Dog training has been my passion for the past 25 years. I truly enjoy the ability to alter the relationship between a dog and their owners. While barking, house soiling, jumping and aggression are frequent topics I discuss with my clients, my favorite discussions involve building a better bond between pet and owner, and a great way to do that is with tricks and treats.
“Tricks and treats” may sound like a Halloween cliché but to truly develop a relationship with your dog, you need to have fun together. Being the leader of the pack isn’t always about strict rules and obedience. The leader of the pack will often initiate play as a way to bond pack members together and burn excess energy. This can be a simple game of fetch in the backyard or a more involved game of hide and seek with toys inside the house.
Excess energy is one reason why dogs find themselves involved in mischief when we are out. They’re not looking to get into trouble while you’re at work to annoy you; they’re bored and looking for something interesting to do…unfortunately, chaos often follows.
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Dogs were initially bred for a specific task. Labrador retrievers were bred as hunting companions, to retrieve ducks in the water. Greyhounds were bred to race. Rhodesian ridgebacks were bred in South Africa to hunt lions and other game.
When we welcomed these dogs into our homes, we often did not substitute their original jobs with new jobs. We also usually work outside of the home, leaving these pack animals alone inside of the house. And we wonder why we have behavioral issues with our fabulous four-legged friends?
Dogs need a few things from us: ample exercise, food, veterinary care, and love. But often what’s lacking is mental stimulation. They are bored; bored with the couch, bored with their bed and bored with chasing the cat. Teaching them games and tricks is a way to utilize their brainpower and make your life a bit easier.
Start off easy - whenever you feed your dog, make him or her sit. Seems easy enough, but what it does is raise you on the pack leader ranks and causes them to be calm at dinner and treat time. So many dogs arrive in the kitchen barreling down the hallway and sliding across the linoleum. That is no way to ask the pack leader for food; sitting patiently is a much more acceptable way to present oneself at dinnertime.
Often when a dog has 20+ toys strewn about the house and yard, the owner will complain he never plays with any of them. If you remove 75 percent of the toys and rotate them every few days, it will seem like Christmas has come to town! Giving your dog five or so toys on Monday and switch them out with five new toys Wednesday. This exercise will allow your dog’s brain to be stimulated by new senses, smells and activities. Be sure to keep the “out of rotation toys” in a place where he cannot access them.
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Teach your dog the “name” of each toy. This is the precursor to “hide and seek”, in which you hide a few toys in one room and ask your dog to retrieve each one by name. You can also put all of the toys in a basket or bin and have them search until they find “Mr. Puddles the Penguin”. Your dog has a great capacity to learn words. Naming toys is one way to build their vocabulary.
Adding in mentally stimulating toys is a great technique to keep your dog interested in the first hour you are away from home. A “KONG” toy filled with peanut butter and or watered down dog food can be placed in the freezer before going to bed. The next morning you have a wonderful treat that will take some time for your dog to devour. A “Buster Cube” is a plastic cube with a hole in it; you fill it with treats or some of your dog’s breakfast and they push it around attempting to have the cube dispense a few morsels. This will keep them occupied and tire them out mentally. Remember, a mentally tired dog is less likely to get into or cause trouble while you are out.
Keep your dog happy and healthy with exercise and mental stimulation through obedience and play. It will help you both appreciate each other and foster a deeper relationship for years to come.
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