Most of our dog breeds were originally bred for working purposes: guarding, herding, hunting, tracking, catching vermin, retrieving, pulling sleds and carts, and running behind carriages. Others were bred as companion dogs, often used to perform and entertain. In the past, every dog had a job. Our cats, too, sometimes suffer from the stress of living in a domestic environment, where their hunting and exploratory skills are not adequately exercised. Although our pets enjoy warmth and comfort and plentiful food, many will suffer from anxiety, boredom and loneliness, and this is when unwanted behaviours such as guarding, stealing and destructive behaviour and aggression can emerge.
We owe it to our pets to understand their needs and to challenge them by exercising their brains as well as their bodies.
Here are a few ideas on how to introduce greater challenge and decision making into your pet’s life and encourage natural behaviours:
Senses are important for communication and particularly for gathering information. Try giving your pet novel experiences to stimulate its senses – sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touch. Try introducing your cat to a new scratch pole or a mirror, or cat-friendly plants such as catnip. Your dog may benefit from scent games such as hunting for treats, or listening to calming music (try asking Alexa to calm your dog!) Touch can be stimulating for our pets and many enjoy the technique of T-Touch, which can be very calming.
Out cats are fortunate in getting out and about to explore new territory, sometimes roaming 2km from home; however, our dogs need our help to explore new environments. Think about varying your walks to include open spaces and woodland, as well as rivers and sea. Your dog’s exploratory skills will be stimulated by a variety of surfaces – long grass, sandy/stony beaches, moorland, tarmac/pavement, not to mention mud and water! Obstacles such as logs to jump, rocky outcrops to climb on and bushes and shrubs to investigate will all stimulate the natural desire to explore.
There are lots of enrichment toys and treats available to encourage natural feeding behaviours such as foraging and chewing. Dogs are ‘contra-freeloaders’ which means that, provided they are not hungry, they prefer foods that require effort to obtain. Try swapping your feeding bowl for a slow feeder or treat ball, or even wrap up treats or dry food in a towel to add challenge to feeding time. Instead of highly processed treats which often contain sugars, fats and additives, give your cat dried sprats or fish skin treats; your dog will enjoy a good chew on dried sinew and furry rabbit or cow ears. Chewing is a natural behaviour for dogs and brings great pleasure, as well as helping reduce stress hormones.
Dogs are highly social creatures and really benefit from interactions with lots of different people and their own species. Think about your dog’s opportunities for socialising – does he need to get out more? Joining a dog social walk or a class is a great opportunity to widen his social contacts.
Brain work is key to a happy, balanced pet. Here Ginny works out her strategy and uses her paw to tease out a tasty treat from the puzzle.