Physical exercise is really important. When you talk to some dog people about it, there is a lot of discussion about physical exercise being potentially stressful for the dog, and that the dog shouldn’t run around like crazy all day to the point of exhaustion. Moderate exercise over a long time is preferable.
Too much exercise can be stressful, but in today’s society there's often little choice for dogs and that is also often the problem. Running straight ahead and restricted on a leash is not the way to do it. Allowing the dog to choose it’s own exercise and do it freely is generally the best way.
It has been shown that physical exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus in the brain, which is the area involved in memory and learning. But once you have them, if you don’t put these new cells to work, if you don’t give them something to do, they will return to their previous state.
An amazing way to maintain good brain health for dogs is through mental stimulation and an enriched environment. That doesn’t mean hard cognitive exercises that we enjoy, or performing a range of difficult tricks.
The most important thing is stimulation of the senses, including:
Senses to keep the mind and body working together are:
Physical balance (up and down)
Kinesthetic sense (awareness of the body; using muscles and joints)
Visceral sense (inner organs sense)
Stimulating these senses together helps the brain to gain the picture of the body and the world around them.
Dogs are naturally very curious. Humans tend to dislike this curiosity, and train their dogs to become more passive. Being discouraged to act and do things on their own initiative can lead to passivity and learned helplessness. Dogs need to be allowed to be curious!
Mental stimulation includes experiencing new smells, new tastes, new sounds, new environments and new things. To achieve this, we can use a sensory garden. A sensory garden can be used by all dogs, but for dogs exhibiting high levels of stress it can be a godsend. We always seem to focus on what's dangerous for dogs in our gardens but what if we decided to use these spaces to enrich their lives instead?
What does a sensory garden entail?
A sensory garden consists of various different elements. These elements are as far as possible made from natural materials ensuring that they are safe for dogs. A variety of elements are needed in order to stimulate all of the various senses of the dogs. Some examples of this (which are explained in further detail in my book) include:
Straw Mountain consists of a number of straw bales, strategically placed at diﬀerent levels and angles. Allowing your dog to voluntarily explore this mountain encourages him to work on his balance and coordination. This exercise is beneﬁcial for all dogs but especially good for young dogs and those dogs in need of physical strengthening.
Around an existing tree I built a raised platform which I fenced off to protect the dogs from falling off or trying to jump from as the height might be too dangerous. The raised platform is carpeted with artificial grass which provides more grip, is nice to lay on and the grass is a great place to hide treats.
Another area is the beach and the natural pond. We couldn’t possibly have a sensory garden without a wet area, especially in the summer! They are always looking for ways to cool off in the water. Some dogs like to swim while others just enjoy getting their feet wet by walking though the water.
These are just three examples of how you can develop, create and utilise a sensory garden for dogs. You can find more ideas in the book and in this video, you can also learn more on our website.
Have fun and be creative! Let your garden be an example for other dog lovers!
Patrick Visser is a PDTE member based in the Netherlands and runs DogBehavior.