We expect a lot from our dogs when you really think about it. They are asked to follow our routines, live in our human households, and behave “appropriately” to conform to social norms they don’t even understand. Training with your dog can be a fantastic outlet for building a good relationship with your dog, stimulating their brain, and helping them navigate our human world more easily. However, it’s not the only key to having a well-adjusted dog with a high quality of life. We need to make sure that we’re regularly giving dogs opportunities to express natural behavior and “just be a dog” too. Dogs who are allowed to regularly decompress usually tend to see more improvement in their training progress and overall mental wellbeing!
Going on “Choice Walks”
Regular neighborhood walks where we train for leash manners and loose leash walking are a great, accessible way to get your dog the daily exercise they need. However, they’re not the only type of walk you can go on with your dog. Taking your dog on frequent “choice walks” to decompress and have full freedom to interact with their environment can be a fantastic way to give your dog a full outlet to burn as much physical and mental energy as they desire. Choice walks should be done under certain parameters for best results:
The dog is allowed to go where they want (within reason), at the pace they want, and are able to stop and sniff anything and everything they desire.
Obedience for the sake of obedience is not needed, but you should still bring high value treats to reward good choices.
For best results, choice walks should be done on a long line and body harness while out in open spaces like hiking trails, parks, or open greenspaces.
Long lines can be a valuable tool for optimal freedom of movement and to allow your dog to really stretch out on their walk while staying safe (and oftentimes, still obeying leash laws). They are made at lengths of anywhere from 10-15 feet all the way up to 100! If you’ve never used a long line to walk your dog before, it’s best to start out with a shorter length to get used to the mechanics that come with managing extra leash with your dog, then work up to longer lengths as you and your dog become more accustomed to walking with one. If you’re interested in learning more about the mechanics of working with a long line and setting your dog up for success with long line walks, check out our Youtube tutorial on the topic!
Try to Find Safe Off-Leash Opportunities!
Off leash reliability takes lots of training, precision, and a lengthy reinforcement history to build up. For many dogs, this can take many months or more of consistent training before they are ready to safely be let off leash in any scenario. Additionally, not many public spaces are off-leash friendly, as most parks and walking paths have leash laws that require all dogs to be leashed while using them. However, letting your dog off leash doesn’t always have to be in risky spaces or in places where you may be breaking the law!
While we don’t often recommend using dog parks when they’re full of other people and dogs (they can hold a high risk for inappropriate play and dog fights), try checking out your local dog parks and scoping out if they ever have an “off” time. Oftentimes, if you go very early or late in the evening, especially on weekdays, there won’t be anyone out and you can take this opportunity to let your dog loose in the fenced area to have some off leash free time for a while.
Services like the app “Sniffspot” allow people to rent out their private spaces and yards for your dog to come play in at a small fee! You can go through and specifically pick out spaces that are fully fenced in to bring your dog for an allotted amount of time to explore and play to their heart’s content. This is a great option for people living in crowded city spaces and have limited access to open areas for their dogs to decompress in.
Fully enclosed sports fields that aren’t in use can also be an option for off leash play, so long as the rules don’t specify that dog’s aren’t allowed. Just be sure to take a lap around the enclosure first to check for holes in the fence or any other structural issues that may allow for your dog to escape.
Incorporate Food Enrichment into Your Daily Routine
One of the easiest ways to ensure your dog has an opportunity to express natural behavior on a regular basis is to ditch the food bowl and feed your dog’s daily meals through enrichment puzzles! Stuffable toys, interactive treat-dispensers, and puzzle games can all be used to feed your dog their regular meals for some added mental stimulation in their everyday routine. Dogs are mostly scavengers by nature, meaning they have a natural instinct to work for and forage for their food. Feeding food in a bowl only gives your dog a few moments of enjoyment before they finish their meal, but a properly prepared food puzzle can add much longer-lasting enjoyment to mealtimes.
To make a stuff-able toy into a meal for your dog, you can fill your toy with their regular kibble/food, while topping the toy off with soft and lick-able foods to “seal” the puzzle off like peanut butter, plain yogurt, fruit and veggie purees, or canned dog food. To add additional difficulty, you can even put stuffable toys in the freezer for a while to make them longer lasting for dogs who fly through food enrichment quickly. Looking for some suggestions to get your food puzzle collection started? Here are a few options to consider:
Foraging toys like a Snuffle Mat
Let Your Dog Express Breed-Specific Behaviors
Different breed groups of dogs all have different genetic predispositions of certain behaviors to serve the “purposes” they were originally bred for. A Basset Hound will thrive with outlets to sniff or track scents. A Border Collie will love playing with a herding ball, or working on cooperative training tasks with their handler like agility. A Dachshund will enjoy outlets to chase or simulate the experience of hunting small prey, like participating in the sport of barn hunt or playing with a flirt pole. While all individual dogs are different, most dogs of a specific breed type will show tendencies to display behavior that contributes to their original “purpose” they were bred for. Do some research on what your dog’s breed(s) were made for and try to find some outlets for your dog to express these innate behaviors for better mental wellbeing. There are so many different dog sports and enrichment activities that can satisfy your dog’s desire to work!
Alongside breed-specific traits, all dogs innately tend to find certain activities and behaviors enjoyable. In terms of senses, a dog’s sense of smell is by far the strongest. All dogs benefit from being given opportunities to use their nose whether it be simply to explore their surroundings, or sniff out certain foods/specific scents for a brain activity. Let your dog sniff more often on walks (you can even use sniffing on cue as reinforcement), try hiding treats around your house or yard for your dog to sniff out, feed their kibble in a snuffle mat, or even try learning about the sport of Nosework (which can be easily recreated at home). Alongside a desire to use their nose, most dogs have some form of desire to chew. Without proper chewing outlets, this can quickly become a problem behavior if your dog starts to find inappropriate items to chew on or destroy. Try regularly giving your dog safe chew toys of various textures, edible items like bully sticks or dental chews, and allowing your dog to chew up and “de-stuff” appropriate plush toys if they have a desire to destroy.
Spend One-on-One Time With Your Dog
With busy lifestyles or larger households, sometimes our dogs are easily forgotten about as we go about our chaotic daily routines. This lack of one-on-one time can be even further exacerbated if you live with kids or in a multi-dog/multi-animal household, and the attention has to further be divided up. Especially with companion breeds or dogs who have a strong handler-focus, sometimes the most enriching and rewarding experiences for them are when they have our undivided attention to spend time or do activities together. If you notice that your dog isn’t getting specified “alone” time with you on a regular basis, try to set aside time in your daily schedule to do a bonding activity together. This activity can vary among dogs depending on what they enjoy doing, but can be anything from spending one on one time together on the couch, going for a solo walk together, going to a nearby park for a choice walk by yourselves, playing in the backyard together, or setting aside a block of time to work on their training without anything to distract your attention.
We need to make sure that we are meeting our dog’s needs on a holistic level. Not only should dogs be getting appropriate healthcare, physical exercise, and training, but their mental wellbeing should be looked after too! Sometimes, when a dog is regularly displaying “problem” behaviors, it may be manifesting from a lack of needs being met over a lack of training or being “disobedient.” If we want to maximize our training success and get our dogs behaviorally to the best place they can be, we need to make sure we are giving them appropriate outlets to express natural behavior!
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