By now most of the United States is on some form of “stay at home” order. For some of us it’s going on 3 weeks. In my state it’s been one week. Many people are already getting a little stir crazy already, with lots of fun videos and Facebook Live posts happening as we reach out to connect. We’re also seeing a love of raw, emotional behavior and increased sensitivity. Things that wouldn’t normally bother us much are proving to be a lot to handle. Yes, we’re allowed to take neighborhood walks and exercise, but in many places public parks are closed and we are being discouraged from driving any real distances to hike in novel locations. Gatherings of any sort are totally prohibited in many places. Even visiting friends or family is really considered a “no-no”.
It occurred to me – this is exactly how most pet dogs live their entire lives, without the benefit of social interactions via telephone and the internet. Some dogs do well at dog parks, but for many they are not safe or healthy ways to interact and certainly now under stay-at-home orders, we can’t do that. Many problem behaviors in pets stem from lack of training and inadequate mental stimulation. Is it any wonder your dog jumps all over you and the kids when you come home? That they get into things, dig, bark like kooks or other engage in other seemingly frenzied type behaviors? The current situation should make us much more empathetic to our dogs and how they must feel every day.
Most dog owners understand the need for exercise, and the phrase, “a tired dog is a good dog” is ever popular. And it’s true! Exercise is important. However, as I think many of us can attest at this point, engaging the brain may be even more important. How many of us are exhibiting weird sleeping patterns or can’t sleep because our brains are still going come midnight? Over time, your dog will habituate to the level of exercise he receives just as those of us who have taken up jogging find it easier over time, and have to increase our speed, distance or time to be as worn out as we were when we first started. The same thing will happen with your dog if you rely only on physical exertion. Lots of exercise is great, but it creates canine athletes with greater needs if your goal is to tire him out.
The amount of mental stimulation generally does not increase, though more ingenuity and creativity may be needed from us as time goes on. Hopefully, this will be something we come to enjoy as the benefits are multifaceted: you have a dog whose needs are being better met, a dog that is better trained, and hopefully your relationship improves. It’s fun to goof around with your dog!
Twenty minutes of training or mental exertion a day can make a make difference for your dog. It needn’t be difficult for you. The most important thing is that it be varied, not repetitive or predictable. We all have beloved movies we can watch over and over, but maybe not every single day or they begin to lose their interest. In addition to normal obedience-type training and tricks consider these ideas:
-Hide your dog’s meal. If you feed from a bowl, put your dog in a Sit-Stay (or in another room) and go out of his sight to hide the bowl.
-Feed your dog from a work to eat puzzle. I like home-made ones, or home-enhanced commercial ones. Paper towel rolls, paper bags, cardboard boxes, water bottles with a hole cut in it, or any combination thereof. (A TP roll with food in it, in a bag, in a box, hidden in the living room)
-Take your dog’s kibble and literally just throw it into your backyard. Scavenge time!
-Scent training. You can start by setting up some cardboard boxes (Don’t we all have a million from Amazon right about now?) and, with your dog in another room, put a small piece of stinky food in each box. Let him in and let him find the food in each box. You can switch it up by having food in only some boxes. Then start stacking the boxes or turning them over. Make it incrementally harder so your dog has to work a little more each time. But by starting off easy, the gets the idea. Later if you want, you can begin pair treats in boxes with odor.
These are just a few simple ideas for ways to make your dog’s day more interesting. Think of it like canine Sudoku. Train some silly tricks. Do backyard Parkour with your dog. Get creative! Your dog can’t read a magazine or browse Facebook. He relies on you to provide an enriched life and environment. Doing so will pay off for everyone in spades. And lastly, when your dog acts a little crazy and has ants in his pants, remember what this was like for us.