfaction when they solve problems. This, in turn, leads to a calmer, more satisfied dog who allows their owners to get more work done during the day!
“I don’t know what Enrichment toys to use”
There is a plethora of enrichment toys on the market. Some, like puzzles, involve problem solving to get treats. Others distribute food as the dog plays with it, and still others offer other stimulation like sights, sounds, smells or tactile sensations. We will briefly review these categories, but there is no best toy. The best toy for your dog, is the one they will enjoy and use over and over.
Toys that offer Sense stimulation:
There are many toys on the market that appeal to dogs who like to use their noses to follow scents, their eyes to follow objects, or even tasty toys to appeal to a dogs need to chew tasty items. From balls that light up and make funny sounds, to Nylabon toys (which are hard toys that are designed to dogs to safely chew on with yummy dog flavors like peanut butter or bacon), most pet owners can find a variety of toys to satisfy their dogs preferences.
Kong brand, along with other brands, make toys that squeak. We are all familiar with the loud squeaking toys that most dogs have- those are definitely not helpful while you are on a conference call! Did you know, that Kong also makes quieter toys? They have some bones that have water bottles inside of them giving a different sound that is much quieter. These toys not only appeal to work at homeowners, but also to dogs who have sensitive hearing or do not like loud toys
Toys that distribute food:
One of the best-known toys for this is the Kong. These are rubber toys of different sizes that are often stuffed with food or treats. The dog must work to get the food and treats out. We often recommend starting easy, like a few small treats inside, and working up to a level that makes the dog work longer to get his food.
My dog, for example, is fed all of his meals in a Kong. We mix his wet food and dry food together, fill his Kong toy and freeze it for several hours. It takes him anywhere from 20-35 minutes to eat his meals, which keeps him busy and calm and afterwards, he is usually ready for a nap!
There are several other toys that you can find on the market, that allow you to put treats or kibble inside, and the dog needs to problem solve how to get the food out. These are great for keeping dogs busy when you really cannot be disturbed, just be sure that you are making the pups meals smaller to accommodate the calories they are taking in. We don’t want you going back to work and now your pup needs a personal trainer to get his summer body back!
Puzzles and Games:
The puzzles and games on the market are great for teaching dogs how to think and to problem solve. They range from easy to extremely difficult. The one thing all these have in common is that they have spots that you place treats or kibble and the dog needs to figure out how to open, or reveal, that spot to get the treat.
The key to having a dog who likes puzzles is to start easy. Dogs love to learn and when they experience success, they want to learn more. However, if they experience failure to often, they get frustrated and give up. Think of a child learning how to read in grade school, we give them books about Jack and Jill, See Spot Run. We would never ask a child who is learning to read to read us Shakespeare! Use the same methodology with your pup! Start easy, when he is bored and knows that puzzle well, then move up a level and use both puzzles. Keep it going like this,
“But I don’t want to have to buy a bunch of new toys”
We totally understand that! Buying some enrichment toys is great, but you can make your own too or use daily life enrichment activities to give your pup what he needs. Offering your dog cognitive enrichment does not have to expensive or time consuming. Dogs are wonderful creatures who don’t care how much money you spent on them and they are great at making the most of opportunities!
Nose work (also called scent work) enrichment activities:
Amazon has seen record sales recently, so we are confident that there are many empty boxes lying around several homes. A very easy enrichment activity is to take an empty box, crumple up some newspaper or packing paper (Note: do not use the bubble wrap, packing peanuts or anything other than paper for this activity- it can be dangerous to your dog!).
Fill the box with crumpled paper and toss a handful of kibble or low calorie treats in it. Let your dog sniff out
the treats, shred the paper and even shred the box! This gives dogs a chance to use their noses (sniffing out treats), and to be able to chew and shred, which are natural dog behaviors!
You can also take a towel, place it flat on the counter. Fold the towel in half (lengthwise) and sprinkle a line of treats down the towel, then roll the towel tightly and place the roll on the floor. This is an easy activity for your dog- he will need to unroll the towel to get the treats. It involves problem solving and nose work!
Teach a new Cue or trick:
Dogs love to learn new things. Taking the time to teach them a new trick or a new cue is a great way to increase the bond between you and your dog while teaching them something new. Does your dog know how to sit? You can teach him to lie down by placing a treat in front of his nose and pulling it straight down to the floor, only releasing the treat when his elbows hit the floor. Eventually you will use just your hand to lure your dog down, giving him the treat when he lies down. The final step is to add a verbal cue and hand signal.
Dogs can be taught several cues that are useful in everyday life. For example: sit, stay, down, come, target, and paw. We are happy to come and work with you to teach your dog some new tricks! We, at Milwaukee Paws Pet Care believe in the power of a strong bond between owner and pet and are happy to help facilitate that in any way possible!
Take a walk:
Our regular clients know how passionate we are about letting dogs sniff- it’s vitally important to a dog’s well-being to be able to sniff and smell. With everyone on lock-down, now is a perfect time to get outside for a bit and walk your dog.
Dogs need exercise, they need to run, play and walk just like us. It keeps them healthy, staves off anxiety and prevents stiffness and health problems. For your dog to really enjoy the walk, et him (or her) take the lead with their nose! Let them stop and sniff. Sure, it will take you a little longer to circle the block, but when you get back you will have a satisfied and tired out pooch!
Some ideas to keep the walk interesting for your dog: Take a different route (full of new smells!), walk your typical route but opposite how you normally go (if you normally go right when you leave your home and circle the block, try going around the block but starting on the left), take your dogs favorite toy or treat and take a short break to work on the cues he/she knows (a training break) before continuing.
If you have extra time, take your dog for a hike, or a long walk along the lake! The new environments will be full of sights, sounds and smells for your dog to explore! The benefit for you is the added stress reduction of being in nature!
As more of us are working from home, we may be becoming more aware of our dogs need for stimulation and cognitive enrichment. All dogs need to have opportunities to learn, to problem solve and to explore the world in a safe manner. As pet owners, we are responsible to offer them this opportunity. The benefits to dogs who are properly stimulated and have enough enrichment are profound.
Science shows us that dogs who have enough enrichment are less anxious, less destructive and have fewer health and behavior problems. We also know from science that dogs are calmer, better behaved and that strengthens the bond between owner and pet. Pet owners who are involved in training and providing enrichment to their pets report an overall higher satisfaction with their pet.
Try some of the ideas above- we are guessing that both you and your pet will thank us!