Image above: Working with a dog for company
Guest blog by Jennifer Billot
Jennifer Billot, MSc CPDT-KA is a professional dog trainer and the founder and owner of Bone Ball Bark, a force-free dog training company based in Chiswick. Over a series of blogs she explores the most common problems she encounters when clients first get in touch.
Whether you have had your dog for many years, acquired a lockdown puppy within the last two, or just picked up a new bundle of fluff, complete with a set of sharp teeth, hopefully this series will provide some helpful tips.
My dog won’t leave me alone when I am working
One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that we were able to spend more time with our pets at home! I am sure the vast majority of them were thrilled with the extra company, more attention, and longer lie in’s. However this increase in attention means that they often will look for this at inopportune moments. Below are some tips and tricks to leave you to work in relative peace.
1. Time Management
The little time that we do have throughout the day may not feel like enough to everyone but utilizing it correctly can really help to tire out your pup and let you work in peace. Instead of grabbing a spare ten minutes break and throwing the ball crazily in the garden, think of how you are engaging your dog in the time that you do have. You don’t have to run them ragged for them to be tired enough to leave you alone.
A good way of structuring your engagement in these short work breaks are for the two of you to play together, then to train together, then for them to brain game alone. I usually employ this method; play for five minutes with some toys, do a couple minutes of training exercises, then give a nose work or enrichment activity that they can do alone.
You have worked their body, and their mind, as opposed to raising that arousal and energy level all the way up with a game, then abruptly leaving them in that high energy state when you need to get back to work. You can guarantee they won’t want to settle if you leave them like that!
2. Food & Chews
Taking the time to select the right kinds of food and chews for your dog, and then preparing them, can give you a ton of time to take those meetings uninterrupted! Spending ten minutes the night before might seem annoying in the moment, but saves you stress the next day when you are 30 seconds from a Zoom meeting and your pup is bouncing off the walls.
- Kongs and Licki-mats are something I use daily with my dog Griffin. He gets a stuffed Kong every morning to get rid of some of that early morning energy and keep him busy for 30 minutes while I get ready for my day (okay, drink my coffee in peace).
- Owners often worry that using enrichment will make their dog become overweight. This is far from the truth as long as you are mindful and creative.
If they eat a dry food for their meals, you can grab a handful out of their daily meal allowance, soak in warm water or the broth used to boil chicken breasts for treats, and leave for a couple hours. Once the dry food has soaked up all the moisture, it is really easy to stuff inside Kongs or spread on licki-mats. For a harder and longer lasting treat, freeze the stuffed Kongs and Licki-mats overnight.
- Baby food pouches like mashed bananas, pureed sweet potato or blueberries, can be a great low-calorie option to use, and cut up veggies and fruits a lot of dog will go for.
- Chewing is another great energy expending activity. This can be anything from pizzle sticks, stuffed hooves, buffalo ears, olivewood and yak chews. These don’t have to be hugely calorific. Ostrich is a lean protein and the dried tendons and bones are low fat, great for dogs with allergies as they are a novel protein, and don’t particularly smell. Many pet stores both in-person and online sell these now, as do a local Chiswick vets, Wolfe Vets. Butternut Box, the sponsor of this blog series, also sell Yonks chews. I often use their food to stuff in Kongs too!
- Saving your enrichment for when you need it, like before work meetings, or that 30 minutes before they are due a walk and getting antsy, takes away the frustration on both sides of the work from home life.
3. Ten minutes of nose work
Did you know that engaging your dog’s nose for just 10 minutes is the same energy expenditure equivalent to an hour of physical exercise? I often ask clients to imagine running a 5K, tiresome but you then have the ability to go to work afterwards. Spend the same length of time on a maths exam, you would quite like to go to bed for the rest of the day! With a sense of smell that is 100,000 x better than ours, and the ability to smell a drop of something different in an Olympic sized swimming pool, we want to put that nose to work, and then they can take a nice long nap!
- If you have a dog that is pretty highly driven, or uses their nose a lot, and loves sniffing, you can try hiding small pieces of treats around a room, then letting them in with a “find it” cue. Keep everything on floor level to begin with as this is easier for them, then place them higher up. I use JR Pet Products pate cut up into tiny cubes, sprats, or small cubes of cucumber, to play this game with my dog. If your dog is fed wet or raw food, you can use small miso sauce dishes or ramekins with a teaspoon of their daily food allowance, and hide these instead.
- Snuffle mats are perfect sniffing aids that can be made yourself, or bought online, that look like a shaggy rug. I mentioned them in a previous post. Use one after you are done playing with your dog, or to keep them occupied and quiet during a meeting. If you don’t have a snuffle mat, using an old towel or blanket can work just as well. You can then put the towel into a cardboard box to make it harder if your dog is ready for that challenge.
- There are plenty of great online scent courses you can take where you train the dog to indicate to a specific odour. You then can hide this odour, usually it is a small piece of red Kong, and ask them to go find it. Feel free to email me for course recommendations.
4. Trick training
Think of this as brain games for dogs. When we are bored or need a quick dose of entertainment, besides scrolling social media which is arguably mind numbing more so than productive, we often reach for candy crush, a sudoku, or take a stab at the daily Wordle.
- It doesn’t matter what age, breed, or skill level your dog is, there is a trick that can work for any of them! Whether that is taking a bow, playing dead, turning on and off lights, or waving.
- Choose a trick and break it down into little steps. Often I am asked how long a training session should be. My usual response is just a couple minutes, but what is often a better way is to count out 5-10 treats to use in the session, and when they run out, the training session is over. Over training can be frustrating for a dog so keep things short, positive and fun. They are guaranteed to want to take a nap after using that brain!
- I will be offering an online trick training course in October so look out for that.
A word of caution on enrichment. I often hear clients say that their dogs can’t be bothered with an interactive activity or toy; that they get bored and walk away from it. This is most often because we made it too hard for them initially. That they didn’t get any decent wins in first before making them sniff around for ages before finding a single treat. If your dog needs to start off with a towel laid flat and a few treats sprinkled on the top to convince them that the effort is worth it, that is fine! Once you have done that a few times, you can then scrunch the towel up slightly, then loosely fold in the corners, building the difficulty at their pace.
Jennifer Billot has a Masters Degree in Canine Sciences from Bergin University in California. She is a certified professional dog trainer, CPDT-KA qualified, and spent five years as an Assistance Dog trainer for an organization specializing in mobility assistance dogs in both Seattle and Hawaii. She offers in-person training sessions in London and virtual consultations worldwide.
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