On our Small Dog Bond page, we wrote about how the simple act of play with your small dog builds a powerful human/canine bond. Although play is key to creating such deep connections, our original article ignored the most important aspect of play: it is crucial to your small dog’s mental health. Heck, it’s probably crucial to yours too.
How do we know that? Well, from personal experience. This Fall, finding time for fun has been challenging around here. I won’t bore you with the details, but between work and family caregiving, the only “play” the pups and I were enjoying together was limited to morning yoga and a daily walk. Rather than spending time enjoying games or learning together, Phoebe and Scout would be piled next to me on the sofa while I “did work.” And then, I started noticing them sighing a lot and kind of throwing themselves down on the furniture or their beds in the same way my kids did when they were younger and bored out of their minds.
More alarming was the fact that when I picked up a favorite toy, or tossed the dryer balls they love to steal, they often didn’t really seem interested. So, I do what I always do when my family seems “off.”
I asked Google. She had a lot to say to me. Her bad news? It turns out that boredom is, at best, pretty torturous for dogs and, at worst, damaging to their brains. The good news is that you can reverse the damage: play with your small dog and pay attention to the enrichment activities below.
Dog Boredom and Brain Health
“Chronic boredom is distressing and damaging in humans yet barely studied in animals” Charlotte Burn, Animal Behaviour Journal, August, 2017.
In her essay in Animal Behaviour, Ms. Burn (of The Royal Veterinary College of the University of London) reports on the devastating effects boredom has on all animals. It’s not just humans, and in fact, because our dogs have so little control over their own environments, their boredom is more intense and more damaging than ours. In an interview with NPR, Burn urges pet owners to realize “this is all a reminder that even if animals are healthy and loved, they can still suffer — and perhaps REALLY suffer — from sameness and lack of stimulation.”
No matter how much we love and care for our small dogs, are we including mental stimulation and play in our essential wellness checklist? If we’re not, we need to change.
Here, we’ve put together a menu of videos, articles, and podcasts (pick your favorite mode of learning) discussing why playing with your dog is one of the easiest and most important ways to shape a strong and joyful relationship with your pup.
Okay – true confession. I don’t love Zak George’s heavy infomercial style. Here’s a guy with great tips who clearly loves dogs, but he makes you slog through multiple sales pushes to reach the good stuff. But anyway…in this video George coaxes a reluctant small dog to play with a frisbee. It’s a useful lesson worth watching (with your finger on fast forward) .
”if you can get your dog playing on cue and bring some structure to that play, you might be surprised at the rapid progress you can achieve.”
My favorite McCann Dog Training videos out of Canada include this one about good choices—we all struggle with making those, don’t we? (My struggle involves ruffled potato chips….but I digress.) Be sure you watch toward the end, which features little Hippy Shake and her favorite: cheese!!
A game called “rule out” can teach your dog to make better choices. “We know that a solid foundation of skills is built on success, so it’s no help [to our dogs] if they continue to not be rewarded…find a point where they can be successful, then I can yes and reward them.”
And, if you’re going to teach your dog to play, or be “on,” it’s imperative to have an “off” switch, isn’t it!! In this McCann video, a trainer teaches us how to use “settle, sit” command—a useful one not just for ending play, but for any time your little dog is overly exuberant.
”What we want to do with our play time exercise is have an opportunity to teach [our dogs] the rules of play….it’s important that you have rules that you’re consistent with. When you end the game, that’s it, the game is over.”
Wow. Who knew dogs needed play dates? But in this half-hour podcast, trainers talk about the importance of encouraging play and making time for play. Michaels gets into important discussions about size (it matters), talking with owners about dog safety, and how to shape the play to keep your pup safe.
”One of the most challenging aspects of having a dog is getting appropriate playmates….I am anti-dog park. Dog fights are going to break out and if that doesn’t happen, there is a lot of disease in dog parks.”
WARNING: In our opinion, IF THIS PODCAST WERE A SONG, IT WOULD BE RATED “E” FOR “EXPLICIT.” Such language!! Having said that, some amazing information in this hour-long piece. We love their discussion on how breed matters in HOW you play with your dog and in understanding play as a language. This is a long podcast, but listen in sections. It’s worth it. At about 36 minutes, you’ll find a really interesting section about how overplay can create obsessive behaviors. Season 1, Episode 23 of The Healthy Dog Pod out of Australia.
”Play is a resource. Use it to your advantage.” “Tug of war is a means of building a communication pattern with your dog. It’s not about winning and losing, but you can absolutely create the communication patterns you set out for.” 45:15.
An easy, 12-minute listen. Don’t be put off by the focus on puppies. These games are great for all ages. We don’t love the emphasis on “tiring out” your dog, but just ignore that and focus on the clever twists on traditional play…like obedience relay races or scavenger hunts.
”Get incredibly creative because anything you can teach your dog, anything new you can do with your dog is going to up the ante.”
It’s been about six months since we’ve added The Farmer’s Dog DIY home cooked food into our rotation. The system provides the guaranteed nutrients you add to one of about 8 different recipe options, with at least 4 protein choices. While I’d love to “just” cook without adding synthetic vitamins, I’m still not comfortable with the idea, though maybe I will someday. I plan to take a certification course in canine functional nutrition.
But for now, I am thrilled with these easy recipe plans and the fact that one packet of nutrition mix ensures the girls get everything they need.
If you ignore their love of rabbit poop, Phoebe and Scout have rather sophisticated food tastes. It’s hard to please them both. But this? They love.
Have you tried the DIY version of @thefarmersdog ? If you’re interested in cooking for your pup, we highly recommend. (And no, we aren’t affiliated and this isn’t a paid ad). We just really believe in the idea and we love knowing precisely how fresh and organic the food is. We want to do everything possible to ensure a long health span for these two.
I am so grateful to everyone for picking up a copy of my first book- a story of a woman (me), who spent her life thinking small dogs didn’t really qualify as dogs. And then discovered they not only qualify as dogs, but they have superpowers packed in their little frames.
Awarded the highest rating by International Review of Books and holding a 4.8 review score on Amazon, Downward Sizing Dog is a book all dog lovers will enjoy. It’s full of transformational stories and the science that prove small dogs rule. Pick up your copy today. On Amazon, on my website, and everywhere books are sold.
For my first hand experience with both human and veterinary malpractice, read the whole blog post. But if you want just an overview, read on:
Prevalence of Veterinary Malpractice: Veterinary malpractice is a significant concern, with studies showing that such incidents have considerable impact on pet health. Medication errors are surprisingly common, and small dogs can be particularly vulnerable, given their unique metabolism.
Stress in the Veterinary Profession: Modern veterinarians and vet techs face intense pressure every day. Working conditions can contribute to poor mental health and the profession has much higher suicide rates than others. Even for vets not in crisis, the fast pace and staffing challenges contribute to the likelihood of human errors.
Rudeness from Clients Significant Factor: Mistreatment by clients, whose worries over finances or feelings of guilt often spill over into misdirected anger, negatively impacts veterinary staff.
Guardian Involvement in Prevention: Pet parents are essential in mitigating the risk of veterinary malpractice. We need to be knowledgeable, listen carefully, ask questions, and actively participate in checking and double-checking treatment instructions.
Strategies for Error Prevention: Awareness of common medication errors and proactive communication with veterinary professionals are key strategies we can use to protect our small pups from potential harm. Put simply, we’re all in this together, and we have to support our vets and vet techs.
In fact, I wouldn’t even be talking about little dogs if it weren’t for all the big dogs who came first in my life. Yet, although big dogs might be right for some of us, small dogs are probably best for many of our modern lives. As we explore throughout this book, downward sizing our dogs can be a smart thing for us and for our dogs. It’s not settling for less, and small dogs are not some inferior creatures, destined to come in a distant second to powerful sporting or working breeds. Fortunately, many of us are realizing that, as did I, one fall morning nearly eight years ago:
I smile at the man, who, under other circumstances, would be someone I’d rather not encounter in a dark alley. It’s a blustery but warm late autumn morning, perfect for a seaside walk, and I slow my pace as I near him. He’s leaning against the Narragansett sea wall in worn jeans, his black T-shirt gracing the ink on his weathered arms. His muscled frame ends in biker boots—a subtle communication to strangers that he’s not to be messed with.
But that doesn’t stop me.
A director casting him in a B movie would predictably round out his character with a typecast pittie, or perhaps some type of police dog—a German shepherd or Doberman. Instead, the man is cradling a soft, beige ball, shielding the bundle from the whipping sand that swirls around us in baby tornadoes.
A sudden lull in the wind creates a calm.
A curious snout appears, and then eyes peer out from the protective crook of the man’s tatted arm.
“Do you catch a lot of grief over that little thing?” I give a head-nod to his pint-sized Yorkie as I stop and wait for his reply.
He grins, nodding “yes” as he skritches the top of his miniature companion’s head. I ask permission and then reach out to ruffle the hair under her chin, receiving a friendly lick from her tiny pink tongue in return for my regard. …
From Downward Sizing Dog by Karen Lena Izzo. Available on my website and everywhere books are sold. 4.8 star rating on Amazon. Grab your copy today if you haven’t already 💕🐶💕