How to Enrich your Dog’s Life

How to Enrich your Dog’s Life

What basic things does a person need to provide for their dog? Well in every TV show and movie ever made where a kid brings home a dog and begs mom and dad to keep it, they use this argument: “Please mom, I promise I’ll feed them and walk them and clean up after them!”  The fact that this theme is so popular in media tells me two things: 1. Dogs are amazing so everyone can identify with wanting one. 2. When we think of taking care of a dog, we tend to think about their physical needs.

Now there is nothing wrong with thinking of your dog’s physical needs. Food is pretty darn important. But once those basic needs for physical well being are met, it is time to think about your dog’s emotional and mental well being. After all, how happy would you be if your entire life consisted of only eating, going to the bathroom, and sleeping? (Okay, so I might have had a few wonderfully lazy weekends that looked a lot like this but I wouldn’t want to do it every day.). After a while the lack of stimulation would probably get a bit dull or even make you anxious and depressed.

Dogs need things to occupy their minds just as much as we do in order to stay mentally and emotionally fit. So what are your options? Well frankly there are tons of them. Some are super easy and some require practice. Which ones will work best for your dog is something that may require some trial and error. I’ve listed my three go-to’s below. For more examples and information on the benefits of mental enrichment, you can check out the articles linked below.

  1. Field trips! Going out and exploring the world is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog and get them some exercise to boot. Gotta love knocking out two birds with one stone! The key to your outing being mentally enriching as well as physically stimulating is to let your dog explore. Instead of just focusing just on cardio and moving forward the whole time, let your dog do that sniffing thing that dogs do best. Unlike us humans, dogs’ eyesight is not their primary sense, smell is. So instead of going out with a power walk on the agenda, try enjoying what I have nerdishly dubbed the stroll n’ sniff. If your dog isn’t too stressed by strangers and has decent manners, you can also switch up your adventures by going to different dog friendly places like local pet stores. Social interaction is great enrichment for the dogs that can handle it!
  2. Agility training and tricks. Like with walks, agility is great for brains and bodies. And while other types of tricks like sit, lay down, and roll over may not be a workout, trick and agility training both stimulate the mind by asking dogs to learn tasks. Just like with people, learning and practicing skills requires brain power and can be highly satisfying (especially when you are rewarded for performing those skills with pets and treats). Trick and agility training also have the added benefit of building helpful skills for public outings and distracting situations. Several of the dogs I’ve walked, if left to their own devices, would pulls my arm off trying to get to a dog in the distance. But if I step off to the side and make a fun game of doing tricks and eating treats then that passing dog loses some of its interest. (This of course is not true for all dogs. One of my own dogs is terribly anxious around strange dogs and no number of treats in the world will make her forget their presence.)
  3. Puzzle toys. There are a number of different dog toys on the market that require your dog to use a little problem solving in order to get some treats (I’ve included pictures below of some different store-bought variations, but google can also show you TONS of DIY options). I personally use these types of toys not just for treats, but to feed my dogs the majority of their meals. That way one of the basic things I do for my dogs’ physical well being doubles as a good mental workout too. These toys are also great if you have a dog that eats too fast or is susceptible to bloat because the effort they have to put in to getting to the food makes them slow down as they eat.

Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Myth

Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Myth

If you’ve been living on this planet anytime in the last 70 years or so, and have not been isolated in the wilderness living the quiet hermit life, then chances are you have heard the term “alpha dog,” probably paired with the term “pack leader.” The idea that inviting a dog into your home means that you have created a pack and therefore must dominate that pack and establish yourself as the Alpha has been popular advice for quite some time. It is given confidently by TV personalities and repeated trustingly by their followers who believe that these people are experts. I know this because I used to be one of those trusting followers. Imagine my surprise when I began to educate myself in pursuit of my current career path, thinking I already knew so much, only to discover that the techniques I thought I should trust were totally malarkey. That’s right, I know it’s a shock. Take a breath and let it sink in. I know it took me a minute to get over it. It turns out there are several problems with the alpha/pack leader approach, also known by those who try to legitimize it as dominance theory. Let’s list some of them shall we?

  1. Alpha Dog theories are based on a study done in the 1930’s based on groups of captive wolves, and are in no way representative of the social groups that wolves form in the wild. Wolf packs in the wild are actually families consisting of a mother, father, some pups, and older siblings that help care for the pups. Conflict does happen, (like it does in any family) but it is not the violent battle for power that people tend to equate with the Alpha through Omega dominance structure that has been popularized. This kind of conflict CAN occur in captivity for a couple of reasons. Captive packs usually consist of random wolves placed together by humans rather than family members. As wolves don’t usually socialize with other wolves outside of their family pack for long, this creates an unnatural social situation for them. To make matters worse, the close quarters that captive wolves are kept in means that they can’t utilize one of their best conflict-busting techniques: leaving. In the wild, if two wolves aren’t getting along, one will leave and give the other some space for a while. In captivity they often can’t give each other enough space, so the wolf getting picked on can’t get away and ends up getting ganged up on. The entire social situation is unnatural, and not characteristic of real pack structure.
  2. Even if Alpha Wolves were as society has painted them to be, we have to remember that DOGS ARE NOT WOLVES (For a run down on how dogs have changed from wolves, check out my other blog on the evolution of dogs). When it comes to social behavior in particular, dogs differ from wolves in that they aren’t actually pack animals at all. In populations of feral dogs, individuals are primarily self reliant. Where wolves form family packs to share the duties of hunting and cub rearing, dogs typically scavenge for food alone and pups are raised by single mothers. This isn’t to say that dogs don’t get together and even share resources at times. But these team ups are usually only for a few days at a time and would probably be better described as friendships than families.
  3. Dogs know we aren’t dogs! To see us as pack leaders, dogs would have to see us as members of the pack in the first place, and dogs are fully aware that we are not simply funny looking bald dogs. As such, dogs socialize with us in different ways than they do with other dogs. Ever met a dog that has totally different reactions to meeting humans than it does to meeting dogs? Yeah, this is why.

So to recap: it is pointless to try to be the Alpha Dog in your pack because wild wolves don’t even have dominant Alphas, dogs aren’t even wolves, and you aren’t even a Dog!

For more information on the history of Dominance Theory and its effects on dogs, please check out the Articles linked below.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

As humans, we sometimes take for granted this wonderful thing we call the spoken language. The ease with which we are able to communicate important messages to our fellow man is truly spectacular. If there is danger, if we are frightened, if we are in pain, we have words for these things that others can understand instantly and then typically know how to respond. Now for a moment imagine a scenario in which you are in danger or afraid, and the only people you can speak to do no speak your language. What do you do? You would likely resort to some kind of frantic charades. It would probably be frustrating, but in all likelihood the person would be able to get the gist of your body language. Now imagine a slightly stranger scenario in which the only person who can help you isn’t even human and looks on in complete confusion as you babble away in a strange language and contort your body with gestures that would surely make sense to another human, but make no sense to the newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of human dog interaction! Dogs aren’t blessed with spoken language like we are, though they do have a small range of vocalizations with different meaning. For the most part they rely on body language to communicate with other dogs and with their human companions. This body language can sometimes be very subtle making it hard to pick up on. And unfortunately even the more obvious body language is often misinterpreted by us because, as humans, we have a tendency to project human traits on to other animals and even inanimate objects. These misunderstandings can be relatively innocuous, but they are also frequently the precursor to preventable dog attacks. The internet is awash in home videos in which dogs and humans (often children) are interacting in a way that the people think is funny or cute, but the dog is clearly, to the trained eye, giving body language that is saying, “I don’t like this. Back off!” I’m willing to bet that the majority of dog attacks in which the owners say, “She’s never done anything like that. It came out of nowhere,” there were actually many signs that the owner simply didn’t understand.

For the safety of ourselves, our families, and the public, as well as the safety and emotional well-being of our dogs, it is important for us as dog owners to know how to read our own dog’s body language. It is also wise for people in general to understand the basics of canine body language so that you can more safely gauge your interactions with dogs you meet because, unfortunately, not every dog owner knows their dog as well as they think they do.

For a run down on the different types of body language and what they mean, I recommend looking over the diagrams and reading the article linked below.

                

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