How We Feed Our Dogs Can Make Them Smarter

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Feeding our dogs from enrichment toys, toys that dispense food, can actually make them smarter. It definitely seems to make them happy. Puzzling out the food inspires activity and thought. A lot of trainers liken it to the skills a scavenging dog or a hunting dog would need in order to eat the food they’d found or killed. Other trainers, me included, have noticed that it helps our dogs focus, activating their brains in a way boring bowl feeding simply doesn’t.

Food-Toy-BW (1)It turns out we’re probably right. Animals (and human animals) who successfully learn challenging skills are more likely to be successful at subsequent challenging skills. In other words, succeeding at hard stuff makes us better at doing more hard stuff.

The research actually dates back to the late 1970s. I came across it in Angela Duckworth’s great book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She cites the research of Dr. Robert Eisenberger from the University of Houston. He showed that rats that mastered a complicated task to earn food pellets, pressing a lever multiple times, we able to master subsequent complicated tasks (like running a maze) more easily. In fact they learned new tasks with more vigor and endurance. He ran related studies with children and college students in the 1980s with similar results. Eisenberger called the process Learned Industriousness. 

Are our dogs learning to be more industrious because we feed them from food-dispensing toys? I think so. The task-based eating process is similar to what Eisenberger used, teaching the animal to work for the food.  It also aligns with what many clicker trainers have observed. Dogs who learn tasks seem to learn how to learn. As they come to understand the process, the learning seems to come faster.

Almost all of my clients report that Mat Work, teaching their dog to lie on a mat, helps the dog become more focused. Mat Work is fairly complicated because it challenges the dog to figure out what do do with the mat (lie down on it) on his own. We don’t provide instructions, only feedback via clicks and treats. It’s a puzzle for the dog to solve. When we set it up properly and provide honest and clear reinforcement the dog figures it out, usually pretty quickly. It’s a hard skill that sets our dog up for more learning – for mastering other hard skills. In the clear light of Eisenberger’s research, all this seems to make more sense now. For a great primer on how Mat Work works, read Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura Van Arendonk Baugh (no relation).

How do we teach our dogs learned industriousness? Let’s start with the toys. There are lots of great food-dispensing toys on the market. For beginners I recommend the Bob-A-Lot (pictured above). It’s perfect for feeding dry food. I’m also a big fan of the KONG Classic, which truly is a classic. Both are available online and at local retailers.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping dogs with aggression and fearful behavior

Mindful Dog Training – Showing Up

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA

I once wrote that I fell in love with my dog, Juno, while we were practicing “stay.” We were across the room from each other at a busy training class. She was a good 20-feet away, but we were so very close, watching each other intently, fully in the moment. It was magical and I’ll never forget it.

Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers said this presence, this connection, is key to all healing and learning relationships. It’s not just about physically being there, going to class, pulling out the clicker and treat bag and doing the session. Instead, it’s about making genuine contact. Rogers (who didn’t have dogs) referred to it as psychological contact.  Some trainers say it’s like being in sync or in the zone with their dog. For me it’s about showing up in a very real and committed way. Stop, step away from the rest of the world, make eye contact and share a moment (or several moments) with your dog.

DSC00626For those of us who are clicker trainers, this sweet spot of connectedness is very accessible. So much of how we teach our dogs is about noticing them, what they are doing, how they are moving, even what they are looking at. We have to step away from the cacophony of everyday life to experience this. How else could we adequately capture and shape behavior? We’re providing feedback to our dog who, quite literally, is figuring out a training puzzle. We’d better show up, pay attention, be present. This is communication at its best, both actors fully aware (dare I say mindful), and in contact – psychological contact. How cool that so often not a single word is spoken.

These intense learning moments are a great and necessary joy. But, for me, they are not enough. The days are busy and the outside forces on our lives are relentless. We get into our routines and the work of training can sometimes feel done. We get swept up in jobs and traffic and email and the comings and goings of friends – let’s meet here – so good to see you – we must do this more often. We feed the dogs, take them out, maybe for a walk while we check social media on our phones. They seem fine, these easy-going noble creatures. The dogs are fine. So patient. So forgiving. But it’s not enough – not for them – not for us either.

Have you every felt a rush of joy when you look directly at your dog and see him looking back? Does the room seem to quiet down? Does your breathing slow a bit? These moments actually cause a release of the hormone Oxytocin. The love we feel is physical – measurable. Our dogs have oxytocin too and it’s a two way street, this hormone induced warm-fuzzy feeling. I can feel it when I train, but that’s not the only time. Oxytocin helps us bond with each other, other humans, and apparently with our dogs too. By all accounts, it’s good for us. It keeps us sane and psychologically connected. But, once the training ebbs and eventually fades away, how to we recreate these important moments, and the powerful  feelings of wholeness and relationship that come with them?

Stop, just for a moment or two. Step off and away from the world.

Every day (usually several times a day) I get on the floor with my dogs. It’s easy and I like easy. I put the phone away, leave the TV off, and set human conversation aside. Stella and Stewie and I just hang out. We show up and hang out. Sometimes Stella brings me a ball. More often now she sidles up for some petting while Stewie cuddles in my lap. We stay this way for as long as we can, with a nod to Dr. Rogers, while we soak in all that our shared biochemistry is designed to provide.

It’s amazing and good for us and I can’t get enough. Stewie and I play. Stella tugs and retrieves. Sometimes the dogs and I swim together. We all act silly together. So, Maybe it’s my age or the fact that so much of my life is about dogs, but these moments give me pause (and paws). I’ll look at Stella or Stewie and think to myself I don’t ever want to forget this. This is what life with dogs should be about. Stop and step into what is happening, what you are feeling, and seeing and experiencing – right now.

That’s the way it was in the big training room in Kirkwood, Missouri all those years ago. Just me and a golden retriever named Juno a couple dozen steps away. This moment. That dog. Everything else slipping loose just for a moment, maybe two. Never forgetting. Even now, I remember it so well.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs with behavior related to fearfulness, including aggressive behavior.


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My Foster Buddy

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC

The funny thing is, life never seems to turn out exactly as planned.  For example, I didn’t really plan on fostering a dog.  Tim and I haven’t had much success with it in the past, and frankly I didn’t think he’d go for the idea.  As it turns out, Buddy was available as a short-term “holiday foster” and Tim said yes.

My guess is that Buddy’s life isn’t going exactly as he’d planned either (if in fact dogs do any planning at all).  The folks from Corridor Rescue Inc. found him in a parking lot, homeless and without a human.  He had heartworms (light positive) and probably hadn’t had a good meal in a while.  He settled in nicely at a local kennel until the holidays rolled around.  The kennel needed his run for the holiday rush, so Buddy came to us.  Now, here he is by my side gnawing a bully stick (video) as I write.

Buddy

I really didn’t expect Buddy to be so amazingly and beautifully – average.  Certainly he has the magic and wonder that all average dogs have.  It’s not an insult.  It’s just that most of the dogs I see day in and day out have problems adjusting to and coping with life with humans.  Some have serious problems.  Buddy, despite his questionable beginnings, doesn’t.  Despite having no place beyond his modest run to call home, despite having nothing – not so much as a collar, Buddy is undamaged – average – just a typical dog – just Buddy.

He renews my faith in life and all its plans gone awry.  He hadn’t been in our home an hour before he was playing.  It was vigorous and joyful.  It wasn’t play for the weary; it was play for the living, for those filled with life.  He dodged and chased and hip-checked Stella like he’d known her forever.  She tired of it long before he did (and let him know it).  Given the chance, he’d have played on.  I’m sure of it.

I’d planned on training Buddy.  It was my plan to send him back better than I’d found him.  It’s clear that there isn’t a hand signal or a verbal cue that registers familiar in his happy little brain.  It’s also clear that he’s learned a whole lot about what it takes to survive in our crazy human world without any help from me.  Here’s what he’s shown me so far.

  • Car rides are for sleeping.  When the car stops, wake up and begin the next adventure.
  • Leashes are more comfortable when not pulling.  Sniff along the way but not for too long.  Avoid garbage bags.
  • Crying in the crate might work (not at our house).  If it fails, sleep in crate instead.
  • My name is Buddy.
  • People are safe.  Go to them when they call my name.
  • Chase the ball; bring it back.
  • Dogs equal play.   If a dog doesn’t want to play, keep trying.

Of course, that last one doesn’t always go as planned. A couple of dogs can be great fun.  Too many dogs at once can be scary.  Buddy didn’t do too well in his first try at dog daycare.  He was tense, and sometimes a bit too intense.  He didn’t make friends easily or quickly; he didn’t made friends at all really.  The stress built; he lashed out; then he got kicked out of the group.

Life is unpredictable, but you can count on one thing.  It usually leads us where we need to go.  Buddy needed a place to lay his head for the holidays.   As for me, I guess I needed a Buddy – a guy who is sometimes a bit rough around the edges with social scenes, a guy who’s learned a lot about life but never tires of learning more.

Buddy is available for adoption immediately.  He is appropriate for a household with other dogs who enjoy athletic play, and he is reportedly cat familiar.   He’s an excellent training candidate.  My dog training services come with him (Houston Metro Only).