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Everyone loves presents, even dogs. But what does your four-legged companion really want for Christmas this year? Does he want a new bed? How about a nice shiny collar? Perhaps a new sporty harness? Awesome dog gear is fun, but does such a gift make the dog — or the human — happier? Since dogs can’t talk and tell us what’s on their Christmas list, let’s take an educated guess based on what science tells us about dogs. The best thing about most of these gifts is they are free or nearly free!
No, I’m not talking about a new iPhone or tablet. Dogs’ needs are much simpler. One major thing a dog craves is attention from his favorite people. Even though we’re busier than a colony of ants during the holidays, leave time to pet your dog. A new study out this year showed us that when they look lovingly into human eyes, dogs enjoy a spike of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone.” That love hormone flows both ways, and we get a nice boost too when we look into a dog’s eyes.
Who doesn’t love to play? Play is one of the seven primary emotional systems discovered by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, whose research showed that all mammals have the following emotional systems: play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust, and care. I believe seeking is a part of play, so create lots of games where your dog is seeking something he wants. You can do this with mind puzzles or nosework — hide delicious treats around the house, and turn your dog and his powerful nose loose to go find the yummy treats.
Most people understand that their dog needs a walk at least once a day, but how many owners make a plan to engage their bright dog’s mind? Instead of a rushed walk where your goal is to tire out your pup, try instead to go on a Sniffer Walk where you walk slowly and permit your dog to sniff, sniff, sniff his way around your neighborhood. Dogs love to sniff, so why not indulge them this holiday season? Believe it or not, lingering around that fire hydrant is a great present to your dog!
A long-lasting treat is a great thing to have on hand around the holidays with so many guests coming to our homes. Why freeze a tasty treat in something like a Kong? For one thing, the treat lasts longer. It also ties into that “seeking” function as a dog works to figure out how to get frozen yummy stuff into his belly. I love large Kongs in particular, but other similar toys work well, too.
Combine chicken or beef broth (try to get the unsalted kind), small dog biscuits, or small, cut up bits of meat or cheese. Pour the mixture into a Kong, freeze, and give to your dog to enjoy. If you have more than one dog, I suggest giving them their own private space to enjoy these treats.
The holidays are a great time to stock up on truly motivational training treats. Dogs need to be motivated to keep learning and pleasing us. When I am training a new skill, I reinforce every good try. As the skill becomes clear to the dog, I switch to a random treat delivery to keep the dog interested. I also always praise and pet, but a really yummy food reward will definitely get your dog’s attention.
Two healthy but tasty treat options are kosher hot dogs and Ziwi Peaks dog food, which I use as training treats, as they are mostly meat. You can also buy organ meats like liver at the grocery store, cook them up in big batches, and freeze for later.
This holiday season, look at life from your dog’s perspective. We’re all so busy this time of year, but taking a few minutes to look with love into your dog’s eyes and giving him the gifts he really wants will make him happier than you know.
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.