Say no to fast food and ditch that dish: Mentally stimulating a dog

Quick tips on mentally stimulating a dog on restricted exercise. By Laure-Anne Visele, August 2015

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I can help with your dog’s behaviour questions if you live in The Hague or region. I am a dog behaviour therapist for Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! dog training school. I graduated in Zoology and certified as a dog training instructor. I also have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude). In short, I am The Hague’s dog nerd. If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, I am your girl.  If you live close to The Hague and have a question about your dog’s behaviour, tell me about the problem here.

Mental stimulation for crate-bound dogs

A regular client wrote to me in a panic the other day. His dog had had an accident, and had needed emergency hip surgery. As soon as I read the word ‘surgery,’ the dark spectre of a rehabilitation period reared its ugly head.

Recovery can be a nightmare for dogs. They can go crazy with pent-up frustration. AND… This particular dog is a male adolescent Jack Russell! To describe him as high-energy just doesn’t cut it. He is a running, chasing, jumping ball of energy. So we switched my original training brief to recovery-appropriate mental stimulation.

Here are some of the games we played together.

The blanket game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. A blanket
  3. A recovering dog

Ask the dog to wait as you lay a blanket all crumbled up on the floor. Place a treat underneath one crease of the blanket, in full view of the dog. Quickly release the dog to ‘go sniff,’ or ‘zoek!’ as the Dutch say.

Gradually increase the distance from the dog to the blanket, the duration the dog has to wait, the number of treats and how well hidden they are.

The ‘watch me’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. Your face
  3. A recovering dog

Don’t ask the dog to do anything. Just sit there close to him, on the floor, and relax. Hold a treat in your closed fist. Make sure the dog knows the treat is there. The dog will likely try to pry it off your hand, lick it, etc. Just sit there, enjoying the moment. Don’t tell him ‘no’ or ‘uh uh’ and wait for him to try something else. The microsecond he backs off and looks you in the eyes, say ‘yes’ and give him the treat.

Repeat ad infinitum, demanding longer and longer looks before you release it. As with every exercise, this is how you estimate the right level of difficulty: it has to be challenging but achievable. We don’t want a desperately frustrated dog who gives up, but we do want him to work for it a little bit or he won’t be mentally stimulated, will he?

Do be sure to have very relaxed, soft eyes and not look at the dog intensely or the dog might be intimidated. If you’re not sure, just blink (like a contented cat would) once in a while. This will remind him this is not a confrontation and he’s not in trouble.

This game is a ‘free shaping’ game. We don’t prompt or command the dog to do anything, but we let him guess what will get him the jackpot. This type of exercise is brilliant to burn some mental energy as it gets them thinking hard. Do make sure you keep it fun, or he’ll quickly go on strike.

The ‘target my fingers’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. Your fingers
  3. A recovering dog

As above, sit there close to the dog, casually hanging out. Then cheerfully say ‘touch’ and present two fingers for him to sniff. Don’t shove them his face and don’t be too rough, but try to entice his curiosity with the sudden appearance of the fingers in his vicinity. Then wait it out. As soon as he sniffs your fingers, say ‘yes’ and give him a treat.

To make sure he really understands the words ‘touch’, make sure you first say it, then leave a short delay before presenting your fingers, so that he really pays attention to the words and not just your fingers. We want him to start looking for your hand when he’s heard the word. Repeat, repeat, repeat until he gets there. And when he does, that’s where the fun begins!

Once he gets it, present your fingers in really incongruous positions, like on your shoe, on the ground, on the table, behind your back, etc. Get that dog thinking!

The ‘101 things to do with a purse’ game

What you need:

  1. Treats
  2. A purse, or any object really
  3. A recovering dog

Present the dog with an incongruous object – one with which he does not normally interact. I picked a purse. Don’t put the dog under pressure by putting the object in his face, but just awaken his curiosity by having the object appear in the vicinity of the dog.

Reward any attention the dog pays to the object with a ‘yes’, then give the dog a treat. Keep changing the object’s position slightly to rekindle his interest each time. Once the dog really gets it and systematically touches the object as soon as it appears, vary the object’s position even more. This makes sure the dog really really really gets the purpose of the exercise: it’s about that object, regardless of where it is.

Now we’re ready to have some fun: when the dog is really keenly bumping the object each time you present it, start only rewarding new ways to interact with the object. Reward a nose bump, a scratch, touching with the paw, digging with his nose inside the purse, mouthing the purse, pushing it, etc. It doesn’t matter what the dog does, as long as it’s new each time.

Make sure you keep your face very friendly and relaxed. Don’t bore a hole through the dog’s head staring intensely in your excitement. Especially if your dog is not used to creative training exercises, he might get inhibited and fear he’s going to get in trouble if he gets it wrong.

Keep this one VERY short, and get ready for a hilarious time rewarding the most creative antics. You wouldn’t believe how much imagination dogs have when they put their minds to it.

More ideas?

I put a lot of videos on YouTube to illustrate the ideas I came up with for my own and my clients’ dogs:

These are just a few of many many many mental stimulation games I’ve picked up over the years, many of them are rehabilitation-appropriate. I’ll try to post more in the not too distant future.

If you’d like some good sources of ideas, try the following books:

I am also curating boards on Dropmark on mental stimulation which has a lot of crate confinement game suggestions.

And of course, do let me know of any good tips and resources you might have. I’d be happy to feature them here.  Good luck on your dog’s rehabilitation!

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  • By over here on 27 November 2015 at 05:01

    over here

    Mentally stimulating a dog on restricted exercise – Canis bonus

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