Imagine what it would look like if Disneyland ran a preschool for dogs. Amazing, right? That’s a close approximation to What Dogs Want, a canine enrichment center in Phoenix, Arizona. In the spirit of Canine Enrichment Week, I sat down to talk with What Dogs Want founder Stefanie Strackbein. I knew Stefanie would be a great resource for my enrichment questions, and she didn’t disappoint.
Lindsay, DOGTV Community Manager: Stefanie, thanks for talking with me! Let’s start with the basics. How would you define enrichment? And why is it important?
Stefanie Strackbein, What Dogs Want: Enrichment to me means enhancing quality of life. This can be different things for different beings- spending time with friends, enjoying a tasty treat, a great smell, fun new experiences, an ability to make choices, catering to inner instincts or drives, etc. Enrichment is more than important, it is crucial. Having quality of life, feeling like life has value and feeling that you have purpose keeps us all healthier and happier including our dogs.
Tell us more about moving into your new facility in Phoenix. What was the first area you built out? What do you prioritize when creating a space just for dogs?
The first area we started designing was the yard. That was a non-negotiable-having an outdoor space! A safe, fun, interactive yard was a must-have. We had K9 turf installed and have space for a water play area, we have a giant sandbox, sensory areas, an agility area and even areas where the dogs can just chill out and relax or watch the other dogs. Everything except the sandbox is portable so we can change the layout, create smaller areas for particular activities, or open it up if we are going to be doing something with a lot of movement. For me having space that could be flexible was key. Indoors we needed a lot of open space. Again, flexibility was very important. We can break the space up into smaller classrooms or have indoor agility if the weather is less than optimal.
Living in Arizona, what do you do with your pups when it’s too hot to play or walk outside? How can we help our dogs expend some physical energy when you just can’t get outside?
There are endless possibilities! We play water games using kiddie pools, or even a large tub. We work on dance moves, have fun with an indoor obstacle course, do scent work using boxes or send the dogs off on treasure hunts throughout the house. You can use broom sticks or pvc pipes as cavaletti poles so your dog can practice thoughtful footing, play hide and seek and even a version of ‘The Floor is Lava’ (one of my dogs’ favorites) where we set up the ottoman, storage totes, area rugs, etc. and challenge the dogs to move from object to object. And never underestimate the power of mental work, including scent work, puzzles or thinking games. Playing these mental games for 15 minutes is the equivalent to walking a mile so even if the weather is less than hospitable there is plenty you can do to engage all of your dog’s senses. And I mean thinking games, where the dogs have to figure things out, be creative and make choices. Ideally games where you sit down on the floor and play WITH your dog. That is always the most fun and engaging when you work on activities together.
As an enrichment specialist, what are your thoughts on the zoomies?
Haha! The zoomies! Personally I think they are great for dogs and fun to watch. The “zoomies” are technically called Frenetic Random Activity Periods or FRAPS and are very common explosions of energy that dogs have at certain times. After water play, excitement when company comes, or sundown are common times you may see this activity in your dog. There are theories that the Zoomies or FRAPs are ways for dogs to relieve stress or release built up energy. But I don’t believe there are any absolutes on why dogs have these crazy bouts of activity. And dogs are not the only species that have zoomies- it has been observed in ferrets, goats, gazelles, horses, cats, elephants – and many other animals too. So zooming is perfectly normal and fun for dogs as long as they are in an area where running around is safe.
Are the zoomies something to try and ‘prevent’ with exercise and enrichment throughout the day? Or are they part of a dog’s natural schedule, and we should go with the flow and plan for that to be play time?
Everything I have read and personally experienced with the zoomies, leads me to believe it is a perfectly normal and natural behavior that is almost impossible to stop. You may be able to redirect your dog to another activity while they are “zooming” but zoomies don’t last more than a few minutes so I would suggest you stand back and let them enjoy themselves. If your dog has the zoomies for longer than ten minutes or shows some compulsive behaviors during their zoomies there may be more involved than just a fun release of energy. If you feel there is more going on with your dog, I’d recommend talking to your vet or a behaviorist.
If my dog gets too riled up during a game how can I calm her back down? I tried a game with my pup, and the goal was to get your dog to weave back and forth around your legs, and then between your legs. She got so excited she forgot her manners and got a little aggressive going for the treat!
If your dog gets too wild during a game, I would suggest stopping the game. Casually, no words, not as punishment. Just let your dog settle down a bit and try again. It’s not that uncommon for dogs to get a little crazy when doing an activity that also includes a food reward because it is very exciting to play a game with mom and dad and food! The more you engage in activities like this the quicker your dogs will figure out the “rules” of engagement and understand they do have to keep their wits about them somewhat, in order for the game to continue. They will become more focused and be able to enjoy the activities without getting over-the-top crazy.
If the biggest problem is the dog going for a treat in an over-excited way, you can try not holding treats in your hand, but have them conveniently available off to the side, on a table or bookshelf. If you need to use treats to lure your dog through the position or as motivation you can still stop the game until your dog settles down a bit. Crazy behavior or aggressively trying to snatch a treat = games stop = no fun. Polite behavior = game continues = food will come = fun!
We like to teach all the students a game called the ‘Airplane Game’ to help.dogs learn that it works better to take treats gently.
Ok, tell me about the Airplane Game! This sounds fun.
The Airplane Game is played like this: have your dog sitting in front of you, let them see that you have a treat in your hand so they know what they can earn. Slowly lower the treat toward your dog and as long as all four feet stay on the ground, the treat will go right to their mouth. Any jumping up, trying to steal the treat, etc. the treat flies back up into the air – like an airplane! No words spoken, you are letting your dog figure out that sitting makes the treat come right to me – cool! Jumping up or trying to grab the treat makes the treat go away – not cool. You can build this into your daily routine, several times throughout the day, and your dog should have a little more impulse control when working with treats.
Do you have any tips for working with more than one dog at a time?
If you are going to work with multiple dogs KNOW YOUR DOGS. Know if they have a tendency to become possessive over food, space, toys, you, or any other items you may be using in your activity. If you aren’t sure, assume they will become possessive and work with the dogs one at a time. We do have several groups of dogs at our academy who are friends and do not have any guarding issues but we still supervise closely because you are creating a bit of a competitive environment even if they are only competing for your attention.
When we do problem solving activities at our Academy we have an area sectioned off to work with the dogs one at a time and the other dogs can watch and wait their turn or they can choose to engage with some of the equipment in their area- balance discs, ladders, stuff like that. I feel it is important for dogs to learn how to watch and observe others – not everything has to be about them! They can learn to take turns – an important skill for all of us, really. If you have multiple dogs that are generally friendly and compatible it is usually safe to engage in body work type activities together-walking through ladders, over cavaletti poles, or even digging in a sandbox but make sure there is enough space so the dogs do not feel cramped or crowded. Try to keep food out of it until after the activity is over then everyone gets a snack for participating. My personal dogs can do treasure hunts together where I hide treats around the yard or around the house then release them to go ‘find it!’ but again, watch and supervise to keep everyone safe and to keep the activity fun.
What if your dog isn’t food motivated? Or what if he’s maybe a little too food motivated and you need to be mindful of how many treats you’re giving out?
We have several dogs we work with who are not motivated by food so have learned that often a favorite toy works just as well. They can search for their toy in a sea of boxes or figure out how to get their toy (or favorite ball) out of a twisted up towel, etc. The bonus is you do not have to worry about over feeding!
If you are concerned about over-feeding your pup, there are several things you can do: you can use a portion of their food when doing games and activities. You can also cut back on their dinner if you have a treat-heavy session of activities. You may be able to use healthy snacks too-our dogs love working for carrot chunks and we like to use those for scatter feeding or treasure hunting games.
Many thanks to Stefanie for taking the time to sit and chat with me. I definitely see a game of The Floor is Lava in my dog’s future!