Part 2: Give That Dog A Job
Unemployed dogs soon become self-employed so the easiest, quickest, most efficient and enjoyable way to get your dog working is by having him use some of those in-built skills to earn his food, everyday.
Food is Currency
To dogs, food is like currency, euros and dollars. So, if you are to employ a dog, you gotta get them working for their food.
Last time, we looked at the sorts of predatory and feeding related behaviours that dogs come with as part of the package.
We can safely offer our pet dogs outlets for behaviours like the following, using your dog’s dinner:
And we can safely provide more appropriate outlets for some of this behaviour, through the use of games and play:
- stalking & chasing
- grabbing & biting
Don’t let “domestication” fool you!
Domestication has done lots of things to dogs that has made them better pets and companions, but this process has also done a couple of things that mean getting your dog working for their food is even more important.
This process continues to ensure that dogs live closer and closer to humans and the more time the dog spends in the human world, the less time it gets to spend on doggie pursuits.
Domestication has certainly seen a dilution of some more serious predatory traits, but has amplified these traits across various breeds.
Each component of the predatory sequence is exaggerated in some dogs, but played down in others, according to their job or breeding history.
A lot of breed history is mythic but if we look closely at the early roles for many dogs, we can get some clues as to the activities they may love most.
But saying that, teaching your dog to carry out any and all of these behaviours will provide them (and you) much joy regardless.
Our absolute favourite toy:
Choose chews for your dog carefully and know your dog’s chewing style. Your dog chewing anything may be potentially harmful in a particular situation so be aware of ways to reduce the risks.
It’s never a good idea to give your dog cooked bones or very hard bone (e.g. weight bearing bone, heavy antlers etc.) as these can cause damage either when ingested or during chewing to teeth.
Natural chews are generally best but always check and monitor their condition. Look for signs of splitting or splintering, and keep an eye on their size appropriate to your dog.
Chews such as gullets, ‘pizzles’ and scalp have become more widely available.
Cheaper rawhide type chews can be dangerous if swallowed so if choosing rawhide look for chews that are constructed from one piece of hide, that are not bleached or coloured and keep a close eye on your dog as he chews them.
If in doubt, ask your qualified veterinary healthcare team before allowing your pet to chew!
Snuffle ball –
Busy box –
Fill a box with crumpled paper, add treats and close up the box. To make an even busier box, you can add that box to another box too.
Stalking & Chasing:
Energising food dispensing toys –
Give the Treat Launcher a go, especially for those dogs less inclined to chase a ball – they might chase this though!
Grabbing & Biting
Tug is one of our favourite doggy games because if it’s played with appropriate rules we can teach dogs so much with this game, all dressed up in pure fun!
And for the DIY inclined why not consider building a springpole for your tug-addict: How to make a springpole
Enrichment comes in all shapes & sizes
We can give our dogs all sorts of jobs that challenge them in different ways. Giving them outlets for natural behaviour might include providing them with :
- sensory challenges
- physical challenges
- cognitive challenges
- social challenges
Stay tuned for more…
Part 1: We Really Don’t Like Food Bowls
Feeding time is an exciting and important part of your dog’s daily routine but just because it’s routine doesn’t mean it needs to be boring.
The key is enrichment; protocols that you can put in place, simply, to provide your dog more appropriate outlets for natural, doggie behaviour.
Why enrichment for pet dogs?
The “wild”, that idyllic place that’s considered the model we should mimic even though in actuality it is a dangerous, dog-eat-dog place, has nonetheless caused the evolution of a wide range of feeding behaviours that take up plenty of an animal’s energy and keep them busy.
Animals will naturally work for their food, with or without your help (or knowledge!):
Animals are compelled to carry out behaviours, even if the goal of those behaviours e.g. food, is freely available.
This is referred to as contrafreeloading – animals often prefer to work for access to food, even when food is freely available.
Sounds counter-productive, but perhaps not!
Check out this smart pup, passing by a bowl of free food to activate a food dispenser:
Dogs also appear to experience that ‘eureka’ feeling when working on challenges – working on a puzzle is rewarding to dogs, even if they don’t solve the puzzle successfully (i.e. get the tangible reward such as a food treat).
Dogs are natural-born-puzzle-addicts!
Ian & Irene work on puzzles for the first time, in puppy class; they work harder relative to the value of the food reward – they are in it just for the fun:
When animals don’t get the opportunity to engage in enrichment and are lacking outlets of natural behaviour, they can develop all sorts of difficulties.
At the very least, those behaviours that dogs are compelled to carry out will become a problem for us – dogs need to chew, dogs need to chase, dogs need to sniff and track.
And you might not like the outlets they choose for those behaviours.
All the puppies learn to settle themselves in a busy class with the help of a food puzzle and lapping & chewing, which helps dogs to chill:
Think of all the things your pup can’t do if he is chilling out, working on a food toy?!
Dogs that are unemployed, become self-employed…
With all that free time on his paws, your dog may also engage in other behaviours that become a problem for you such as barking, digging, escaping, jumping up, being obnoxious.
It is not easy to live with a self-employed dog because the jobs they choose for themselves are usually not particularly preferred by humans…
First step, ditch the food bowls.
Why do we HATE food bowls?
- food bowls do very little to encourage interaction between dog and owner
- food bowls do little to teach the dog that good things come through their owner
- feeding from a food bowl wastes hundreds of reward opportunities by presenting them for free all in one go
- your dog would probably prefer to work for his food than get it for free
- modern pet feeding practices encourage a sedentary way of life for our pets
- there is a limited range of behaviours demonstrated so dogs will need to display them in other ways (which may cause problems for people)
- chasing, chewing, tracking and using their brains are important for dogs and modern feeding practices often don’t encourage any or much of that
Food bowls are human convenience devices – toss food in bowl, leave on floor, dog eats….dog is fed and my job is done.
But feeding your pet can be soooo much more…
Dogs come with predatory behaviour, built-in
Dave Mech, the wolf guru, outlines canid predatory behaviour in a sequence of behaviours called, not-surprisingly, a predatory sequence. These are behaviours that are innate in all dogs and to greater or lesser extents in different types of dogs and individuals.
The dog predatory sequence might look something like this:
track – stalk – chase – grab – hold – bite – chew – dissect
These are the behaviours that your predatory pet needs to do – provide acceptable outlets otherwise he will find his own, and you might not like that.
Watching dogs play with pals gives you an insight into just how relevant these behaviours are for even modern, pet dogs. A good proportion of normal play behaviour will be feeding related with games of stalking, chasing, take downs, neck biting, and of course enjoying being chased too!
You will see your dog practicing these behaviours in other non-real-life scenarios too – give your dog a tissue or soft toy and watch him chew and dissect it, throw a tennis ball or play tug and flip the switch, turning on those in-built behaviours.
But feeding behaviour isn’t just about feeding…
Dogs engage in all sorts of feeding related behaviour, and many activities revolve around feeding.
Dogs enjoy actively scavenging for food and, let’s face it, non-food items – they will devote plenty of time to this sort of activity and often learn to do it when their owners are not watching…!
Although dogs prefer their own space when eating (not big on sharing!) they have evolved plenty of behaviour for negotiating social contact around food.
For the most part, this can cause trouble for us living with modern dogs, but it can be easily managed, with the right guidance.
Competitive interactions, that may lead to resource guarding and even social facilitation have been shaped over millions of years and generations, and despite a few hundred years of pretty intense selective breeding modern dogs still show these behaviours strongly today.
Digging/burying and hoarding behaviour may be employed by many dogs, often much to their owner’s disgust (especially the green-fingered owners). Some dogs appear really bothered when they get something quite special, carrying it from place to place, vocalising, difficulty settling…
This may be frustration related at not having a safe place to work on their treat or indeed at not being able to stash it away for a rainy day.
Grass and plant eating can cause concern for many owners. But for the most part where this behaviour isn’t excessive or too intense, it’s probably nothing to worry about and a normal part of canine behaviour.
However, where dogs do this a lot, or try to, and/or where there has been any changes to this behaviour have a chat with your vet as soon as possible.
Intense eating of grass, plants or other non-food items (behaviour called pica) may be linked with gastrointestinal upset and stress.
And you thought feeding was just about putting- food-in-a-bowl…
In Part 2 we will be looking at things to get started enriching your dog’s life!
What ever happened to doing nothing?
I can’t remember what I used to do when there was any sort of lull in the action before I had a smartphone.
Anything other than constant stimulation and I am reaching for my iPhone…
The movie Bolt struck a cord when I saw it a few years ago.
It’s about a canine star of a TV show, Bolt, who plays a dog with super-powers saving his person Penny from the Green Eyed Man, week in, week out.
Except, that nobody told Bolt it was just a work of fiction and that he isn’t really a super-dog.
When the cameras stop rolling Bolt is kept in a permanent state of readiness, to fend off attacks by his enemies.
What about pet dogs?
We certainly invest lots in teaching them to do lots of stuff, to increase their responsiveness, to build their love of learning and interaction.
And we put lots of energy into keeping them active, getting them moving, in the hope that a tired dog is a good dog (but is it?).
When do they get to just be?
‘Just being’ doesn’t necessarily come easily
Pretty much every type of dog was developed for some sort of job and in modern pet-dom most dogs are unemployed.
Our efforts in guiding dogs from wild to pet, whether intentional or not, selected for characteristics such as wariness, reactivity, inquisitiveness, attachment and activity.
Our pets’ lives, just like our’s, continue to become more and more sedentary with us substituting real-life pursuits for those that are easier to participate from a seated position – even sport is a less serious outlet for pretty serious behaviour.
Without outlets for our behaviour, it is channelled somewhere else – I have a Smartphone but what do our dogs have?
Would we know a dog ‘just being’ if we saw one?
It can be tricky to spot a calm, chilled out dog.
With great access to knowledge you might think we have a better handle on canine signalling, but unfortunately our awareness (or lack thereof) is affected by popular media’s interpretation of “calmness”.
Shutdown is not the same as calmness
A dog who is overwhelmed by a situation and can’t use behaviour to escape something they find unpleasant, will often show signs of ‘shutting down’.
This happens because the dog is unable to escape and his requests for relief have gone unheard/unanswered. This is typified by a very still dog – the absence of behaviour is not calmness.
Shut down dogs interact minimally with their environment, their body may be still and tense, if they are moving their posture may be low slung, they will often be frozen, you may see them yawn, lick their lips, and squint and blink (outside of normal contexts for these behaviours).
Eileen Anderson’s clip gives you a run down of some examples, mistaken for calmness:
Calmness myths and mistakes:
- The absence of behaviour is not calmness (nor ideal)
- Stillness because there’s no way out, ain’t calmness
- Stillness through restraint ain’t calmness
- Lying down through uncomfortable handling or contact ain’t calmness
- Compliance because they can’t escape ain’t calmness
- Compliance due to the application of training equipment or techniques (that the individual finds aversive) ain’t calmness
- “Settling” due to exhaustion, ain’t calmness (is a tired dog, a good dog?)
- Less behaviour is not necessarily better than more behaviour
What does a ‘just being’ dog look like?
A chilled dog is loose, breathing deeply, he may still be monitoring the environment but not really on his tip-toes, he may still be responsive but not in an overly enthusiastic way – but the biggest difference?
The chilled out, calm, ‘just being’ dog is choosing to chill, be calm and be.
Back to Eileen Anderson for her ying to the yang clip:
Teaching a dog to just be
Start by helping your dog to learn that settling, and being calm is excellent!
Check out Week 2 training games from our Train Your Dog Month here.
From ‘excited-by-everything’ to just-be
This dog needs help coming down from the highs, and to better control his swings from up to down.
- play games with rules:
- make play training and training play
- play jazz up/settle down
From ‘let’s go go go’ to just-be
This dog needs help learning that they don’t need to be ‘on’ all the time – good things happen when you’re doing nothing too.
Both in training sessions, and in life, mark and reward doing nothing – even if it’s only a split second – the more you reinforce nothing, the less frantic behaviour you will see.
- make sure to put behaviours on stimulus control – this means that the dog learns to offer behaviours when you cue them only, rather than as soon as he thinks there might be a reward or he thinks it might be time to work
- teach calm-focus exercises rather than laser-focus-on-the-task activities
- make doing-nothing your new job
- take a break/breath
When we might only have limited time with a dog, whether that be because we are visiting, working long hours or the dog is in a rescue/kennel environment, of course we want to make the most of our time together.
But, a dog who hasn’t been getting too much human attention will be pretty wound up and anticipatory waiting for it. Sometimes, it’s better just to hang out with them – this gives them the opportunity to calm down, bond and be.
Just be…a dog
Don’t forget, that before the dog can just be, he must have an outlet to just be a dog too.
Do you, your dog and your training a favour and teach your dog to work for, to love and to get excited about more boring rewards.
Many pet owners describe how they ask their dog to wait for their food, before putting the bowl on the floor.
Take that a step further – don’t be uncomfortable with the idea of having your dog offer desired behaviours for each piece of that food rather than the whole meal in one go.
One major benefit to teaching your dog to work for their food, is that their regular food takes on extra significance and extra value.
When it’s harder to get, all of a sudden we want it more…just like these dogs:
This means that your dog is learning to use behaviours to get things that he wants, even though this stuff may not be steak or roast chicken.
Now transfer that to when you want and need behaviours from your dog, when you need your dog to reign it in, when you need your dog to pay attention, you want to teach him a new behaviour or you just want to divert your dog for a couple of minutes.
If we use our big guns for the most mundane situations, what happens when we really need better ammo?
Here’s Decker and I playing with kibble when out and about – in the first bit there are other dogs, walkers, joggers around us in the park and in the second bit we are walking near the wild deer – not too close because I don’t want them to approach us either!
The most boring of boring kibble is what has his attention here – it’s fun to hang out with me and cardboard-kibble!
Catching and searching are favourite games – by pairing this fun with kibble, the kibble gains more value.
If I wanted to do something really special or tricky or use food to help Decker better cope with a fear or concern I have lots of bigger and better guns in my arsenal such as cheese, chicken, salami, tug toys or tennis balls.
Before you reach for the big guns…
…make boring rewards more fun:
- make a training mix
Don’t worry if you don’t feed kibble; lots of ideas for other foods here too.
- get rid of those food bowls (you knew we were going to say that, right?!)
- play with your food
- turn sniffing out food into a brilliant game
- teach your dog to sniff out food on cue
- use sniffing games as a reward
- pair other more valuable rewards with lower value rewards
This works by teaching your dog that every time they accept a boring reward, something they love even more is coming. With enough pairings, in the right sequence, the more boring reward takes on greater value to your dog.
Here Lottie learns that eating kibble makes a tug game happen:
- check your dog’s stress or worry levels
Dogs who are feeling under pressure, are concerned about something in the environment or are exposed to stressors will be less likely to eat. They may not even want higher value rewards.
Here’s a great outline of signs that your dog may be experiencing some stress and may be overwhelmed, from 4PawsU.
If it’s all too much for your dog, take them somewhere else, bring them away from the hustle and bustle and just let them be – remove the social pressure.
Pain is a major stressor so always be sure to check in with your vet if you are concerned about your dog’s stress levels.
- check how much food your dog really needs
Something that’s so easy to forget is that dogs are incredibly efficient when it comes to using and taking in energy.
That means that they probably need much less food than they would have you believe.
Check your dog’s body condition:
And have a look at the body condition scoring system and weight management here.
Have a chat with your vet if you have any concerns about your pet’s weight or body condition.
Boring Rewards ROCK!
Soon you will have a dog who is working hard to earn even the most boring rewards, while you still have some ammo in your arsenal for the real training challenges.
This is our last challenge…make it a good one!
To teach your dog best, keep him successful as possible. That means that if your dog can’t find your face in a particular situation, it’s just too distracting for him.
If your dog has trouble focusing it may be because:
- you are too close to a distraction
- you may be around the distraction for too long
- the distraction may be too exciting, interesting, active, scary or conspicuous
For example, your dog may be distracted by another dog when:
- you are too close to the other dog
- your dog can watch the other dog for too long
- the other dog is big, is bouncy, is barking, is making direct eye contact with your dog or maybe even approaching your dog
Keeping your dog successful means that you monitor his ability to focus and be comfortable around distractions.
Asking your dog to focus with distractions
Start with distance from potentially distracting situations
How close can you be to a distraction, that your dog can find your face?
A good indication is that if your dog can do the Find my Face exercise, take their reward and then offer another focus, within a 5-count
If there is more of a delay or your dog has difficulty playing the
game at all, you’re too close.
Take a few steps away, and try again.
When your dog can offer 5 repetitions, with a 5-count or less between each one, take a couple of steps closer and build again.
- work for about 30 seconds to 1 minute
- practice using distractions that are quiet, still, not facing your dog, not interacting with your dog in any way and are not too conspicuous
When your dog is able to play focus games pretty close to distractions, start to build the length of each session.
Build by no more than 30 seconds at a time.
- practice at your starting working distance – decrease distance again gradually
- practice using distractions that are quiet, still, not facing your dog, not interacting with your dog in any way and are not too conspicuous
Now your dog is able to focus closer to distractions for a little longer – it’s time to increase the intensity of that distraction.
- play Find my Face around more active distractions
- practice at your starting working distance – increase distance again gradually
- work for about 30 seconds to 1 minute
As your dog improves and is able to Find your Face in and around distractions start to decrease distance while at the same time increasing duration or build intensity while decreasing distance.
This will best help you to have your dog responsive and with you in all sorts of situations.
Setting your dog (and you) up for success:
- Adjust the distance, duration and intensity of exposure to distractions when working on focus exercises according to your dog’s abilities.
- Use rewards that can compete with the level of distraction you are working on.
- Keep the lead loose.
- If your dog vocalises, lunges, jumps up on you and is too easily distracted – give your dog a break.
- If the situation is too much for your dog, get him outta there!
- If you haven’t trained for it, you can’t expect it!
Environmental cues for focus
Teaching your dog that him seeing certain stimuli (might be other dogs, people, distractions or specific situations) mean to focus on you is a real training shortcut – that means that as soon as your dog sees one of these things he immediately looks at you, gets into focus mode, and all you need to do is to reward him!
Practice for 1-2 minute sessions and then take a break. Have a few sessions today and tomorrow.
Kids are often great dog trainers. Teach each child how to play this game safely – have your child sit in a chair to practice.
If your dog is mouthy, jumpy or likely to get over-excited it might be best for you to get the behaviours established and then bring in the kids to help with practice.
Always supervise child-dog interactions and make sure children learn to leave the dog alone when eating his rewards.
Top Tip for Today’s Training Game:
Start working on these games in really low distraction situations. What really gets your dog distracted or excited?
Might be other dogs, passing people, squirrels or interesting smells.
Well, don’t start working around those until you can ace these games in other situations first.
You will need:
- Training Mix
- stuff for walkies i.e. leash, collar and so on
Beginner Level Games
Start this exercise by practicing some Find My Face! in a low distraction situation – this might be on a quieter street area, in a quiet spot out on your walk or in the garden.
Allow your dog to pick out things in the environment and just let them observe…
Wait for your dog to choose to find your face; YES! and reward. Repeat.
Practice this game of passive focus in mildly distracting situations.
Check out Bailey practicing some passive focus in a mildly distracting carpark, with people, vehicles, noises and sniffing to distract her:
Note that we don’t ask her to check back in, instead just wait – lazy dog training!
Advanced Level Games
Door manners – focus at doors
Getting to, through and out doors is generally met with lots of excitement and enthusiasm in dogs – it’s just so rewarding on the other side!
Teaching your dog to be calm, patient and focused on you at doorways will not only make life easier but potentially safer too.
Without even asking him, we can teach your dog to automatically find your face inside, through and outside each door!