Let’s Talk About Enrichment!

What is Mental Enrichment? To me, it’s the process of making an animal’s environment interesting and stimulating so as to decrease boredom and provide outlets for species normal behaviors. It’s letting your dog be a dog in all of his or her glory!

If you had asked me in 2011 when I adopted Boots what enrichment was, I really would have had no idea. And for college me and baby Boots, that shockingly worked out alright because he was getting TONS of environmental enrichment without me realizing it- going everywhere with me that I could possibly take him, being walked often, interacting with many people, going for rides. Now that I work a 40 hour week in a job where he and Ranger can’t come along, I prioritize getting them out for their walks and adding other mental enrichment to their lives. I realized recently that like me at 19, many people don’t know what enrichment is, or how to start in an inexpensive way, so here’s my cheap and easy introduction!

Use Puzzle Feeders instead of bowls! Your pup can solve a puzzle to get their food instead of quickly eating it out of a bowl! Not only does this provide mental stimulation, but it also slows down hasty eaters. Some great puzzle toys are Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and snuffle mats, but you can also DIY it and use a muffin tin as a puzzle bowl! My boys were shocked and dismayed when I introduced puzzle feeders for the first time because they weren’t used to having to figure something out to get their food, but they quickly got the hang of it, and yours can to! Now they’re excited when the Kongs or snake toy come out.

Take your dog on a Sniffing Walk! Think about how much time you spend watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading books- sniffing novel things is the canine equivalent! Next time you take your dog for a walk, let them lead the way and sniff whatever they want to their hearts content. If you want to learn more about the amazing way that dogs use their noses and why sniffing is so vital for them, check out “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz! I used to worry that people would think ~tHe DoG iS wAlKiNg YoU tHoUgh~ and you know what, they are! It’s THEIR walk!! Let it be!

Play hide and go seek! This can be done with people or treats and is a blast either way. If you have a helper, have them take a treat and hide in an easy location, then ask your dog to “Go find the person!” When they do find your helper, they should give them a treat and praise. You can also do this one on one using just treats- with your pup confined, hide one treat in an easy spot. Ask your dog to “Go find it!” and they’ll be rewarded by eating the treat when they do. As they get better and better at finding hidden people and/or treats, gradually increase the difficulty of the hiding spots. We don’t do this as much as we used to anymore because Boots has a hard time when it’s not his turn, but I definitely want to reintroduce this game when my fiancé and I have a less crazy schedule so he can help me!

Practice Good Manners! Running through the cues that your dog knows, like Sit, Down, Shake, etc. is not only mentally enriching for them, but also helps them to be better citizens of our human world. Using positive reinforcement like treats and affection to train is fun for both humans and dogs! You can also work on new and fun tricks with books like “101 Dog Tricks & How to Teach Them” by Kyra Sundance or by finding a force free, positive reinforcement trainer in your area to take classes with. A good way to find someone credentialed is by searching on the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers website, or on the Karen Pryor Academy website. I’ve loved being in training class with Boots, and Chris is dying to get back in another class with Ranger, but even without class, there’s so much to learn and do at home and through Youtube videos!

I hope you go down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Canine Enrichment! It will make you and your dog’s life so much happier, I swear!

Til next time,

Our First Rally Trial

We competed in our first Rally Novice A trial yesterday!

Life has been crazy and busy recently, what with Chris & I purchasing and moving into our first home of our own, cleaning & wrapping things up in our previous house, and getting into crunch time organizing final details for our wedding in June. Even with the craziness, Boots and I have stuck with Rally and I decided that I wanted to take the chance to put our months of hard work to the test in a trial.

I can’t stress enough how nerve wracking it was for me to walk into class with Boots those first couple of sessions, 7 months ago. As you may have read in my previous post about our training journey, Boots and I have come a long way and learned a lot in this world of animal behavior. The ladies of East Mountain Dog Training were incredibly kind and understanding from the very beginning, helping me to see that Rally is about the relationship between person and dog, not about the archaic standards of obedience that were my unfortunate introduction to the world of dog training back in college. I’m so grateful that I learned a better way and have gotten to experience the joy of working as a team built on trust and mutual understanding with my baby boy.

That said, I woke up yesterday morning SICK TO MY STOMACH with nerves. I absolutely would not have bailed on the trial, but I can’t say I didn’t want to. I’m not a stranger to competitive ventures- as a kid I played tons of sports, was an All Star cheerleader on a national championship winning team, and competed with show choir, among other things. This just felt different, somehow. Adulthood & anxiety have a way of making any kind of security in your abilities go away, and I could see that my nerves were affecting little man. His bearing was off and I know that he was cuing off of the vibes coming from me.

The trial environment was totally foreign to me- I had no idea where to get my arm band number or where we should hang out and wait our turn. Yesterday was a lot of trial and error for Boots and I, and there are definitely some things I’ll tweak for the next go round. Thankfully, Wendy and Jeannie of EMDT came to support myself & Boots and my classmates, Nancy & her adorable pup Raven. When they arrived I didn’t feel lost anymore!! Chris, my mom, and my triplet sister Nicole also came along to cheer us on and their support was invaluable. All of the above know how hard I am on myself and how badly I can get into my head. They know I’m a perfectionist in certain arenas (something I’m working on!)

When it came to the actual trial itself, I kind of blacked out. I thought there was another team ahead of us so I didn’t go when our number, 406, was called. The judge had the good taste to compliment Boots’ adorableness, which I appreciated!! We made it past the offset serpentine but when we got to the next exercise, “Halt & Down,” I didn’t have Boots’ attention so we had to repeat it. We had a right turn after that, then one of my favorite exercises, “Come Front – Finish Left.” I panicked when Boots wasn’t lined up perfectly, a rookie mistake on my part, and bobbled my feet, which cost us the entire 10 points for the exercise. Fumbling that one made me even more nervous leading into our absolute least favorite sign, “Stop & Down.” Laying down on cue has been one of the hardest behaviors for Boots to perform consistently, and I was dreading the appearance of this particular sign. We missed it on the first go- I asked for a repeat and we missed it again, so we just moved on, losing another 10 points. We performed the rest of the course with only minor deductions- a point or two here and there for “lag,” but otherwise no big mistakes. When we left the ring I felt super relieved it was over, but to be totally honest, I felt disappointed in myself. I felt like I was the half of the team that let us down when I knew I could do better. We did earn our first qualifying score towards Boots’ Rally Novice title, coming in with a total of 73/100 points, but I definitely felt like my nerves and anxieties took the joy out of Boots’ experience of us working together.

Thankfully, I had a whole team to assure me that that was not the case and to remind me that I’d shown up for my dog, to remind me that this was our first time ever competing in the trial setting in a brand new environment, with a crowd of people watching us. They reminded me that we’re new to all of this, and that doing something new is really freaking hard!! Wendy and Jeannie reminded me of the most important thing- “It’s not about the ribbons, it’s about the relationship.” I am incredibly proud of the relationship that I have with my dog. I’m so proud of what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown together, what we’ve overcome. That’s what matters.

Boots slept hard last night, first pressed against me on the couch, then in bed, curled against my chest. He didn’t stir at all except occasionally to donkey kick me in his sleep. He trusts me, and loves me, and that’s what’s important to me. I’m his girl and he’s my dog and that’s really all that matters in the end.

So we’ll take what we learned and we’ll try again! As long as we continue to enjoy playing the game together, that’s what matters.

Happy 3rd Gotcha Day, Ranger!

To start, I have to begin the way I always do when talking about Ranger- he’s the second dog I never knew I always wanted. Before him, I did know I wanted a second dog, but it just never worked. Boots and I helped a series of foster dogs find their way to their forever homes, but none of them were the right fit for the two of us. We’d been a pack of two for so long that I just didn’t think we would find a human or a dog who’d fit into our life.

I’m not going to tell me and Chris’s love story today, except to say that it definitely sounds like something out of an implausible and cringeworthy Hallmark movie! But Ranger is 100% the reason our paths crossed, and for that, I will be forever grateful. Just like I was when I stumbled upon Boots, Chris was lonely and needed a best friend when he found Ranger. My mentor and dear friend, Sue, coached Chris through the adoption of a very fearful 5 month old Ranger. His hard work, dedication, and patience on top of the foundation that Sue built are what made Ranger the incredible dog he is today.

Ranger’s shelter intake photo – December 2015

Coincidentally, Chris adopted Ranger right before his 25th birthday- Boots’ adoption fee had been my 20th birthday present to myself 5 years prior! He was terrified at first that Ranger would never come to love or trust him. As a significantly under-socialized stray puppy, Ranger was incredibly afraid of things like going through doorways, walking on leash, being reached for, being in the presence of unknown men, and many other every day things that most people take for granted. I can’t say enough that Chris’s hard work and patience and love made the biggest difference for this big beautiful boy.

One of my absolute favorite shots from our engagement session courtesy of the incredibly talented Carissa & Ben Photography!

There are so many things I love about who Ranger is- he’s so goofy when he’s comfortable! He loves to play with other dogs and he will do his damndest to catch toys in his mouth. We call him our big whale because if he’s feeling lazy, he’ll throw himself forward an inch at a time to be loved on. He’s incredibly gentle, with both people and other animals. He’s learned to be a big boy and express his boundaries, but he always does so with great restraint. The way he handicaps himself to play with Boots, simply laying on the ground and bopping and weaving his big head while Boots jumps up and grabs him by the ears and carries on brings me endless joy- I could not have picked a better little brother for him.

Boots & Ranger on their first walk through our new neighborhood- super ready to be done moving!!

So as February has just come to a close, I celebrate the two amazing gifts I’ve been given by the universe- my fiancé and my second baby. I could not be more grateful for how the two of them have changed me and Boots’ life!

Our Training Journey

I have two very good dogs in front of me, one tiny and one huge, and a tiny and huge bowl of kibble to match. The boys know the routine and they love to play the game. Both Boots and Ranger start offering me behaviors- sits and downs and hand targets- because they know that they’ll get their dinner piece by piece as we play together. No matter how my day has gone at work, getting to spend joyful time with my dogs puts me back into the present and gets me out of my own head.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way for me. If you’re reading this, you may already know that Boots came into my life in the summer of 2011, and that Ranger came much later, with my now fiancé Chris. Because of this, each of their training backgrounds are very different. Boots and I attended a very outdated training school in our small college town- I’m not here to judge anyone’s training methods, as each of us is truly trying to do what will be best for our dogs, but I never felt fully comfortable with this trainer and her outdated and aversive methods. The dogs didn’t have the chance to make a mistake or learn to think and make decisions, but rather how to respond to a Command. Despite my discomfort with the whole situation, I never questioned anything- I didn’t have the background knowledge at the time to. Anyway, the way that the dogs were handled made it very clear to me that the only option, in class, was to do as this person told me to.

Luckily for me, I was an Animal Science major in college and got the wonderful opportunity to learn about animal behavior, learning theory, and canine cognition in the classroom. I’m a huge nerd about things that I love and dogs are no exception. I’m proud to say that I scored above a hundred percent on every single one of my Animal Behavior Exams, and with that knowledge, I understood that there was a better way for Boots and I to train… but the disconnect between book learning and action was steep, so we just… stopped. We didn’t train. Boots earned his certification to be a Therapy Dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs using what we already knew, but that was it. I couldn’t shake the guilt that I’d done something harmful to Boots in training him the way that I previously did, so I just didn’t train with him.

Boots & I the day we graduated from NMSU with our Bachelors in Animal Science!

The heavens truly opened up for me when I found a mentor in the force free training world. Sue, you will forever be my mama bear and hero! As a newbie in animal sheltering and behavior, I needed guidance and was so grateful to find someone eager and willing to help me learn. I kept reading, I learned clicker mechanics, and Boots and I began to try to train. The only trouble was, Boots didn’t offer behaviors. I tried the 101 Things to Do With A Box game… he just sat. I realized that he didn’t know how to offer behaviors, so we enrolled in positive reinforcement classes. We started with Nosework, as I felt that would be fun for both of us and relatively low pressure. We both had a blast, and Boots began to gain back the confidence he’d lost through the previous aversive training. After that, we were rolling!

As I grew as a trainer, I learned more and more how to ask Boots to think. We learned together about targeting, shaping, and capturing behaviors. I learned the very important distinction between a cue and a command. Through all of this though, I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt about Boots’ first experience with training. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws Training Academy in Maryland in the fall of 2016 and to speak with her one on one about our shared experience as cross-over trainers. In response to a question about the immense guilt that I felt, she told me that she chose to move on by knowing that every dog in her present and future would have a better experience because of the knowledge she’d gained as a force free trainer. I still think about that advice constantly.

Here we are now, almost 8 years into me and Boots’ journey together. Boots is coming up on 11 years old, but he’s even more eager to learn and play the training game with me now than he was as a 2 year old. Last fall, we enrolled with the absolutely incredible ladies of East Mountain Dog Training for our first Rally Obedience class. I was literally almost shaking with nerves our first couple classes, and Wendy and Jeannie listened to my concerns about our background and my fears that Boots would hate training with me for a more structured sport, and gave both of us confidence. Boots is thriving in Rally, and I am loving it. It’s crazy to me that this sport we enjoy so much was out there all of this time without us discovering it! I am forever grateful for all that Wendy and Jeannie have shared with me and taught us both, and we continue to have a blast training with them. f

And then there’s Ranger, my big beautiful boy, who was found as a very fearful and under-socialized stray in a rural part of town. His background is so different from Boots’, and his training journey started with Chris, not me. Still, we’re learning to become a team as well, and seeing his eyes light up when the clicker comes out makes me certain about the way I’ve chosen to build our bond and trust. The foundation Chris created for him before we met continues to be the most wonderful, solid rock to build on and I love both human and dog so much for it!!

So every night I’ll be here, two happy, engaged dogs before me and a clicker and treats (or kibble) in hand, communicating and sharing the joy that force free, positive reinforcement training has brought us. They love the training game, and I will play it with them with a full heart for the rest of our lives together.

If you want to learn more about how to start clicker training with you dog, click here.

Peace, Love, and Dogs!