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The Ultimate Guide to Dog Training: Mental Enrichment Tips

Successful dog training isn't about basic commands (not yet), but rather begins with motivating and exercise your dog. But there's something else that most dog owners forget: dogs require mental work. Discover how mental enrichment for your dog or puppy creates a happier, heathier dog with greater impulse control, which then blends seamlessly into your dog training regime.


Dog with an enrichment toy

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Dog training advice: everyone has some. From how to deal with jumping, barking and counter-surfing dogs to leash pulling and separation anxiety, there is as many opinions on how to work through a dogs behavior as there are breeds of dogs.


So what's the best advice I can give about training your dog?


Well, here it is: don't do it.


But before you think I'm advocating for chaos, let me clarify: I didn't say anything about not guiding and answering questions from your dog, or shaping your puppy's behavior.

Golden Retriever puppy looking at owner

As Ian Malcolm said,

It's like the early days of a new romance. It's fascinating and exhilarating until the fangs and claws come out.

 

The same goes for puppies. You just need a game plan and a fresh perspective when dealing with your chaotic velociraptor of a puppy.


The Problem with Traditional Dog Training


Think of dog training as a restrictive diet—overly structured and often doomed to fail in the long run. Who has the time for a 45-minute walk every day with their new dog, along with 15 minutes twice a day for training (whatever that means)?


people leash walking dog

But that doesn't mean your dog should run amok throughout your life and your house like a rhino on meth through a windchime shop. I said not to train, I didn't say anything about not guiding and answering their questions. You need a game plan; a new perspective.


Think of dog training as a diet: restrictive, over structured and prone to failure in the long run. I mean who has time for a 45 minute walk everyday with their new dog, along with 15 minutes twice a day for "training" (whatever that means).


But it's not a diet, it's a life plan. A shift in focus and a reboot of ideas distilled into an easy-to-manage lifestyle.


The premise of Piloting is simple: guide your dog through the many choices they face throughout the day. It's similar to parenting a child. We don't expect that a child will naturally make positive choices, so we help steer them in the right direction using gentle negatives and enthusiastic positive.


The same goes for our dogs.


And just like children, our dogs are at their best and thriving when set up for success by giving them mental work and physical activity.


When I'm in a training session, my clients can usually list what they do (or should be doing) for their dog's physical activity. But only about 15% of my clients grasp the importance of a dog's need for mental work

Dog's aren't just automated robots; they need problems to fix to keep their minds sharp and active.

In other words, keep your dog mentally engaged, or they will find a way to engage themselves, and it's never good.


Let's break down some general guidelines to effectively getting your dog the mental work they require, as well as some do's and don'ts.


Do Give Your Dog Mental Work Daily

dog enrichment feeding

Mental enrichment is a mandatory requirement for your dog on a daily basis.


You fed your dog yesterday, does that mean you have to do it again today? um....yeah.


While I will admit that some days my dogs get more mental activity than others, they do get some every day.





Don't Set Your Dog On Autopilot


Your dog is designed to adapt and evolve to different situations, become better each time. There is a threshold that can be hit, so change it up frequently.


Think about kindergarten, and how difficult was for you to learn the alphabet. Hopefully by now you've nailed it though (and to you flat-earther, anti-vax crowd, keep working at it - you'll get there).





Do Be Lazy With Your Dog


If you want something done efficiently, ask the laziest person to do it. - Bill Gates.

If there's a lazy contest, I want to come in 4th place so I don't have to go to the podium. To that end, an enrichment toy, feeder puzzle, etc., are all great examples of adding mental work to your dog's day without much effort from you. Just be sure to mix it up.


Don't Forget to Join Your Dog Occasionally


Woman training dog outside

Yeah, you're not a stay-at-home dog parent; you've got a lot of things to tackle in your busy life. But join in on the mental work with your dog occasionally. Simple tricks, agility, or hide and seek all help stimulate your dog's mind. You may find it helps refresh your mind as well.



Do Remember All Dogs are Different


Dog in class wearing glasses

Some dogs love specific types of mental work, while others get bored. Find what works for you, which may be different than what works for a different dog. It's not one-size-fits-all.


Don't Spend A Lot Of Money For Your Dog's Enrichment


Yes, that backyard agility set looks like So Much Fun, but you're only going to use it once or twice before you get bored with it. Stick with simple, basic things. Set up your own agility course using a yard stick or a broom balanced on two cans. Or even better, get a kid to create an "obstsacle course" for your dog.


Now that we've set some simple guidelines for getting the most bang out of your enrichment buck, let's go on to the actual exercises and tools you can use to work your dog's mind.



Dog Enrichment Feeders

By far my favorite (and easiest) way to work my dog's mind. There are so many out there! Here are some of my favorites:


If you've ever had a training session with me, you've probably seen this. It's my one-size-fits-all. Easy enough for any dog to use, but engaging enough to maintain the interest of my border collie, Arwen. Any sized dog can use it (I've had Chihuahuas and a Boxer use it in the same training session). So make sure you get the largest size (shown below) rather than the small size.


Bonus: Since it's one solid, round piece, it's very difficult to chew up, so perfect for Ellis.


Dog enrichment ball for training

Best for Uni-taskers and Herding Dogs: Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble Meal

dog playing with toy

My Sparta loved this toy. I loved that it was big enough to hold all of her food (at over 100lbs., she ate a lot!), so I didn't have to fill it over and over again. Sparta's food was a little bit too large to easily fit through the openings on the end; I easily rectified this by cutting out some of the plastic guards. Perfect.


Bonus: You can see how much food is left inside, as it's clear plastic.



Best for Senior Dogs/Dogs with Health Problems - Busy Buddy Twist 'n Treat Dispensing Toy

dog eating out of toy

As my 5lb Papillion, Orion, got older, his teeth got worse, until finally we had to put him on a wet food regime. There are very few enrichment toys that work well with wet food, but this is one. By twisting the toy shut almost all the way, the wet food has a difficult time dumping out, making a perfect alternative to messy Kongs. My Sparta had one as well, even though her teeth were fine. Hers was exclusively for peanut butter.


Bonus: Dishwasher safe (top rack).



Best for Noise Reduction - Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball, Large

I've been using this ball for years (my beloved Darwin had one over 20 years ago!) It's made of a softer plastic (read: not for destructive dogs) so the largest size can be appropriate for even a small dog. My 5 lb Orion and 100 lb Sparta used the same size.


orange dog ball


Bonus: Since it's quieter, it's good for shy dogs.


Best for Rough & Tumble Dogs: Kong Wobbler

Large kong for dogs

Not as mobile as some of the other ball-centric toys listed, this one is a glorified Weeble - if you're old enough to remember those #me. What can I say, we were easily amused in the day.


This used to be the one I used for years with the destructive dogs, until I gave it to Ellis ("Well, you TOLD me to get the food out, Mom!"), so it's not 100% chew proof, but most of my more chaos prone dogs have problems destroying it.


Bonus: One of the easier toys to fill.


Double Bonus: Off all the toys listed, I feel this one provides the most physical activity in addition to the mental work.


Best for Over-Achievers: Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug

The unfortunately named "Tug-A-Jug" is hands down the hardest toy I've had the pleasure of subjecting my dogs to. Out of all the dogs I've had in my life (Darwin, Sparta, Orion, Ellis, Arwen and Hazel), only my border collie Arwen was able to figure it out (see her in action below). However, I did bring it on a training session a few times, and a Jack Russell named Geronimo figured it out within 5 minutes.

She figured it out eventually.


Bonus: This one is exercise intensive, so if your dog can figure it out, it's a great work out!



While enrichment feeding is the easiest way to get your dog the mental work they need, there are indeed other ways to go about it. Check out some more ideas here:


Simple Dog Agility


Okay, I know that I stated up above not to spend money on an agility course, and that still stands. Unless you know and can envision yourself using it every day, then don't buy one! If you're hell bent on an agility course for your dog, try this one by Cheering Pet, as it's one of the few that can be used indoors and outdoors.

small dog jumping over woman's leg
My favorite pic of my Orion. #tongueout

While I use agility courses, and love them, I never seem to remember I actually own them. Therefore, they typically hang out in my basement, lonely, along with my elliptical.


I find it so much easier and convenient to just use soup cans and a broom stick to teach my dogs "over" and "under". Once their good at it, I just my legs, as you can see with Orion.


Check out the video below to teach your dog the basics of agility: over and under.




Scent Work


One of my favorite things to work with when I'm training a dog. It's a cool party trick, and something I can engage my dog with for 5 seconds or 30 minutes, depending upon their attention span (and mine). My previous dogs, Sparta and Orion, each knew how to do it. For a brief video (shot on Facebook Live) on how to teach your dog scent work, check this out. Spoiler: Ellis learns the basics in under 5 minutes.



Conclusion

Dogs need mental work. That's a fact. But don't slog through 20 minutes of repeating the same commands over and over again until you've both become catatonic. That's called drilling, and drilling is designed to make you move without thinking any more. It's automatic. That's the opposite of what we're trying to achieve here, which is mental work. And let's face it, drilling is never fun anyway.


Do what works for you. What you both enjoy.

Let me see your "having fun" face. Work on it!
The goal is mental work, not to have fun whether you like it or not. Pick what you enjoy with your dog.

So if you enjoy agility, do it! If you don't, don't do it! Obviously enrichment feeding is the easiest, and it will work, but I also like the bonding of learning a new trick together, or running an agility course with my dog.


And the goal here isn't dog training, it's working together with your dog to achieve great things.

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Are you a new dog owner in the Cleveland area? Struggling with your current dog's behavior, or just want to start out right with your new puppy's training?


Discover our dog and puppy training services to help your dog to a calmer and happier way of life starting today.




Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Behavior

Greater Cleveland Area

216-548-6905





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