Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Dogs need mental stimulation in winter

GAIL FISHER December 08. 2012 8:41PM

Kochi, our Okinawan rescue dog, is one of the most unflappable dogs, and the best sleeper, I've ever seen. Last weekend, he was dozing on the floor in the one ray of sunshine falling on the carpet as I was vacuuming. I vacuumed all around him, and he awoke, looked at the vacuum cleaner, but didn't move from his warm spot until I asked him to. When he's sleeping in the doorway, we step over him. If I roll over and bump him in the middle of the night, he doesn't move a muscle.

I'd guess that his imperturbability has something to do with his former life as a "street dog"- like the dogs on a Caribbean island that seem to be part of the landscape in a city. These dogs ignore virtually everything from pedestrians to loud, noisy vehicles, or anything that our pet dogs would likely at least alert us to and demonstrate awareness of, if not actually be startled.

On the other hand, Kochi is far from passive. His ability to sleep soundly no matter what is going on around him is the other side of this active, alert dog's personality. He loves to run in the woods on our regular walks, to dash flat out chasing squirrels, and he really enjoys dog agility - an active dog sport. He comes alive when I want to train him, and he is a favorite of our professional trainer students who work with him because he's so quick and bright.

Most months of the year, Kochi and I take the opportunity to go for walks together. For both of us, the walks provide exercise and a good cardiovascular workout, which is, of course, beneficial to dogs, too. They also provide an important opportunity for Kochi to be a normal dog, sniffing the ground, exploring, exercising his senses and enjoying nature. But as the weather gets colder, Kochi really hates going outside for exercise, so I - as many of you - need to find another way to provide an appropriate outlet for his physical energy.

Finding appropriate ways to channel our dogs' energies is important. An understimulated, bored dog often engages in undesirable, harmful and even dangerous behavior. This can include things like destructive chewing and uncontrollable barking, but worse, it can lead to repetitive, even obsessive behaviors such as tail chasing, "fly snapping" (snapping at the air) and compulsive licking that creates hair loss and sores. But there is good news: You can provide a healthy outlet for your dog's normal energy through mental stimulation as opposed to physical exercise, and a mental outlet can be even more important for your dog's good behavior.

As we enter the winter months of more cocooning and less outdoor exercise for many dogs, consider ways to provide mental exercise for your dog. Some terrific outlets are training (at the top of this dog trainer's list!), including teaching your dog both polite behavior and fun tricks. There are myriad toys that exercise your dog's brain (more on that next week). Playing games with your dog such as retrieving and tug of war are good outlets, and you can also simply scatter treats throughout the room and allow your dog to hunt for them. This keeps him busy, rewards his efforts and exercises his hunting instincts. If your dog is good with other dogs, providing the opportunity for some one-on-one interactive play or going to a good doggie day care are great outlets. Mental exercise and fun are just as important for keeping your dog both mentally and psychologically healthy and well-behaved.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website,


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