I live in a community that lights up the sky by setting off roman candles, skyrockets, and any other sort of firecrackers–legal or otherwise– guaranteed to delight thrill-seekers. Everyone else, not so much.
Buddy the Wonder Cat was a rescue who came to us at just three months of age, so we’ve had lots of time to create positive experiences for him. Still, those first three months on his own are etched in his memory, and the Feral Cat Within emerges in times of stress or pain and his first instinct is to hide.
We’ve done our best to create a calm environment for the holidays like the Fourth of July. We’ve managed Buddy’s anxiety by keeping doors and windows closed and fans running. We have one pedestal fan that’s so loud–even on its lowest setting–that I’m reminded of C-130 cargo planes and B-52 bombers. We set that up in the bedroom and watch one of his favorite non-scary movies. He’s still prone to diving under the covers, but otherwise he’s reasonably calm. We bolster that sense of calm with catnip, soft treats, and tickle-time with his favorite brush.
Fireworks tend to invoke an Aaugh!!! reaction in Sasha, although we’ve worked hard to help her manage anxiety over noise. Instead of barking wildly at every burst of thunder, for example, she’s more likely to grumble her way through a storm. We’ve conditioned her to be calm (well, calmer) through a barrage of fireworks by keeping her close beside me, and tossing tiny bits of cheddar cheese or chunks of cucumber her way. She’s agreeable to Buddy’s choice of movies as long as there are no monsters, mummies, gunfights, or battle scenes. If she has to go out in the fenced backyard after dark, we keep her close by using a short leash. That seems to add a sense of security for her, as does having her travel crate set up next to the bed with a favorite toy for company. She clearly views that as her safe zone:
Here are some helpful tips to remember:
Wherever you are and whatever you celebrate, I hope you find ways to keep your pets calm and safe!
Between the pandemic, rising temps, and the dust from the Sahara, our outdoor activities have been curtailed through June. In pursuit of new ways to keep Sasha entertained–and exercised–I turned to the American Kennel Club’s website and discovered cool tips and tricks for indoor fun. I compiled a few of my current favorites here. Enjoy!
Search & Snuffle
If you’ve been following Sasha’s story, you may remember that the coffee bean grinder initially terrified her. (See, for example, posts here and here.) These days, she knows coffee time equals treat time and comes running in to wherever I might be to claim her prize. I usually roll a tiny treat across the oak floors so that she has to search for it. Great game for kitties, too! When I’m tossing a treat for Buddy The Wonder Cat, I make sure it lands in an open area so he can pounce and pat and knock it all about before he eats it.
Snuffle mats are another way to keep your dog mentally stimulated. As I mentioned in previous posts, snuffle mats can be a great way to distract your pup while you’re working at home. And with you close by, you’ll both enjoy the activity. Some like to hide the breakfast kibble in a mat and let them forage for their food. There’s a rich variety of mats available online, and you can easily find sources with a quick Google search. Personally, I prefer the “use what you have” approach. I alternate between an old, loosely woven throw rug, a blanket from Sasha’s crate, and a large bath towel. This morning I used an extra-large old towel and rolled it very tight, tucking treats in at random intervals. It took her nearly ten minutes of concentrated attention to discover the treats.
Snuffle mats can be a great introduction to scent work. I like to give Sasha time with the Muffin Tin game (supervised by Buddy The Wonder Cat, of course.) I’ll hide a bit of hot dog or cheese in a few of the cups, while others use this as a way to make dinner time fun. Here’s a great video from YouTube showing how it works:
Ready for more advanced scent work? Here’s information about the sport of Scent Work, courtesy of the AKC:
Fascinating fact: Dogs have a sense of smell that’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than ours! The sport of Scent Work celebrates the joy of sniffing, and asks a dog to sniff to their heart’s content; turning your dog’s favorite activity into a rewarding game. It is a terrific sport for all kinds of dogs, and is a wonderful way to build confidence in a shy dog.
In so many dog sports the handler is in control but this isn’t true in Scent Work. Neither the dog nor handler knows where the target odor is hidden. The handler has to rely on the dog, and follow the dog’s nose to success. In Scent Work, it is the canine who is the star of the show.
The sport of Scent Work is based on the work of professional detection dogs (such as drug dogs), employed by humans to detect a wide variety of scents and substances. In AKC Scent Work, dogs search for cotton swabs saturated with the essential oils of Birch, Anise, Clove, and Cypress. The cotton swabs are hidden out of sight in a pre-determined search area, and the dog has to find them. Teamwork is necessary: when the dog finds the scent, he has to communicate the find to the handler, who calls it out to the judge.
Whatever your dog’s age, you can help them stay toned and limber withconditioning exercises. Use whatever’s handy around the house as props, and grab some yummy treats. If you’re counting calories or just not a fan of treats, use your happy voice, or reward your pup with a favorite toy you’ve tucked away and bring out only on special occasions.
Sasha and I have just begun working on the “step stool stroll.” Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The expression “Yeah, no” seems an apt description, at least for my efforts here. Give it a try and see for yourself. Here’s info from the AKC:
The idea is for your dog to walk around a step stool with their front paws on the stool and back paws on the ground. Although it may sound easy to you, dogs generally lack rear end awareness—where their front paws go, their back paws follow. This exercise really gets your dog thinking about what each paw is doing. If you have a small dog, try using a large book that has been duct-taped closed. For large dogs, an upside-down storage bin can do the trick.
Start by teaching your dog to place only the front paws on the prop. Once your dog is comfortable, encourage movement to either side while the front paws stay elevated. You can do this by luring your dog with a treat. Or you can shape the behavior by capturing any back paw movement and slowly building to a 360-degree turn around the stool.
There are more exercises and “how to” instructions available online. Check them out!
And finally, here’s something for the humans in the household. Learn about dog breeds and sports while strengthening math skills–a great idea for these learn-from-home days. According to the AKC:
Math Agility features fifteen playable dog breeds, as well as 60 different breed cards to unlock. To advance in the game, players solve quick math facts, with the option of focusing on addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Players take twelve tours across the game’s map to compete in different agility trials across the United States, eventually ending up at the National Championship in Perry, Georgia. Tours are available in three skill levels, appealing to students of various ages and academic levels.
As this pandemic drags on, many of us still fortunate to be employed are working from home and doing our best to juggle the chaos that can result when mixing professional obligations with life at home. Add in a dog that wants to be a part of everything you do and this is what you get:
And then there’s the one who insists on a front row seat:
Or maybe your dog prefers to get your attention by barking. If you’re using online meeting venues, that can be downright disruptive–especially if you’re online with your boss or a colleague who might not appreciate your pup’s “contributions” to the conversation.
My dog Sasha had a habit of barking whenever I was listening to recorded presentations or whenever she heard strangers’ voices during a Zoom or Microsoft Teams session. At first I tried shutting the doors separating my home office from the rest of the house, but that didn’t solve the problem. Eventually, I realized I needed to give Sasha more physical and mental stimulation. When I focused on giving her the attention she deserves, the result was a happy, quiet dog who now naps while I’m in online meetings. If this sounds like something you might need, read on for some simple ideas to help you and your dog.
Exercise. This is good for both of you! If you can go outside, walk briskly through the neighborhood. Have an enclosed yard or other area in which you can safely take your dog off-leash? Toss a ball or Frisbee–even a stick–to get your pup running. Sasha won’t chase after a ball (although she’ll watch Buddy The Wonder Cat chase after anything we throw). Challenge your dog to a “race”across the backyard, and reward with praise and a low-calorie treat. The 10-15 minutes spent exercising will make you both happy!
Indoors, use the stairs or a treadmill if available. You can also create your own obstacle course using chairs, tables, and anything that requires you to navigate your way around objects. Put on some lively music and with your dog on-leash, weave your way around the “course” you’ve created. Vary the route and pace. You might be surprised by the energy you expend with such simple activities.
One fun way to exercise body and mind is to practice Rally Obedience activities. This is a team sport that’s fun for people–and dogs!–of all ages. With kids at home right now, this could be a great way to help them focus while bonding with the family dog. To learn more, check out https://www.akc.org/sports/rally/.
Training time. I’ve adapted the format common in “learn a new language” CDs. I start with a two-minute refresher of the basics (sit, stay, etc.) and then focus our energies on something new and fun. We’ll toss a stuffed squeaky toy across the room; once Sasha pounces on it we encourage her to “Bring it!” and sweeten the deal with a bit of cheese or some other special savory treat. She’s good for a half-dozen rounds before she signals “that’s enough!” with a short bark. Since each round involves a lot of running back and forth, she’s getting plenty of exercise and earning those treats!
Whatever you choose to do, mix and match activities and vary the complexity of tasks, and train in short bursts of time. Ten minutes of fun can be a terrific stress-buster!
Search-and-Find games. Put your dog in a sit/stay or down/stay. Make sure they can’t see you as you hide treats around the house, and then release them with “Find it!” (Get the kids involved and you can get work done while they’re all busy.)
Looking for something different? Hold off on the dog’s breakfast and instead let them “forage” for their meal. Use a snuffle mat to hide some/all of their morning kibble and watch them work for their meal. If you’re a crafty sort, see this site to learn how you can make a snuffle mat. If you’d rather buy one ready-made, check out these recommendations from PetGuide and Amazon.
If you prefer something simpler, grab an old (washable) blanket and fold it multiple times to create layers in which to hide kibble or treats. Bits of cheese or hot dog work, too!
Puzzle toys are another great resource when you want your dog’s attention focused away from you and your keyboard. Kong toys stuffed with peanut butter seem to be perennial favorites, and they’re a quiet source of fun. The Dog People have a list of popular toys, and you can find more at Chewy.com or your favorite pet shop.
Need more ideas to keep your dog’s attention away from your keyboard? Check out the AKC’s Trick Dogprogram. Sasha earned her novice certificate after just one day’s focused training session. Give it a try–it’s fun for people and pets alike!
A closing thought: we’re living in stressful times. Take care of yourself and those you love!