Enrichment buckets

20151002_171056Early this year, I presented “Lives of Streeties” – a study on street dogs that looks at the activity pattern of dogs. The study had some interesting take-aways.

While the primary intent was to figure out how much physical exercise to free ranging dogs really need, there was an observation that caught my attention – the amount of mental stimulation street dogs get. They work for their food, they have plenty of doggies and people to socialize with.

They have so many different urban scents and trails to follow. Continued exposure to new things is known to grow the brain. Of course, sometimes it gets just too much for them, because they are exposed to more than just mental stimulation.

They are exposed to possible abuse and trauma as well. But that’s another story. Our dogs, by comparison are well protected, seem to get similar if not more exercise than street dogs, but seem to be severely lacking in mental stimulation. Their friends are few. They don’t have to scavenge for their food, in fact it’s forced down on them most times.

Whatever few odours we bring into the house, we literally kill it with disinfectant. So what is really occupying our dogs’ minds? Minds that are clearly capable of so much more, if the street dogs are any indication. When I work with clients, I work on increasing mental stimulation. Of course, they get two walks a day. But it’s quite evident that the walks by themselves will not cut it. Our apartments are too sterile and boring to fill in the rest. We need to make it interesting.

If we lived in a less busy city, I would have recommended tossing your dog in the car and driving around to find new places for your dog to explore. But we live in Bangalore and anything that involves driving is not really a great idea. So bring the outdoors home.

At least try. Apart from a toy basket for your dog, try creating an enrichment bucket for your dog. While a toy basket contains dog toys bought from pet shops, the enrichment bucket needs to contain day-to-day objects.

Things you will be happy to replace with newer objects, without worrying about the impact on your pocket. Just about anything can go in there from empty boxes, old clothes, phone books, old mobile cases, old shoes, twigs, green coconuts, ropes…just about anything.

The aim is not to have many objects, but new objects. Each evening, when your dog gets into the mood to engage his mind, lay out all the objects in the enrichment bucket. Each time, aim to have at least one new object in there. Scatter a bunch of treats among the objects. Put a few treats in the boxes. Roll up a few treats in the old clothes.

You have created an activity space for your dog now. Sit back and watch him explore it. It’s important not talk to him when he is exploring. After he’s done, you can put all the objects back in the bucket, toss in something new into the bucket and store it away for the next day.

The toy basket on the other hand, will remain accessible to the dog at all times. As you do more of this, you will gain confidence in the objects you put into it. The amount of destruction your dog involves in will come down. However, the aim of the treats in the boxes, is to get him to destroy it. So make sure your does this under supervision. Enjoy great evenings together!

Learn dog language

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 23, 2016, 08.30 PM IST

What is your dog telling you?

A friend recently shared a video that has been making the rounds on the internet. She was not able to comprehend what was going on. The video showed a dog sitting in front of a big cake, curling his lips back in a snarl. People around were touching his teeth with icing dipped fingers, which would make the dog stop snarling and lick the icing off the finger and then start snarling again. The people found this very funny and kept giggling about it.

A closer look at this video reveals that the dog is not only snarling, but is giving several other signals. This body is stiff, his hackles are raised, he has whale eyes (where the whites of the eyes are revealed excessively) and there is also a low rumble of a growl. These are all signs. The dog is trying to say something and the overtone of that something is “Please give me space, I am feeling pushed”. It’s meant to act as a warning. A dog is on the brink of his “fight or flight” response being triggered. And when it does, if he does not see an immediate way out, he will be forced to fight!

Often we might think a dog has a way out. But clearly the dog does not always see that way out. This might have a bit to do with the way humans and dogs perceive space, depth and colour. A dark room that could trap him further might not seem like a good option for “flight” to a dog. The other explanation could come from the fact that we underestimate how stressed a dog is when he is showing us these signs. When an animal is indeed this stressed, his brain is in a panic mode and he might not be able to see clearly all the options he has in front of him.

In any case, it’s best to back off from the dog. If you are concerned about how frequently your dog is behaving like this, seek help from a professional to understand why your dog is getting stressed so easily. But at the time your dog is snarling or growling, back off and give him maximum space to compose himself again. Growling by itself is not a problem. Growling is a symptom of a problem – elevated levels of underlying stress coming either from poor health, environmental stressors or unresolved baggage from the dogs past. Of course, there are other reasons too and hence needs close examination of the dog, his habits and his lifestyle.

So that explains the dog’s behaviour on the video. How do we understand the people’s behaviour? When an animal is warning them so clearly, why are they seemingly blind to the dog’s signs. In my experience, the most common reason is lack of awareness. I do believe that if we as pet parents took responsibility to learn about calming signals and dog body language, we will not only avoid our dogs a lot of stress, avoid miscommunication with them and avoid dangerous accidents. But the best part of it all is that once we start learning their language and start responding to them more appropriately, our relationship with them elevates to a new level all together. There are several videos, books and articles online about Calming Signals and dog body language. It’s not that hard to learn about this. But it’s not only safer once you know this, it’s also so much more rewarding.

Don’t hog the hug

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 9, 2016, 08.40 PM IST

Dogs don’t like being hugged

If you’ve been following any doggy news online, you must have come across the ongoing discussion about hugging dogs. For those of you who haven’t, here’s a gist.

Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher who has published award winning books regarding the intelligence and mental abilities of dogs recently wrote an article for Psychology Today. The article details a study he did on photographs of people hugging dogs. His study revealed that more than 80 per cent of these dogs were giving out ‘calming signals‘.

Calming signals are signals that dogs give out when they are trying to calm themselves or others down, often indicating that there is a stressor around. Easily identifiable calming signals include licking of the lips, yawning, turning the face away, squinting and whale eyes (whites of the eye showing prominently).

After Coren published his article, several people raised questions. These are valid questions in the academic field of research. It was pointed out that the study was not sufficient to be conclusive. It was also pointed out that findings like these need to be corroborated by multiple sources.

There is another study going on in Norway called ‘Dog Pulse‘ that studies the heart of dogs in different situations. That study reveals some very interesting facts that might offer some additional information to understand this issue at hand. The study shows that a dog’s heart rate increases significantly when we hover over a dog or bend over a dog. Now that might make intuitive sense to us. If there was a species much larger than us that hovered over us, it’s easy to imagine that our heart rate would also spike.

The Pulse Project also reveals that walking straight up to a dog spikes up the dog’s heart rate. Now that is a less intuitive fact. To understand this, we need to know how dogs approach each other. They never walk up to each other unless it’s confrontational. In a non-confrontational approach a dog curves slightly around another dog. So it makes sense that dogs are perhaps not designed for calm full-frontal approaches.

In addition to this, we also have studies that show that chances of bites are much higher when a dog is being hugged or kissed. There are also several videos online that show a dog’s body language in slow motion as it’s being hugged or petted. The videos reveal dogs giving out several calming signals, just the way Coren’s photo study revealed.

All of this information is repeatedly pointing in the same direction—dogs don’t always love hugs. That does not mean they don’t like touch. Sometimes dogs will come up to you and ask for contact. But such a dog will happily accept a nice massage on the neck or like to be stroked on the shoulders. Of course many dogs do love sitting on people’s laps. They will enjoy that far more if they can continue to sit, without having to be restricted by your hug. Puppies will ask to be picked up sometimes. Again, there are several guides on the internet about how you can pick one up, without making the puppy feel restricted and while also giving the puppy maximum sense of freedom and not trapping them in a hug.

Yes, we need a lot more validation of this idea. But some articles that object to this idea make an incorrect leap from asking for more validation to then dismissing the result of the study as incorrect. With dogs, is it not always better to be safe than sorry? Does it not make sense that the study suggests an animal needs it space? Should we not learn to respect that space and not impose? Learn to read Calming Signals to let your dog guide you on what he likes and does not like. I like this video that shows how to read these signs when petting a dog:

What to look for when adopting?

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Apr 25, 2016, 08.58 PM IST

Is adoption right for you?

Is adoption right for you? That’s a question only you can really answer. Often people are not sure how to answer that question and eventually opt out of adoption. I’ll try to give you some tools that you can use to help you figure out. If you don’t feel confident enough about evaluating a dog, use the help of a professional to get the answers.

The most common myth people have about adopting dogs is that all such dogs carry baggage and hence is going to pose a significant challenge in settling down at home. A closer examination of this myth reveals something interesting. Yes, most dogs up for adoption are stressed to varying degrees. But the problem is not insurmountable. At the same time, raising young puppies is no cake-welk, either. They too need a lot of care and attention in the beginning. Little puppies also need a lot of patience when it comes to training them and handling their destructive phase and teenage months. So you see, petting a dog is going to be a lot of effort, one way or another.

The range of issues with adopted dogs can be quite vast, and pet parents must know what issues they are going to face, and must also understand how to face it.

First up, health issues. In order to evaluate the health of the dog, examine the dog thoroughly and talk to the shelter staff at length. Observe the coat, gait and teeth.

Observe the dog during play time and meal time. Look for large clumps of falling fur, limping of any nature, yellow teeth, reluctance to play, stiffness when trying to eat or drink water. Of course, you cannot expect a dog to be at his healthiest self in a shelter. Talk to the shelter staff and ask questions about the dog’s health history, number of infections and allergies the dog has been administered, the bowel movement of the dog, poop consistency, appetite, stomach upsets, injuries etc.

The next thing one needs to assess is the behaviour of the dog. A dog with a bite history might not be the best fit for a home, especially for first-time pet parents or for families with a new born baby. A shy dog might struggle in a very busy home. A hyper dog might be pushed over to the edge if the people in the house are too excited.

When you observe the dog, see the level of curiosity it exhibits. A curious dog is a healthy dog. Observe how he approaches people. A confident dog should be able to walk up to strangers with relative ease. If possible, take him out for a walk and observe how he deals with novelty outside the shelter. You are looking for signs of healthy curiosity, with a little bit of caution thrown in.

Ask extensive questions about the bite history of the dog. Find out how many times the dog has bitten people, or other dogs, since his arrival at the shelter, or previously, if possible. Find out as much as possible about the situation that led to the bite. Try to understand if it’s impulsive or was there a reason why the dog responded violently. Remember that shelter dogs are put under a lot of duress and they can snap sometimes. It does not make them bad-behaved dogs. So understand the situation well before evaluating the dog.

And last but not the least, evaluate your own ability to commit and your experience. If experience and commitment are high, then you are in a wonderful place where you might be able to take home the most needy of dogs and give them all that they need to flourish. I wish you well. However, if you are low on either, then you might want to objectively evaluate what you can do and take on only as much as you can. That way you do right by the dog and have an experience you will actually cherish.

Disclaimer: I advocate adoption when possible, discourage pet shop buying of dogs and am against backyard breeding.

Learn the rules of the dog world

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 8, 2016, 08.07 PM IST

Pet Puja: Learn the rules of the dog world
NEVER stare a dog directly in the eye. It’s intimidating and confrontational.

I recently had to deal with Mango, a dog who had a history of unprovoked aggression towards women in particular. Mango is a massive dog with a known bite history.While I have dealt with dogs of this nature in the past, this is the first time the dog was close to two-thirds of my body weight. That changed things for me.I had to know exactly what I was doing and not allow for a single mistake.

Mango came to visit me. We spent over an hour together and he finally left with no unpleasantness between us, whatsoever. How was something like this possible, when Mango’s humans were convinced that he would bite me?

In order to understand our own behaviour towards dogs, it helps me to compare and contrast. Last week when I was walking Buster, I saw a few children rile him. The children were not doing it on purpose. But their body language was completely off and that upset Buster immensely. So when my session with Mango ended I sat down to ponder what the differences were between my body language and those of the children that upset Buster so much.

At the top of the list was the speed at which I was moving. I was neither too slow nor was I rushing. I walked at a relaxed pace. The children on the other hand were stomping and running past Buster. Their arms were flailing all over the place. I had my arms close to me, and was making very small gestures. Dogs are hyper-sensitive to our movement and it stands to reason that unusual or excessive movement from us will draw their attention and get them worked up.

Next thing I noted was eye contact. At no point did I make eye contact with Mango. I looked roughly in his direction because I needed to evaluate him. I kept my eyes and face soft, with a gentle smile on my face. The children on the other hand were staring down Buster, presumably because of their own anxiety. Hard stares are very confrontational in the dog world and dogs will react to those either by slinking away or by getting reactive. While it may be difficult for people nervous about dogs to look away from a dog, it’s one of the most important skills such people can benefit from.

And last but not the least, I ensured that I planned the entire session well enough to not have to get up and walk around while it was on. Mango did not know me and I did not want to unnecessarily rile him by making unexpected movements around him. He needed time to get to know me. The children on the other hand, walked straight up to Buster and hovered close to Buster. Never approach an unknown dog. If you would like to get to know the dog, allow the dog to approach you. It is very impolite in the dog world for you to approach a dog – he might feel the need to defend himself.

I learnt from Mango that even a dog branded “aggressive” is capable of being nice if given respect and space. I learnt from the children that many of us are doing the exact opposite of what we need to do in the presence of dogs. Our dogs try hard to learn from us the rules of our world. But we are humans, capable of learning much more. So it should not be that hard for us to learn a few simple rules of their world.

Learn dog-talk

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Nov 23, 2015, 10.13 PM IST

When we think about dogs “talking” to each other most people imagine a hidden language in the barking of dogs. Some brush it off as figments of a Hollywood movie director’s imagination. Both are however inaccurate. Dogs have a rich language comprising of not just of vocalisations but also facial expressions and body language. Turid Rugaas coined the term ‘calming signals’ for this. An animal as social as a dog needs such a language. And the best part is that they use this language with us as well. Learning this language not only enables us to understand our dogs better but in some cases helps us reciprocate the communication too.

Calming signals are used by dogs when they are uncertain or want to communicate peaceful intent. They use it a bit like a polite ‘Hi’. It’s also used when tensions mount and they need to say “Calm down” either to themselves or to the stressed dog / person around. There are over 30 such signals. Let’s look at what some of the most common ones are.

licking
Licking Lips: This is a very subtle signal, most times not much more than just a flick of the tip of the tongue. It’s often easier to observe when others are interacting with a dog, instead of trying to observe during your own interactions.

yawningYawning: A dog will often offer this when you get angry around him. It is often mistaken for the dog’s disinterest in the situation. But in fact it’s his effort to calm people down.

looking awayTurning away: This could be a subtle turning away of the head or a more intense turning away of the whole body. When people try to hug their dog or walk straight up to a dog, a dog will often do this. If a dog is approaching you, turning your head away is a good idea. It’s just polite.

Play bow: We recognise this as a dog’s invitation to play. A call to play is an attempt to diffuse a tense situation and hence is an effective calming signal too.

sniffingSniffing the ground: The dog may suddenly seem to lose interest in the situation and start sniffing when things get tense. Of course, sometimes a dog is just gathering information with his nose. Look for context to know the difference.

moving slowWalking slow or lifting one paw: This is easy to see when a dog spots another animal at a distance. He might slow down or almost come to a halt with one paw in the air. You too can slow down when approaching a dog. It will calm nervous dogs down.

Sitting down: I have often seen this when people are pulling a dog on a leash and yelling at the dog. The dog sits down and people interpret this as the dog being stubborn, while in fact the dog is trying to calm the person down. The dog may also sit facing away.

Walking in a curve: The next time you see two street dogs observe how they approach each other. They never walk directly up to each other. They walk in an arc. It’s a polite way of approaching each other in the dog world. They appreciate the same of humans too. Never walk up directly to a dog.

While you can reciprocate with some signals, don’t assume that it will always be effective, especially when stress levels are high. Exercise discretion.

When do dogs stop showing these signals? Dogs stop giving these signals under certain situations:

  • If they have been punished for these signals in the past
  • If their signals are always ignored
  • If the stress level is too much for them to signal (For example: meeting too many dogs at one shot, so they don’t have time to carefully signal to them and set up “polite talk”)
  • If they are sick or in pain
  • If they are depressed
  • If they are suffering from chronic stress

So a dog might be “talking to you” more than you realize. We don’t always needs words to express do we? Well, our dogs need no words at all. They communicate so much in silence. But most of us listen only when they bark. Once you learn to listen to their silent language of Calming Signals, we might be pleasantly surprised with how chatty our dogs really our. And the irony of their language is that their words are much louder to us the quieter it gets around. So, enjoy hours of quiet observation of dogs or should I say “eves dropping” on dogs 😉