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Pet Behavior Solutions: Adaptability training with dogs

The possibilities are limitless. The point is to have fun with your dog and to change things up. The more he has to adapt to changes while learning, the more we build his overall adaptability. This will help keep a dog’s brain functioning at a higher level, buffer stress and anxiety, and slow down the effects of brain aging through cognitive decline.

How does adaptability apply to dogs?

Like humans, dogs have been through a lot of change and a lot of stress in the past few years. The stress and changes from the pandemic alone have negatively impacted many dogs (and their owners). Many dogs were unable to be properly socialized or properly trained during this time. People were home more than ever so dogs were not properly acclimated to being left alone. Many people acquired dogs during this time both as a source of comfort and because people had more time to give to dogs. Then life began to return to a new normal and the dogs were left confused. People returned to work, there were now guests visiting the home, social distancing decreased, and suddenly dogs had to deal with situations that they never had to before.

Dogs raised in the pandemic era are struggling more than dogs raised during normal times. Aside from recent events, life is just full of changes and dogs must learn to adapt.

Here are some examples of common things with which dogs struggle:

  • Neighborhood construction noises.
  • Household dynamic changes – people moving in or out.
  • People returning to the office.
  • The addition of a new pet.
  • The arrival of a baby.
  • Guests visiting for hours or days.
  • Workers in the house for repairs or remodels.
  • Moving to a new residence.
  • Being rehomed through a rescue or shelter.
  • And many more things.

All of these situations require adaptability on the part of the humans as well as the dogs. The goal is for you and your dog to be able to work through these changes together and to be a comfort and distraction for each other during hard times.

So what can we do to help our dogs be more adaptable?

There is a concept in psychology called reversal learning. It is a test of cognitive flexibility. It involves a dog’s ability to determine that reward contingencies have changed and behavior must change accordingly. Specifically, reversal learning is about a dog adapting to a brand new situation. It is all about a dog’s ability to adapt to change.

Some dogs adapt readily to change and are actually mentally stimulated by it in a positive way. This means it is good for these dogs because it changes things up and causes them to have to think; to figure out new routines and new places for those routines. Change, for these dogs, is a form of mental enrichment.

For other dogs, however, change is very difficult and even stressful. Some dogs are so set in their ways that they may have housebreaking accidents simply if their normal elimination area is unavailable. Other dogs can’t handle loud sounds, or new social dynamics. These dogs are often more anxious and rely on their routines and familiar things or people for their security, therefore, change is scary and predictability is important, though not always practical.

Adapting to change involves neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to modify, change, and adapt, both structure and function, throughout life and in response to experience. This is a very important mechanism in the brain. Brain plasticity declines as the brain ages. It also declines with chronic stress or trauma.

The good thing is that we can work on “adaptability” training with our dogs to help increase neuroplasticity. We want our dogs to be able to “go with the flow”. Unfortunately, many struggle in this area. Dogs need dynamic training and activities throughout their lives.

This often includes and should include:

  • Household training to learn the rules of their specific family.
  • Obedience training to learn to focus on their owners and comply with commands.
  • Executive function training for life skills such as problem solving, impulse control, body control, etc.
  • Behavior training to learn to modify unwanted behaviors within the household and family dynamic.
  • Enrichment and mental stimulation to trigger the release of certain neurochemicals.
  • Exercise to burn off steam and stay healthy.
  • Socialization to learn how to interact appropriately in the world.

Let’s focus on enrichment and mental stimulation.

Specifically, these are activities that provide a low-stress environment where dogs are encouraged to learn and explore without the pressure to comply. It builds enthusiasm for the learning process which positively impacts all other forms of training and learning.

How does enrichment and mental stimulation impact neurochemicals?

Enrichment and mental stimulation can swap the cortisol (i.e., the stress hormone) in our bloodstream with highly sought after chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Dopamine can enhance learning, motivation, and attention. Oxytocin is the “bonding chemical.” Endorphins trigger feelings of pleasure. This can improve immune functioning, stress relief, reduced anxiety and a sense of safety.

Enrichment and mental stimulation also help to release a protein called BDNF (i.e., Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which improves learning and reduces anxiety.

How do I get started with enrichment and mental stimulation activities with my dog?

Activities a dog can do by himself:

There are easy things to start with. For instance, taking your dog for a sniff walk and allowing him to explore the world as he chooses. You can also give your dog food puzzles, a snuffle mat, a stuffed Kong, and things such as interactive chew and food toys for your dog to engage in natural foraging and chewing behavior. Remember, enrichment is supposed to involve low-stress activities where he can explore and engage on his own. If your dog becomes frustrated by these activities or if it triggers guarding behavior, then it is not a low-stress activity.

Activities you can do with your dog:

Follow us on Instagram at Educarefordogs to see our program specifically tailored for enrichment and mental stimulation. The reels are narrated so you can follow along at home with most everything, or adapt the activities so they are more suited to your home and your dog. This involves positive reinforcement training using treats and even a clicker for some things. It is an interactive way to teach your dogs in a low-stress environment in a way that he is not forced to comply.

You can teach your dog many skills that, in and of themselves, have no real value. Such as getting up on a skateboard, pivoting around a pedestal, free shaping behaviors with a box, and/or interacting with toy musical instruments. The real value is in the underlying skills that are built in order to create these behaviors including impulse control, conflict resolution, problem solving, focus and body control.

You can also teach your dog skills that have value when applied to real life. Such as target training, place training, ringing a bell, and/or doing obedience behaviors in conjunction with these activities. These activities have value for use in other areas as well as building underlying skills including all of those skills in the previous paragraph.

The possibilities are limitless. The point is to have fun with your dog and to change things up. The more he has to adapt to changes while learning, the more we build his overall adaptability. This will help keep a dog’s brain functioning at a higher level, buffer stress and anxiety, and slow down the effects of brain aging through cognitive decline.

Sam Freeman, CPDT-KSA, is the president and owner of Pet Behavior Solutions and Edu-Care for Dogs. She is the creator of the Core Behavior Assessment, which is the behavior evaluation program used by many animal shelters and animal control agencies in Arizona. Freeman is certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and has completed specialized education and training in psychology, learning theory, ethology, family counseling, behavior modification techniques, aggression, canine and feline behavior issues, and grief counseling.