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Enriching Your Dog's Life

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If your dog is showing signs of stress and you know the source, you're obviously in a good position to address the problem. If it's a medical problem, prompt and effective veterinary care should do the trick. If little Billy has been playing too roughly with the family dog, some basic dog care instruction is the way to go. If you have a two-dog household and the other dog is overly aggressive, behavioral intervention with the help of a qualified trainer or animal behaviorist will probably help.

But if the problem is a long-term one and has no obvious cause, it may simply be that your dog is insufficiently stimulated. In that case, a program of enrichment may be what is needed.

In her presentation at the recent annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Melissa Bain, DVM, a veterinary behavior specialist associated with Animal Behavior Resources Institute, pointed to four important benefits of a program of enrichment for your dog:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Increased mental stimulation
  • Stimulation of normal canine behaviors
  • Prevention or reduction of repetitive behaviors

Getting specific

Sources of enrichment fall into three broad categories:

  • Human interaction
  • Animal interaction
  • Solitary activities

Human interaction activities

Human interactions nourish the human-animal bond. These may include such common games as fetch and tug-of-war as well as basic, breed-appropriate behavior training. You may not have any sheep for your herding dog to chase, but a Frisbee will do nicely. Agility exercises and games involving running, jumping, and fetching encourage rewarding interactions between dog and owner and make for good exercise as well. Depending on your dog's breed and disposition, as well as your access to suitable terrain, letting your dog track animals may be a very engaging activity - and good exercise for you, too.

Whatever the game or activity, if it provides exercise and mental stimulation, it will help to ease your dog's stress.

Animal interaction activities

Most dogs enjoy and benefit emotionally from interacting with their "peers.'' Some dogs are "party animals'' and, like their human counterparts, get a real kick out of social activities and mixing. Animal interaction activities include:

  • Supervised play dates
  • Dog parks
  • Obedience training classes

However, there are certain caveats to keep in mind. Some dogs are more solitary by nature and may become stressed out by being around groups of strange dogs. You have to know your dog's personality and choose those activities that are suited to its personality and needs.

If your dog is either overly aggressive to other dogs or easily intimidated by them, a dog park may not be a good choice of activity. A one-on-one play date with another dog-owner pair might be a better choice.

Obedience training classes are a good idea for almost all dogs. A group class can teach solid socialization skills while at the same time providing the desired obedience training.

Solitary stress relievers

Owners don't necessarily have to be present to provide enrichment and stress relief. In fact, since even the most devoted owner can't be a dog's constant companion, it is important for dogs to be able to find entertainment and stimulation in solitary activities.

Solitary stress relievers stimulate a dog's senses and love of play. One effective type of solitary toy is the dog food toy.

Food dispensing toys make feeding a fun activity and encourage a dog's natural foraging instincts. By placing snacks -- or even a whole meal -- in a self-play toy, a dog must pursue and manipulate a container with one or more openings in it to get at the food. There are commercially available toys, such as the Kong. An alternative is to make your own from a disposable water bottle, cutting a few holes in it large enough to let the dry food pieces out. (Just be careful not to leave any sharp plastic edges or parts that could be swallowed.)

Sensory stimulation may also involve something as simple as leaving the television or radio playing while you are out. There are even dog "while you are gone" videos available that are especially designed to appeal to your furry friend. These may not interest all dogs, however, so it's a good idea to try one while you're at home to observe how your dog reacts.

You both benefit

If your dog is stressed, you will be stressed as well. By taking a few simple steps to relieve that stress, not only will your dog's life be enriched, but the bond between you and your dog will also be strengthened, which is, after all, the whole point.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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