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!


Making “outdoor” dogs happy

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jan 25, 2016, 09.47 PM IST

wolf wars

I sometimes get to work with “outdoor” dogs – dogs that are largely kept outside the house, entering the home just for very short durations or never at all. The behavioural problems these dogs exhibit include excessive barking, digging, obsessive behaviours, depression and self-mutilation, among others. Almost all of these point towards a high level of stress brought on by some extreme frustration. The people in these houses are often perplexed, explaining to me that the dog is getting several walks a day and that dogs they have had earlier had similar lives but did not experience such behavioural problems.

First up, we need to understand that being social with humans was an integral part of a dog’s evolution. It is theorised that a few members of the now-extinct gray wolf species (who were more friendly with humans) were the predecessors of our modern day dogs. That means the friendlier the animals were to humans, the more dog-like they became. They even developed physical features that humans find endearing – floppy ears, large liquid eyes and curled waggy tails.

For a species whose identity is linked so closely with his social contact with humans, imagine how critical this social contact is to his very being and mental stability. A dog that is deprived of social contact can develop several emotional issues. Keeping a dog outside the home puts him in a place where he does not get as much contact with people as he needs.

You may ask – did our grandparents not have dogs outside their homes and fare much better? Yes. As do many pet parents in rural areas to this day do that too. However rural areas do not have confined compounds that limit a dogs movements. A dog has the freedom to range free. He compensates for his lack of social contact at home, by developing good contact with other dogs and other people in the village.

Tiny modern city homes today are a stark contrast to this. The roads are busy all the time. The traffic does not ever ease up, not giving the dog a moment of peace. Walks have gotten shorter, faster and busier, with very little space for a dog to relax and sniff. The Indian culture of delegating dog walking to disinterested domestic staff results in the dog being walked in complete indifference and even animosity in some cases. The only time the dog actually seems to get attention is when someone is yelling at him to stop the barking.

I can understand that there are times when moving a dog in is not an option. In such cases, be aware of the problems and try to address them actively. Make sure that some loving humans put aside some time every day to spend with the dog, talking lovingly and petting or massaging the dog. Make sure that the dog is walked by someone who actually cares for the dog. The dog needs to get a slow walk where he can sniff a lot. The dog needs a quiet soft bed to sleep in, a few objects to call his own and tasty food that he actually looks forward to, instead of dry dog food that tastes the same all the time.

Whatever be our reasons for bringing a dog home, we must acknowledge that he gives us a lot. He is in our home at our behest. So it is incumbent on us to make sure that, in the least, he has some sources of joy in his everyday life. As you can see, dog does not need much.

Dogs need to be curious

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Dec 22, 2015, 04.00 AM IST

dog gifting, shelters, dog shelters
Curiosity in dogs is important

I write to you this week from San Francisco again. The last time I was here, I wrote about the bulldog I was working with. She displayed a strange behaviour – she was obsessed with going to the beach for her walks and was completely disinterested in all other walks. During walks she showed no curiosity and did no sniffing. I had then identified that she was addicted to the adrenalin-high that she was getting at the beach. We had to get her mind away from it to rediscover her natural curiosity.

Today, she is an entirely different dog. She takes a deep interest in her walks, sniffing everything around, even Christmas decorations in people’s yards. I asked her humans how they did this. They have put in a lot of work. But they stuck to some basics – they stopped frequenting the beach and instead started taking her out to different places that she could explore. New places that caught her attention. Gradually, over time her natural curiosity has returned.

This is great news because dogs, in fact all animals, gain a lot of pleasure from SEEKING. In her book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin talks about the primal emotions of animals. There are many ways to categorise emotions. The classification she uses is based on which part of the brain the emotions fire up. Primary emotions are ones that fire up the primitive parts of the brain. She identifies four such primitive emotions – rage, prey drive, fear and curiosity/ interest/ anticipation. She also talks of four primary social emotions, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The last bucket of curiosity, interest and anticipation is one that Dr Panskeep describes as SEEKING. It stimulates a very specific circuit in the brain. It’s this that makes us seek interest in our environment. It’s the firing of this emotion that helps us learn about our environment, find what benefits us and what we need to avoid. It’s critical for survival. The way nature ensures that we proactively learn about our environment is by making the stimulation of this circuit in our brain pleasurable.

So if an animal stops exploring the environment around her, she is missing out on experiencing a basic pleasurable emotion. Consequently, the animal’s learning is stunted. Not firing these necessary circuits in the brain might have long-term effects on brain development. Getting high on adrenaline constantly, on the other hand, wears the body and brain down. Hence it’s absolutely necessary to engage the natural curiosity of a dog.

This means that a dog that starts anticipating food is actually feeling joy at that point. Grandin points out that when animal brains are studied, it reveals something fascinating – this SEEKING circuit is only active as long as the dog is anticipating the food. Once the food appears and the dog starts eating, this circuit is turned off! So, one easy way is to hide the treats. Treat search and toy search is a great way to do that. Exploring new places is another way that worked very well for this bulldog’s family, here in SF. Hide and seek with people is great too as long as people don’t overreact when found, shooting up adrenaline. If you are out on vacation with your dog, try to hide further and further away from your dog, forcing your dog to “track” you. Remember, the search in itself is pleasurable. It’s not always about the find.

Smelly Delights

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 4, 2015, 08.35 PM IST

Dogs don’t act on the world by handling objects or by eyeballing them, as people might, or by pointing and asking others to act on the object (as the timid might); instead, they bravely stride right up to a new, unknown object, stretch their magnificent snouts within millimeters of it, and take a nice deep sniff,” writes Alexandra Horowitz in her book Inside of a Dog. I think this creates the perfect mental image of how our dogs see the world. The power of a dog’s nose opens up a whole new world for him that we are barely even aware of. We walk past this world in complete oblivion, while our dogs perceive this whole other world and interact in it too.

I have heard estimates that put a dog’s sense of smell anywhere between three thousand to thirty thousand times that of humans. Horowitz estimates that a Beagle’s sense of smell may even be millions of times more sensitive than ours. Can you then imagine how much of a dog’s brain is dedicated to the olfactory senses.

In her book, The Canine Kingdom of Scent, Anne Lil Kvam explains, “Imagine a beach 1,500 feet long, 150 feet wide and 40 inches deep. On this beach, a dog can find two grains of sand that smell differently. Incredible, isn’t it? Dogs I trained in Angola could find land mines hidden fifteen inches under the ground that were placed more than ten years ago. A South African colleague told me of a case where a dog was able to sniff out a mine which turned out to be a hundred feet away from where the dog was. And still we continue to wonder over Rambo’s restlessness when a bitch a couple of miles away is in heat.”

It’s no wonder when our dogs step out for a walk, there is a lot they want to sniff. The outside world is a treasure trove of scents. The scents are not only interesting, but they also contain vital social information for dogs. A dog sniffs the pee of another dog and gathers information including, but not limited to, the age, gender, stress levels, health, frequency of visit and interest in mating. Dogs are highly social animals and social information is very exciting to dogs. Often dogs will pee in response to all the information they gathered from the road – leaving behind a little social signature of their own.

Street dogs often have the luxury of engaging their ever-curious snouts in plenty of sniffing and information gathering. It’s the best kind of mental stimulation a dog can get. Our poor companion dogs are deprived of this joy. Whatever scents are left behind, we wipe it clean with disinfectant. While a dog’s nose is powerful enough to sniff through it, it’s just not so much fun to be sniffing in such strong disinfectants. So they often give up sniffing at home.

That does not mean the scents have to leave their lives. We can reintroduce the scents into their lives by using a little bit of our imagination. Walks are of course great sources for scents. So allow your dog the luxury of plenty of sniffing. 

If your dog is not really sniffing on his walks, it is perhaps due to some old habits that got built in inadvertently. Such dogs need to be encouraged a little. They need to be shown that it’s okay to sniff. I do this by carrying a few treats and scattering it on grassy patches or leaf piles encountered on walks.
A dog starts sniffing for the treats and soon enjoys the sniffing even without the treats. I also bring in interesting things from the outside world, for the dogs to sniff – twigs, coconut shells, stones, toys of other dogs etc. We have the luxury of travelling far and wide, at least from our dog’s perspective. We can at least bring back smelly souvenirs to brighten their day, can’t we? 

Be a cool pet parent

Nov 04 2014 : Mirror (Bangalore)
Sniffing walks, loose leash walks, bonding with dog
Bond with your dogs over slow walks

I often talk about the responsibility involved in pet parent . And it is a huge responsibility. But often, we get so overwhelmed by this responsibility that we forget to just have fun with our dogs. Today, I want to remind all you pet parents there on some fun ways to spend time with your dog, without getting overwhelmed.

Take very slow walks, to a point where it’s barely a stroll.Walk at quiet times and on quiet streets. Don’t feel pressured to walk in a certain way, at a certain pace or cover a certain distance. A healthy adult dog of most breeds can do with two 15-minute walks in a day and the walk can be as slow as the dog wants. If your dog is walking too fast, it’s perhaps because he has not learned to stop and sniff around. Encourage sniffing by slowing down yourself and getting some professional help with leash training. Walks should be relaxing to both dog and walker.
Talk a lot to your dog. When he follows you around, he does not always want play. He is quite happy with conversation.When you are cooking, you can talk your recipe aloud to him and pretend to be a chef on TV. Or you could read your book aloud to him. Children can find it very helpful to open up to dogs and read to them. Pet your dog or brush your dog in slow long strokes.Unwind this way, talking about the day’s events. Repetitive actions release endorphin in the body and body contact releases oxycontin. The former helps you and your dog feel better while the latter helps you bond.
If you observe, you will notice that sometimes in the evening, your dog gets into a great mood. Celebrate that mood.Giggle like a child. Tell stupid jokes to your dog and to each other. It’s a great family bonding exercise. And your dog will remind you of this like clockwork, every single day.
If you like cooking, forget the readymade food for your dog.Cook instead. Chicken and rice is a healthy bet. In addition, you can add fruits and vegetables. Stick to fruits like banana, papaya, apple and pear. Avoid seeds and pits. Veggies like spinach, pumpkin, carrot and beans are great for dogs. Sesame oil is fantastic. Avoid acidic fruits and vegetables like tomato, citrus fruits, grapes and chocolate. Experiment with herbs, based on your dog’s taste. My husband likes to cook for my dogs and he shows them a few herbs and asks them what they want.They select the herbs that go into the food. They all listen to music as he explains to them what he is cooking for them. And it’s OK to let your dog into the kitchen, if you don’t mind it.He will not take over your world and rule you. Give yourself that luxury.
Another luxury that I am unabashed about giving myself is letting my dogs on the bed. Unlike earlier held beliefs, letting dogs on furniture does not make them dominate you. Au contraire, it’s one of the best ways to bond with your dog. Dogs love the feeling of having bed and sofa access and as long as you don’t mind the fur on the sofa and bed, it’s perfectly fine to let them have that access. Of course, it will require you to clean their paws and brush them more frequently. But it’s absolutely worth it in terms of the joy they get and the joy you get when your dog lays his head on your lap as you watch your favorite movie.
When it comes to having a dog, I say make pet parenting as fun as possible. Relinquish all other self-imposed constraints. The more relaxed and enjoyable pet parenting gets, the less likely pet abandonment gets.

Joy of Toys

Nishi with all her toys

So, for those of you who don’t know Nishi, let me tell you the only thing you need to know about her. She loves toys! Toys mean everything to her. She will happily swap her meal for a toy. We got her to learn how to swim by tossing a toy into water. We got her to get over her fear of vets by buying her toys. We fixed her Separation Anxiety with toys.

It is quite fascinating to watch her in a pet shop. She walks straight to the toy section, carefully examines all the toys and after a lot of consideration, she pulls out a toy. She is very clear on what she wants. Once she has picked a toy of choice, she is very sure about it and no one can get her to change her mind about it. I once tried to trick her by carrying one of her old toys and placing it in the shelf and then trying to draw her attention to that specific toy. No way Jose! She will pick what she wants and she will walk up to the billing counter, bill it and then start playing with it. Yup! Watching Nishi shop for her toys is quite a sight. 

Given her interest in toys, we buy her toys as frequently as we can. I must add that she is also fantastic at preserving her toys. She destroys nothing. So the toy collection at our house just started piling up. Until…

Until, one day, Tigger came into our lives. Thus drew the end of the toy age. She has systematically started destroying all of Nishis toys. Unfortunately, we have a deal in our house that if the doggies left human stuff alone, they had a free reign on the doggy stuff. Being a fair mommy, I have to stick to my end of the bargain and allow Tigger to do what ever she wants to with the doggy toys. That toy chest is definitely getting depleted and how! It is now important, not only to buy toys, but to know them too. To know what works, what will last and what is safe. Yeah! We know our toys 🙂

Now, it just would not be fair if I did not review those toys. The collective knowledge from the TiN House (Tigger-Nishi House) needs to be duly shared and yours truly will be the scribe 🙂

The first toy I will review is…drum rolls please….The Kong! No surprises there. I will be doing a few posts on Kong Toys. This is just an introduction. The Kong is basically a popular dog toy that can be stuffed with treats. It is made of tough non-toxic plastic that can withstand heavy chewing. Very few toys can withstand as much dog teeth power as the Kong can. The Kong is pyramid shaped with a large hole at the bottom to stuff food in and your dog will pull food out of it. It also has a smaller hole on top, making cleaning quite easy.

We start our Kong-xploration with the Classic Kong. A simple red toy that comes in several different sizes, based on your dogs size. Then there is the colourful variation that is meant for puppies. Then there are the black ones meant for power chewers – those dogs that can chew through stone like it was a lovely soft idli. Then there is the Kong Wobbler, which is slightly different in design. This Kong does not fall down. It stands straight no matter what the dog does and has a little key hole on the side. So the dog knocks down the kong, the food falls out a little, then it stands back straight up again. And finally, there are a whole bunch of variations on the shapes of the Kong. I will not get into those here. Later perhaps!

Now a bit on how to use the Kong. Our Kong came home because Tigger is not too fond of kibble. Then Kong happened. Since then, Tigger seems to love meal time. Meals have become so much fun for Tigger. She gets thrilled at each kibble that rolls out of the Kong. She takes each kibble to a safe place, eats it, really relishes it, then returns back to the Kong for the next kibble. How fun! Nishi has started joining in on the fun and now we need 2 Kongs.

So, we decided to check out the Kong Wobbler for. Since it stands straight all the time, Tigger was at a bit of a loss on how to use it. But Nishi loves it. She whacks it hard on its head, makes it fall down, drops a few pieces of kibble and munches on them while she watches the wobbler jump back to position. I think she quite likes the sound it makes as well. BUT here is the catch – the key hole being so small means that kibble like Royal Canin & Hills Science Plan don’t come out that easily. RC needs to be broken up and filled into the toy. Also, I will not be able to use them for intermediate and advanced use of the Kong.

The Kong is not just a toy. It is something that challenges your dog and makes your dog work for her food. Once the dog is finding it easy to pull kibble out of the Kong, you can start adding challenges like adding cookies that are larger or sticky food like peanut butter etc into the Kong and watch how your dog strategizes to pull the food out. She might crush the food first and then pull it out, lick it out or device some other plan. The whole idea is that she needs to use her brain. A great idea is to get rid of that food bowl all together and start using toys like this instead. The more your dog spends time and energy in figuring out stuff like this, the less time is spent on figuring out what furniture to destroy next.

Check out this video on beginner level use of the Kong

Once your dog is doing the beginner stuff easily, there are many many sites that show several things that can be fed in the Kong. There are Kong-Recipes even.
The ideas are plenty and all it takes is a bit of weekend fun project with kids to get some stuffing made and give the Kong to your dog before you leave. Sure the house might be a bit messy when you get back. But at least your sofa will be intact. Worth it right?

Pros: Long lasting. Durable. Non-toxic. Does not need supervision; Safe. Does not get boring as it can be made interesting by changing the stuffing. Can provide mental stimulation for dogs. Can keep dog occupied for a long time, distracting them from being destructive. Can turn meal times into fun game times.

Cons: Expensive. Needs initial training for the dog to learn to use it

Where to buy: Pawsthepetstore.com (Also available in the physical store near Brigade Road, Bangalore), Dogspot, Glenads & Cessna (These two shops have only some limited options)

TiN Verdict: This is one toy that is a must have in your toy cupboard. Even if you don’t buy any other toy, do invest in an appropriate Kong. But do your research on what is the right Kong for you. Once you spend the money on it, do spend some time in teaching your dog how to use the Kong. Totally worth it!