BY AMY GARABEDIAN
September is Responsible Dog Ownership month. If you were to sign the AKC's responsible dog owner pet promise, one of the tenets you'd agree to would be this: I will ensure that the proper amount of exercise and mental stimulation appropriate for my dog's age, breed and energy level is provided.
What exactly is mental stimulation for a dog? Is a daily walk enough to satisfy this crucial and basic need? It's no surprise the promise includes exercise and mental stimulation in the same sentence.
Often, these go hand in hand. Taking your dog for a walk stretches their legs, true, but also gives them an opportunity to use their nose and investigate what the neighbor's doodle was up to this morning.
This is perhaps the simplest example, but there are many, many more. In fact, more 'dog sports' are being developed each year, which combine a dog's need for physical exertion with strengthening their mental muscles, too.
The types of activities, structured or otherwise, you can do with your dog are limitless, and they are necessary for a well-balanced dog. Like people, dogs can go a bit stir-crazy when left in the house all day, for weeks at a time. And no, playing in the backyard doesn't cut it. Cabin fever, anyone? Having trained thousands of dogs over the past nine years, it's easy to see the pattern of fear aggression in poorly exercised dogs or dogs cooped up in the house all the time.
So what options are available to get your dog out and having some fun? The world of dog sports is wide. Lately, sports which may have been developed with a particular type of dog in mind are becoming more inclusive to other types of dogs. For example, lure coursing is a sport traditionally associated with sight hounds, like Greyhounds or Pharaoh hounds, dogs that are sheer grace in motion and very, very fast.
The "lure" is attached to the end of a preset course over a field, and the speed of the lure can be varied, depending on the dog chasing. Lure coursing taps into one of a dog's most basic instincts: chase. Sight hounds are fantastic at it, but St. Bernards love to run, too, even if they don't have the fastest time.
Other sports have done this same thing. A Beagle may be a superior tracker, but a Pit bull loves to use their nose, too. So tracking or barn hunt could be great options to try. Start with something you believe your dog may already have a natural inclination toward. Dog loves to chase frisbees? How about disc dogs. Dog loves the water? Try dock diving or water rescue. Dog sports are accessible to all breeds, including our rescue friends of ambiguous origins. Any dog can register and compete in dog sports with the AKC, likely the largest sponsor of dog sporting events in our country. The only exception is conformation, reserved for purebreds, as the dogs are judged against a particular breed standard.
Getting started in dog sports is as easy as googling the sport of your choice, and finding events near you, or clubs which support their members in training for a particular sport. We're lucky in our area we have a very involved dog fancier community and plenty of opportunity.
If getting involved in dog sports seems overwhelming, providing mental stimulation for your dog can be simple. Not all activities with your dog need to be physical in nature to serve as mental stimulation, either. I'm involved with three of our dogs in therapy work. On the physical exertion scale, it's very small, but the girls love to get out of the house and get petted for an hour meeting new people. It's also a great choice for my older dog, who has limited physical opportunities.
In our puppy classes, we encourage owners of new puppies to teach tricks, but this applies to all dogs, at any age. At first it may seem superfluous, but teaching your dog anything, even give me your paw, stretches those mental muscles which are important for all dogs, but critical for high activity dogs more prone to anxiety like shepherds. In addition to tricks, simple games which encourage the dogs to use their nose to 'find it' for hidden treats are another example of providing mental stimulation to your dog, whether they are a Labrador or a Lhasa Apso.
Whether you begin with trying out a new sport or teaching roll over, start. Ultimately, you'll not only have a better bond with your dog, you'll have a better-adjusted, happier dog, too.
Go on. Go play with your dog.