Picture by S.Carter, used by permission under the following licence.
Look at your dog. Is he looking bored? Not sure? Is he lying down, heads between his paws, position with his legs under him so that he could spring to action at any sign you may do something with him? Are his eyes constantly watching you move around and does he vocalize with a ‘hrumph’ or sigh? Or perhaps he is pestering you by dropping toys at your feet and staring at you to get your attention? Is he following you around the house, not settling down?
If your dog is regularly awake but not settled and relaxed, these could be signs your dog is under-stimulated, and this can lead to dangerous conditions for you and your dog if left untreated. Limited stimulation may result in the following symptoms: destructive behavior, aggression, depression, excessive and compulsive behaviors, and other mental illness and physical ailments.
When we consider providing the right environment for a dog, there are common misconceptions that the breed type alone will determine what a dog needs. I have heard many dog owners state they selected their dog because the breed is known to be ‘easy-going,’ ‘low maintenance,’ and 'good with children.' The dog's environment may then be in danger of being constructed with minimal exercise, little stimulation, and surrounded by children. Well-being is threatened when decisions are made on breed alone to define the emotional and physical needs for our friends to thrive and for happiness to be found.
Research has shown that a dog’s emotional intelligence and cognitive ability is highly variable within a single breed. Besides, a breeder’s care of the mother pre, during and post-pregnancy may also change the temperament of a dog. Desirable dog characteristics during the breeder’s dam and sire selection process is also a factor in a dog's temperament. The only clue that may be provided by a dog's breed is the origin of the work the breed was created to perform as it came into existence. In some cases, the intended work is so diluted from what is needed today; it provides no help at all. For example, a wolfhound was originally bred to pull soldiers off their horse during battle! Also, a dog who has all the advantages of being well-bred, and properly socialized as a pup, but who lives in an unenriched, constrained or chaotic environment, can become a dog with undesirable temperament. Every dog requires stimulation that is customize for it’s unique personality.
If you don’t know a lot about the environment in which your dog was conceived, or the history of early socialization and care, creating an enriched environment for your dog provides the best chance of fostering personality traits to become a well-balanced family member. How do you create a richer environment? You begin with our shared basic needs: a nutritionally-balanced diet, fresh water, shelter, love and cuddles, and activities which stimulate the mind. For a dog stimulation may be exploring smells on a woodland walk, or playing in the surf while walking on the beach.
From these basic needs, you then increase the quality, such as exposing your dog to confidence building adventures, introducing new routes, new people, and other dogs to your walk and activities. You may wish to provide gentle touch massage or cater to the dogs comfort with updated beds as they change from puppy to geriatrics.
You could add significant quality to the way you communicate with your dog, by having your dog tested in a variety of cognitive games. These specialized tests are fun for your dog and understanding who your dog is on an individual level enriches the ways you train, communicate and even select games. Check out our "Who Am I?" Vacations if you are interested in learning more.
High-quality dog care appears may be linked to greater long-term physical and mental advantages for your dog. Not only is the best and right thing to do, but it also will likely save you financially on vet bills.
If all of this sounds remarkably like taking care of a toddler, you are right. Dog’s evolution has created greater complexity in emotional range and bonding with the human race. Similar to a mother bonding with her infant, Oxytocin, or the ‘hug’ hormone, is released from our brains and proceeds to course all the way through our nervous systems making us feel exceptional. So if you enjoy looking into your dog's eyes, you are likely performing an ancient bonding ritual, similar to a mother and baby, as found by Professor Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg.
You will also find the longer you look into a dog’s eyes, the better you feel. Caution should be taken to not to force your dog to stare at you if it shows signs of reluctance and looks away. It must come naturally and reluctance may be signs of an introverted dog, or a dog that is still learning to trust you. If you dog is not comfortable with eye contact, try sitting with the dog and pet it, speaking softly and gently. You and your dog will still get a rise of oxytocin in your blood stream, as well as other good hormones like beta-endorphins, which help with pain relief and can create euphoria.
An enriched environment provides additional stimulation and experiences designed to build confidence and balance. It is all about making your dog happy.
What do you do to make your dog happy? Please let us know, we would enjoy hearing your stories.
'Sparky' Smith is a Canine Behaviorist and Practioner, educated through the International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, earning her ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC.