1. What do you mean “stimulation”?
Under-stimulation refers to a dog who is not getting enough physical and mental exercise. Most dog owners are aware of this – basically, walk your dog and give it some problem solving games.
Over-stimulation refers to a dog who is getting inappropriate mental and physical exercise, often too much unstructured play time like playing fetch for long durations. If the dog has not learnt emotional regulation, these activities often increase and build stress in the dog rather than working as an outlet. The more excited your dog is during these activities, the longer it will take to calm down afterwards. Under-stimulation and over-stimulation have very similar symptoms and often produce restless and destructive dogs who are always on edge and struggle to relax.
Looking at the activity levels and proportions of wild canids offers a really nice model of how to balance out your dog’s daily stimulation. Bare with me for a minute, this is not a post about hierarchical pack structure, but about stimulation. Are you ready?
2. Breed Specific Stimulation for Biological Fulfillment: Preventing Under-stimulation
Ok, first of all, consider which episodes of the hunt your breed was originally bred for; tracking, pointing, stalking, chasing, the take down of the prey... Most of the desirable behaviours in our working dogs are different fragments of prey drive, encouraging the breeds to specialise in one particular skill. Understanding which part of the hunt lies behind your breed’s drive will determine what activities your dog finds biologically fulfilling. For example, sheepdogs bred for chasing and stalking, pointing dogs bred for tracking and pointing, or battle breeds for the take down (as a rough simplification).
This third group is obviously not a real breed group as defined by the FCI, but, with the risk of sounding unprofessional, I have decided to include it anyways. It refers to a mix of terriers, molossoids and primitive dogs who at some point or another were used for fighting other dogs or animals. The reason I am emphasising these breeds as a group is because owners of these dogs often try to deny the dogs’ origin. (Staffie owners I’m looking at you! PS. This is not a personal attack, I too have been one of you, trying to bring up the term “nanny dog” as many times in a conversation as possible.)
Yes, part of any dog’s current predispositions and skills are shaped by previous experiences and conditioning – but a whole lot is also genetics. Can these traits be bred out of dogs? Yes. Are the majority of these dogs intentionally bred? No. Denying your dogs natural traits and abilities will force you to constantly work on suppressing these drives, rather than productively channeling them. More on this topic can be found in Irene Westerholm's book Kamphundsboken, this podcast episode Pitbull Discussion by Chad Mackin and Jay Jack, or in this blog post The Denial and Broken Excuses of the Pitbull Crowd by Patrick Burns.
Back to biological fulfillment! Dogs bred with a purpose will find a way to express the drives built into them, which can become problematic for the owner. If you have a Border Collie it might start chasing bikes and runners, if you have a Beagle it might take off on adventures on its own when you are out walking, if you have a Staffordshire Bull Terrier it might start blowing up at other animals outside of the household. Instead, honour your dog’s natural abilities by providing constructive outlets for their drive. For example, sign your sheepdog up for agility or treibball, your hunting dog for tracking or nosework, your sighthound for lure coursing or flirtpole, your staffie for tug, spring pole or weight pull.
Instead of letting your dog satisfy its needs on its own, you have the possibility to be the source of everything his or her heart desires. If your dog starts scenting away on walks, hide toys or food for your dog, so that the activity comes from you, and you can turn the problematic behaviour into a productive exercise. If your dog chases rabbits, make a flirt pole with some rabbit fur and let your dog chase it. Will this not encourage the behaviour? No. And playing tug does not make dogs aggressive. But why?? You are providing an outlet for the behaviour at a time and place where it is suitable according to our human society. Having a fulfilled dog makes it much easier to work on impulse control and obedience in the situations where our society does not allow the dog to follow his or her instincts. The alternative is complete suppression which almost always ends up with an unpredictable dog (or at least, difficult to predict!), another great post on the topic can be found here.
3. The Hunt as a Balanced Model for Stimulation: Preventing Over-stimulation
However, the activities stated above are of quiet high intensity, and there is a risk to over-stimulate your dog if you play tug or flirtpole for extended periods without interruptions. The way around this is to structure your playtime to work on impulse control and emotional regulation using frequent interruptions (like Out/Drop, Easy, and Stays), playing for shorter periods, and helping your dog to calm down afterwards. If your dog has a naturally high activity level, you also need to compensate by teaching it how to settle, be calm, and have a clear On/Off switch. More about this in our upcoming blog post on Playtime (sign up at the bottom of the page to get it emailed to you when it is out).
Alternatively, looking at the activity patterns of wild canids during the hunt can provide a useful model to balance your dog’s mental and physical stimulation. The canids will spend a lot of time scavenging and foraging, then tracking and searching for prey, at times participate in chasing the prey, and rarely catching and taking down prey. The further down the path you get, and the closer you get to the prey, the more the intensity of the activity increase. This makes sense from a practical perspective. If tracking and searching required a high mental and physical activity level, and would still take up the same proportion of time, the animals would quickly exhaust themselves and have no energy left for chasing or catching prey.
If you compare it to activities we do with our dogs, and we would want to use the general dog’s natural balance rather than building endurance and drive for a specific activity, we would want to spend a relatively short amount playing tug or springpole (take down), fetch or flirtpole (chasing), and spend longer time in lower intensity activities like nosework and tracking (tracking and searching). On our walks and day care we structure the dogs’ time in a similar way: the dogs spend a lot of time travelling together, having free time to sniff around, explore and climb, and less time in high energy chase or rough and tumble play. Low intensity for longer periods, high intensity for shorter periods with a clear start and finish. This prevents overstimulation and built up stress in the dogs.
4. The Individual Dog and Relationship Building
However, many of the dogs today do not have clear cut functional breed traits. Looking at the individual dog’s abilities and preferences always trumps sticking to strict breed stereotypes. For example, our male Staffordshire Bull Terrier Cross loves heelwork, nosework and retrieving different objects, but is really not that into playing tug or flirtpole. Ida, our crossbreed is not that into indirect rewards (stationary, placed at a distance), but is really turned on by any kind of movement and chase.
At the end of the day, there is no cookie cutter model. Experiment together with your dogs to figure out what they love the most! What kind of food deliveries gets them pumped? Chasing food in your hand or in the air? How does the way you deliver food effect the dog’s focus and activity level? Do they like soft toys or firm toys? What part of playing with toys do they like best? Running full speed at a toy hidden at a distance? A long search through tall grass? Catching the toy in the air or chasing it when you throw it? Chewing and ripping the toy? Chasing and tugging a toy on a long string, or do they like close contact and shoving into you? Understanding what activities your dog enjoys, and what part of the activity the dog finds especially reinforcing will help you not only develop great rewards, but also gives you an indication of what dog sports your dog would enjoy. There are loads of amazing and fun things you can do with your dog (Youtube is your friend for inspiration)! Most of them don’t require you to join a club or have loads of fancy equipment, and can be practiced at home and on daily walks.
If you haven’t already noticed, this post has completely ignored the hunt as a social activity, and has for the sake of keeping things simple only focused on prey drive. However, participating in prey driven activities together (see Ida and Rafa getting their chase on together with Otto at the top of this post) can be a great way to build your bond. Doing more together (both activities and resting) is the single best way to improve your relationship and to really get to know each other. Figuring out how to teach/learn new behaviours is fantastic for mutual problem solving, and can really help to teach you how to communicate effectively and clearly with your dog, and gets your dog to express him or herself. There is no better way to build social drive towards you rather then the environment, than being the source of activities satisfying your dog’s drives to help them reach biological fulfillment.
This post was inspired by a discussion with Miguel Sommariba Soley about fixed action patterns, and a conversation with Eva Bodfaldt, thank you both!