Moorlands Dog Rescue have started running seminars to educate and help owners to understand their dogs more, and our most recent seminar was on Reducing Canine Stress. As part of this, we spoke about enriching your dogs meal times, and how dogs can benefit from mental exercises.
Food bowls are missed opportunities for your dog to have its life enriched. Using other methods of feeding like what will be discussed in these blogs can help to keep your dog entertained and lets them work for their food which dogs love to do. They also slow down eating, which makes the food last longer and stops the dog taking in as much air when eating (which is thought to cause bloat) . These methods get your dog thinking and problem solving, which in turn increases confidence as your dog is rewarded for trying new things, and tires them out.
In fact, although physical exercise is necessary, doing things like ball chasing or lots of off lead play to tire them out can make things worse. Although initially this may tire your dog, often the dog becomes fitter, needing more exercise to tire them out. On top of this, repetitive chasing floods the body with adrenaline, and in turn cortisol, which causes a stress reaction that physiologically is the same as any "negative" stress and this can make dogs more wired than when they started. This has a lasting effect as can take days to get out of the system and meanwhile, those stress chemicals are topped up daily on their walks and never given the chance to reduce.
So hopefully these blogs will give you some ideas of not only what to do with your dogs food at mealtimes, but also ideas of what you can do outside the house on walks that help create calm, contended dogs and promote the release of happy hormones. For those with particularly stressy dogs or reactive dogs, these are also great ideas to use on days off walking or stress breaks.
A dog explores and understands the world with their nose which has 40 times more scent receptors in it than humans (up to 60 times more for scent hounds). On top of this the part of the brain that deals with scent (olfactory centre) is 40 times bigger in dogs than in humans. Scent work games are a fantastic way to tire out a dog and 10-20 minutes of scent work can be as mentally tiring as over an hours walk. The Pulse Project have been doing some brilliant work measuring and recording what a dogs heart rate does in all sorts of situations. The below video is the difference in heart rate between playing ball and doing a treat search, and the results are quite amazing.
So taking into account all the benefits of scent work, here are a few scent work games to try with your dog!
A snuffle mat looks similar to a thick piled rug. They are made from a rubber mat with holes in it, and fleece strips threaded and tied through it. The idea is to spread the dogs food or dry treats through the mat and the dog moves through the mat trying to sniff out and find the pieces of treats. The thicker the mat the longer it will take the dog to find the food, and it is recommended to take the mat up when not in use, particularly if you have a dog that likes to chew or destroy toys.
Scatter feeding can be made into various activities, but the name says it all, it is scattering the dogs food around so they have to search for it. This can be done from literally throwing their food out around the garden for them to find, or tossing treats on the ground on dog walks for a treat search to calm dogs down. You can also hide bits of food around your house and/or garden making a treasure hunt for your dog. There's a more specific game called Sprinkles where you use moist food too, which instructions can be found here. Once your dog has the idea, you can start adding a cue of "go find it" and pointing at the food on the floor to initiate the game. Eventually you won't have to point, their ears will just perk up at "find it!".
You know when you order an Amazon deliver and it comes in a box ten times too big for the item surrounded by half a tree of paper? Well next time you get one, instead of throwing it away, screw the paper up loosely and stuff it into the box. At the dogs meal time just pour the food into the box and you dog will have a grand time snuffling and rooting through all the paper looking for the food.
Feel free to share photos of your dogs playing these games, and scent games that you play to engage your dogs seeking system.