Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (www.amazon.com).
AJ Debiasse, a veterinary technician in Stroudsburg, PA, contributed to this article.
Dogs can experience stress just as their human counterparts do. Ongoing or chronic stress in dogs and people alike can cause multiple health problems with various levels of severity. Each dog is unique and may require different strategies to reduce stress, feel comfortable and enrich their environment. Our dogs need to be physically, mentally and emotionally stimulated. Luckily for pet guardians, most of our dogs are easy to please.
So how can you enrich your dog’s life? Let’s discuss food enrichment and sensory enrichment; two easy ways of stimulating your dog’s senses.
Food enrichment to relive dog stress
A great and simple place to start enriching your dog’s life is through food enrichment. Most of our canine friends are highly food motivated, sadly, sometimes to a fault.
However, this does not, in any way, mean that you should give your dog a large number of treats—adding to the obesity problem. What it does mean is that food and treats can be your allies. You can make a game out of meals by hiding portions of the food in different locations and giving lots of praise when your dog finds the portions.
You can also use puzzle toys to provide your dog with entertainment in your absence. There are multiple hard rubber toys that allow you to stuff the middle with other toys or treats. Food can also be used as a reward immediately following a desired behavior, such as eliminating outside or performing a command.
Sensory enrichment to relive dog stress
Sensory enrichment is also very easy to provide. Turning on stimulating TV shows or providing a location where your pup can look out the window can provide hours of entertainment.
Sometimes, other pets provide the entertainment, for example, fish tanks or small pocket pets in terrariums. If your dog seems interested in small exotic pets, please make sure he has good intentions!
You can play scent games by scenting multiple toys with safe smells, hiding the different scents or asking your dog to identify them. Remember, dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, so don't overdo it. Baking extracts or essential oils can be added to spray bottles filled with water. Check with your veterinarian to make sure what you've chosen is safe.
Providing different textured toys can provide both sensory enrichment and comfort. Make sure that anything you pick is not left alone with your pet until you are certain he will not misuse it, e.g., he should not try to ingest a toy or rip up the couch while playing with it.
There are many CDs and audio files that are made specifically for dogs. You can also leave the radio or TV on when you are away or when trying to accomplish other things around the home that your dog is not involved in.
It has been said that a dog is the only being that will love you more than he loves himself. With so many easy ways to make your dogs happy, it's nice to know that you can provide them with what they need for a happy and healthy life.
Physical activity to relieve stress
Exercise is a crucial part of your dog’s health. Find out what your companion prefers. Here are a few activities to consider:
- Playing fetch (Editor’s Note: Please don’t use sticks, your dog could get splinters!)
- Behavior training
- Learning tricks
- Playing Frisbee
Our canine companions love to have a job to do. Whatever you choose must be customized to fit your dog’s breed, capabilities, wants and needs. A 12-year-old arthritic, large-breed dog would not enjoy the same activities as a 12 week old small breed. If you are just beginning a new activity, start slow and increase intensity and duration as your dog gets acclimated to each stage.
Social enrichment to relieve stress
Dogs are pack animals. They enjoy social events. Some prefer the company of other animals and some prefer human interactions. If your dog shows anxiety around other dogs, the dog park is most likely not a good place for him. However, if he loves humans, invite your family members and friends over to spend time with both of you.
Adding a canine buddy to the household can also help in some cases. If your dog gets along with other animals when you are out and about or have canine visitors, it may be something to consider. It can provide a companion for your dog’s entire life. The proper introduction time is necessary. The first “meet and greet” should take place in neutral territory - not in your home. If that goes well, then the two pets could be introduced to each other in your yard. Each dog should be under the care of one adult and at the end of a leash. The dogs can earn more freedom (i.e. a longer leash) as they become more comfortable with each other.
Once they are in the home, dedicate different locations to each dog and don’t make them compete for certain items. There should be multiple beds, food bowls, water bowls, toys, etc. Meal time can be a source of competition and fights, so start out by feeding them in separate rooms until you have assessed how they will interact. Make sure neither one becomes bullied.
Also, please keep in mind the financial consequences of adopting a second dog. This is a big decision that should not be taken lightly. And please consider getting pet insurance if paying for veterinary care might be an issue.
Positive reinforcement to relieve stress
Dogs love to be praised and most find fulfillment in making their guardians happy. That's part of their charm, wouldn’t you agree? Positive reinforcement works wonders. Reward your dog in ways that make him happy. It may hard to believe, but many dogs would rather be petted, hugged or played with, than get a treat. So when your dog does something worth celebrating, give him a calorie-free reward that makes him happy, such as a belly rub, a pat on the head or a scratch behind the ear.
Questions you can ask your veterinarian
- What food would be appropriate for my dog?
- Which puzzle toys would be suitable?
- What else can I do to enrich my dog’s life?
- Which physical activities would be appropriate for my dog?
- Which age, gender and breed would be suitable for a second dog?
- What is the best pet insurance plan in your opinion?
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.