Beyond doggy daycare

As a follow up to last week’s post, I want to share some ideas for keeping your dog’s life interesting and engaging. This is a really dear topic/issue for me.  I get such joy in knowing that dogs are having fabulous lives and on the other hand it pains me deeply when they don’t.

A bit about engagement and the importance of this: I have been part of a women’s only hard-core exercise group.  We meet 3 times a week at 6am to workout really hard. I have been a member for 4 years now and frankly I cannot to its full extent explain what about this group is so fundamental to my well-being. I was pressed once as I told Jim, our fierce yet nice leader, that I thought the workout that morning was a “7” in a scale of 1-10.  We all have laughs at the “grades” given. A member asked me why I have given the workout a “7” because it had been really hard.  I thought about this and I told her that it was a “7” in the “fun” scale because it had been very engaging.

Ah! I discovered something really meaningful for me: engagement = fun. That, ladies and gents IS my definition of fun. Anything that keeps me engaged is fun for me. Now, it happens that it is not only me that seeks engagement and thrives when engaged.

Apparently research in neuroscience confirms my experience.  Perhaps there are other disciplines that have found the same. I don’t know.  My understanding of this comes from neuroscience – more precisely named “Affective Neuroscience” by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist from Washington State University. Here is a link where you can learn more about him.

This man is one of my heroes.  Not only because of his kindness for animals but because I consider his findings about emotion (in animals) and play to be so central to what interests me in my work with my dogs and my client’s dogs.

Dr. Panksepp explains how the mammalian brain- that is, the most advance “part” of the brain in – you guessed it, all mammals is composed of several “systems.”

One of them is the Seeking system.  In a nutshell, this system is the foundation for animals searching for food, shelter and for “engagement” in the form of sex, pleasure (say for life- not only sexual). He explains that the more an animal, is free of fear the more the individual will be able to engage in Seeking. What’s more: Fear and play (or seeking) are in-comm-pa-ta-ble!   As you can hopefully appreciate engagement with one’s environment is truly central to a good quality of life. How then can we not provide opportunities for engaging to the dogs (and other animals) in our care?

I realize we are all so busy, drained, lacking in money- or at least that is the narrative we choose to believe, people!   But consider the following:  We get to decide – to a greater or lesser extent how we spend our time, our energy and other resources such as money. So in essence, we can all take a hard look and find ways- even if small so that the needs of our beloved dogs become central to our lives together.

Following are some ideas that will hopefully (and joyfully) help you in making your dog’s quality of life a top priority.

1. Plan ahead:

Instead of throwing together something for the dog to do while alone for hrs. or to not even consider this, plan ahead, just like one would plan the meals for the upcoming  week on a Sunday evening.

Decide for example for every morning, mid-day and the evening the following:

What kind of activity will my dog be engaged in: (ball throwing, walk peppered with sniffing and some obedience training, frisbee throwing, doggy day care, food-dispensing toys etc.)

Who will be in charge: Family member or hired professional?

What, if anything, is needed for the activity: Have it ready the night before.  If using food dispensing toys prepare them the night before (and if required keep in fridge) so that you are not hustling in the am.

2. Mix and match:

Give your dog at least 1 activity for physical benefit twice a day.  Same for mental stimulation.

So your dog’s wellness calendar will look something like this:

Monday Am:

20 min. ball tossing in backyard

Kongs when leaving for work


Walk with hired professional

A snacky-snack (small meal, which has been considered as the daily caloric amount for your dog) such as a couple of sardines or a boiled egg in a Kong that your walker will give your dog upon departure.

After work:

15 min. of playing with the whippet (a toy attached to a pole that your dog chases around for lots of fun) or tug

3, minutes of clicker training



20 min of whippet in backyard after fetching the newspaper from the front yard

A different food dispensing toy


Come home for lunch, hang out in back yard, and deliver a snaky snack before departing back to work


Training class with family and dog

You get the idea!  Now think about this, the more activities you and your dog enjoy doing together the more variety for the both of you. There is however, nothing wrong with repeating some activities if you both really love them but do add some variety since everyone likes some variety in life.

I suggest you give your dog some kind of chewy (see previous post on chew bones) daily, unless your vet thinks differently.

Some of my favorite things for dogs to do are: clicker training. So much fun and so good for dog’s brain. See:, food dispensing toys of all kinds, sports such as frisbee throwing, tug, whippet, “soccer” training for agility, sheep-herding with my border collie, dissecting games for Rio when supervised, chews of different kinds, brushing their coats while taking turns dispensing the dog treats for either being brushed or waiting their turn, walks in downtown Santa Fe, going to Home Depot (no kidding- and don’t ask me why my dogs love this!) having our friends over for a meal or glass of wine.

Our dogs love human company, riding bikes with dogs attached safely to the bike. One dog per bike.  Snowshoeing in winter on or off leash.

I am now teaching my dogs to go up a step ladder so that I can begin some sort of water conditioning in our hot-tub… we will see how this works out. If it does not (too much doggy hair in the filter) then I will come up with plan “b”.

Of course not every dog will enjoy the same things, have such a zest for play – as mine do etc.  But the truth is that playing is vital to a quality of life (again see Panksepp, Marc Bekoff, Karen London) but it is also true, that it is something we must nurture in our lives and the lives of our pets.

My intent here is to inspire you to be creative in finding all sorts of ways by which your dog will have a life full of “8” and above activities. (On a scale from 1 -10 :))

Moreover, if your dog is old or the shy type, do not lose heart!  Challenge yourself in finding things your particular dog can do and do not give up.  Some of us need to “work” harder at playing  but it does not mean that dogs cannot learn to engage in inspiring activities and when they learn to  do, watch their confidence and joy soar.