The Primary Emotional Needs of Dogs (ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology)

Describe the dog’s primary emotional needs.

Why do dogs need mental stimulation?

(These were two separate questions in the same Unit. I have combined my answers, because I believe they are linked and relevant to each other – A.L)

Dogs have relatively simple emotional needs. If his physical needs are met – food, shelter, exercise/play and human/animal company – he’s happy. If he’s made to feel wanted, loved, included in his human family’s daily life, a useful member of his family – he’s happy. If someone praises him, talks to him affectionately, gives him pats and cuddles and treats – he’s happy. If he has a place to call his own, be it a blanket in a corner, a crate, a dog bed, a cardboard box, as long as he feels safe and secure and not threatened – he’s happy. Take a dog out for a walk in the park, take him to the beach, let him play off the lead with other dogs at a dog beach, take him to the yard and throw a few balls for him to fetch, give him the opportunity to sniff and sample the heady scents of a hedgerow or shrub, tree or lamp-post – he’s beyond happy. Dogs thrive on routine, encouragement and reward. Teach him a trick and when he’s learnt it, reward him with a treat – he’s happy.

Some dog breeds such as working dog breeds, need mental stimulation to avoid negative behaviours born of boredom. Breeds such as border collies, Australian shepherds and kelpies need to be given a task or mission, to keep them occupied. This is why they don’t do as well living in a city apartment, as when they have a 100 acre farmstead to run around in, and sheep or cows to herd. Dogs faced with hours of loneliness and boredom can express their discomfort by excessive vocalization, howling, chewing the furniture, digging holes, or the opposite extreme by becoming depressed and uninterested in anything.

Mental stimulation toys, or enrichment toys, for dogs abound in this day and age. The ubiquitous Kong, with its robust rubber chewiness, is a great favourite. Many Kong models can be stuffed with all sorts of treats, even frozen to provide respite from hot days. More and more companies are coming out with better and better enrichment toys, such as puzzles that make the dog use their brains to figure out how to get to the treat within. There are even dog mazes and slow feeders where the dog has to move the object with his tongue or nose, to release it so he can then eat it. There’s even a toy shaped like a flying saucer, that works using centrifugal force – the dog has to spin or shake the toy to make the treats inside fly out the sides.

I read of a Kickstarter project called the Foobler that claims to work on a timer that releases food periodically, up to 9 hours, or the average time a working person is away from home. And here too: While this looks like a great idea – a self-feeder that also acts as an enrichment toy, that keeps a dog occupied for hours – I can’t help but think that it’s more of a lazy dog owner’s substitute childminder, an excuse for the owner to justify leaving their dog alone at home for longer and longer hours. There simply is no substitute for human companionship and contact, in a dog’s mind.

All these toys are well and good for dogs whose owners are out at work for much of the day, but nothing compares to the joy a dog feels when his owner returns home and spends time playing, training, walking and rewarding him.


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