I did not take my two dogs for a walk today. I was not feeling well and needed to take it easy. But they are both resting quietly at my feet, happy and at peace.
Instead of a walk, they did a treat search in the back yard. The kind I did today is based on the work of Sally Hopkins, the developer of Sprinkles. You can find more detailed instructions for the specifics of her technique on her website. I used a modified version.
I got a handful of kibble and left the dogs inside. Standing on my deck, I threw it in different directions around the back yard. Sadie and Frida had no idea where it landed because they were behind the closed door. In order to find each piece, they would have to use their sense of smell.
I let the dogs out and walked down the stairs with them. Previously, I would have had them on the deck with me while I threw the food and said, “Treat search!” But I started noticing that they could see where the food went, and were taking less and less time to look for it because they knew where it was. And they seemed to be rushing around, which was the opposite of what I wanted to achieve for them. I wanted to help them reach a state of calm.
By not letting the dogs see me throw the kibble, I made them rely on their sense of smell and they also had to concentrate harder. They had to slow down and take their time to find each piece instead of hurrying over to where they had seen me throw each handful. It took a good twenty minutes and I am certain no more than a few pieces were left behind.
Research on humans has shown that when an experience gets repeated over and over, neural pathways are formed in the brain that make it more likely we will have the same reaction we had before. For instance, if you keep telling yourself you can’t succeed at something, it will seem more and more true. Fortunately, the opposite is true as well! There is a saying that, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is called Experience-Dependent Neuroplasticity.
I believe this applies to dogs as well. If we give them opportunities to practice calming themselves by using their minds to do so, their brains will wire to fire more frequently in that way. Some trainers use operant conditioning to achieve this and it can be very effective. I prefer, when possible, to put the dog in a situation where it is able to use the abilities it already has and to build on them. Although dogs have trouble generalizing when you train them to do something, if you help them use their ability to calm more frequently, my experience is that they will more easily generalize it to other settings.