Enrichment is a win/win situation. Studies say that we **may** be able to slow the onset and progress of canine cognitive dysfunction by enriching our dogs’ lives. But even if we don’t, we certainly are helping them in the moment.
I have gotten to know Jennifer Fearing and her lovely dog Yoda through my book and this page. She read my book and prompted the Sacramento Bee to mention it in an feature article about aging pets. I’ve linked the article below.
What I want to highlight from the article is the movie Sue Morrow of the Sacramento Bee created of Jennifer and Yoda. It is a beautiful example of caring for a dog with cognitive dysfunction and keeping him active and engaged.
Jennifer has loved and cared for Yoda since he was an abandoned pup, four weeks old. Even with the slight standoffishness that has accompanied his dementia, you can see how strong the bond is between them. The movie gives me goosebumps. Jennifer speaks so frankly of their relationship, the ways she helps him. Jennifer is working with board certified veterinary behaviorists at U.C. Davis to give Yoda the best life possible for his remaining time, and speaks about the importance of recordkeeping to track his condition and quality of life.
Jennifer told me that Yoda has had no small part in shaping the person she has become., and that she feels it is her privilege to care for Yoda. We should all be so lucky as he.
15-year-old Kaci learning to roll a food toy around and access the goodies inside
You can teach an old dog a new trick, and you might be surprised how much she enjoys it!
Research studies suggest that one thing that can slow the course of dementia is for senior dogs to have a lot of enrichment in their lives. In the laboratory studies, the enrichment consisted of getting exercise, social time with another dog, toys to play with (they were rotated every week or two), and training. The training was done with positive reinforcement (food rewards for correct actions), and was actually quite a challenging task.
Dogs with early stage dementia who got these forms of enrichment had less cognitive decline than those who didn’t.
Do Try This At Home
Most of us would want to stave off dementia in our dogs if at all possible. One thing you can do that combines two of the above interventions, toys and food, is to teach your old dog to play with food toys.
Food toys are specially made objects, usually made from wood, rubber, or food-safe plastic, that hold food for dogs. They are designed so that the dog has to move the toy in certain ways to get the food to come out. They range from extremely easy to very complex.
You might think it’s unkind to ask a dog to work for some of his or her food. But you would be surprised at the enjoyment dogs usually get out of these types of toys. It certainly appears that they get a sense of accomplishment out of solving the puzzle and getting the goodies that are inside.
The key, though, is to start slow. Otherwise the dog can get frustrated or lose interest very quickly.
How to Start
Choose a toy that they dog will need to barely nudge to get the food out. Put good treats in there: something your dog really likes and that also will readily fall out of the toy. I.e., not anything too wet or sticky.
(If you leave food out for your dog all the time, it will be harder to get him interested in a food toy. If you want to try it, start feeding your dog meals instead of free feeding, and/or put more exciting food in the toy. That’s a good idea anyway; some pieces of cheese or beef jerky for example will generally serve to get your dog very interested in the toy.)
Cricket knew how to roll around a food toy too!
Put the toy where your dog can see or find it (the dog in my movie is almost blind, but has been taught to seek out goodies with her nose). When the dog starts to interact with the toy, refrain from “helping” or even talking to her very much. The goal is for her to discover for herself that she can get food out of the toy.
You can see in the movie that the first toy I chose for Kaci was just a little too hard. Rather than sitting down and doing it “for” her, we quit with that one and I found an easier toy so she could do every step by herself.
Once your dog gets the hang of one toy, the next one will be a little easier even if it’s a little harder, if you get my meaning. Your dog will understand the concept better and be ready to try things. She learned some persistence and different behaviors to get the food out of the first toy; she can do more this time.
The star of the movie, Kaci, is 15 years old, diabetic, and almost completely blind. She has a very small amount of early stage canine cognitive dysfunction. Yet she is currently learning how to get food out of different toys and also how to find hidden food by smell (nosework).
The movie shows how I introduced a couple different food toys.
Keep in mind: the idea at this stage is not to “challenge” your dog. Make it fun: use tasty food and make sure it’s easy to get out. That way your dog will be thrilled next time you get a toy out. You have plenty of time to add difficulty later.
As I say on the treatment page, there is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction. There are no silver bullets. The beneficial effects shown by some interventions have not been dramatic, including the effects of enrichment. However, there is no down side to enriching your dog’s life with food toys and other stimulation, as long as the activities are safe and supervised. Even if they don’t slow down dementia one bit, your dog is getting to do something interesting and fun in the moment.
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