Toy review: BusterMat

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20min later… All done!

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Ready for a session of #bustermat 😁

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Mummy this is really hard, can you help?

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Mummy made me a buster mat game 😁

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Mummy made me a buster mat game 😁

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Dealing with sibling jealousy by training emotional regulation

The biggest challenge we faced when getting a puppy was to ensure the dogs build a positive relationship. This was especially important because they are both females, and I was informed by our behaviourist that fights between two girls can be much worse than one with opposite sexes so you can imagine we were pretty keen to avoid any kind of potential Kill Bill scenario in the future.

Our behaviourist suggested exercises to teach the dogs to disengage when the other one was playing with a toy but unfortunately we needed two people to practice and therefore… never really got around to it for multiple reasons (/excuses).

Instead, I ended up improvising based on what I know from human psychology and specifically how emotions work.

To me it seemed like the problem was Nell’s internal emotional reaction to Grace (playing with a toy she perceived hers, i.e. all of them) so what I did was get Grace to play and while she was playing, Nell and I watched. Practically speaking, I sat close to Nell while stroking her back and speaking to her in a calm tone about what a good girl she was just watching Grace play. At the beginning I could feel the tension in Nell’s body when she was reacting to what she was seeing, but with the gentle stroking and calm words she eventually relaxed a little.

The theory behind this approach is that emotions are basically our interpretation of our bodily reactions and sensations (our interception). The same bodily sensations are interpreted differently depending on the context – i.e. butterflies in the stomach are excitement if you’re about to step into a rollercoaster or anxiety if it’s a job interview. The basic principle is that there is a connection between our body and our mind, and by changing one of them you can influence the other. This is how breathing exercises in mindfulness practice works: by slowing down your breathing, other bodily functions calm down and eventually your mind calm down too. (There is plenty of research on this so I won’t go in more detail – I’m sure you get the idea!)

Nell’s main problem is the ability to regulate her emotions, whether it’s excitement, frustration or jealousy/envy and her emotions go from 0 to 100 in seconds so it seemed like this could help her.

We have used this approach for 6 months now and, although I have no control group, something seems to have worked because most of the time now Nell can watch Grace play without getting involved and just walk away, and I would like to think that she has learned to control her emotions a little bit more in these situations. It still pops up though: today we played a dog sudoku game and while watching Grace play (it had already been Nell’s turn), I asked Nell to lie down nearby and every time I saw her lip slightly quiver in anger, I sternly told her it wasn’t ok. Because we have practiced taking turns a lot, this small but strict reminder seems to do the trick and she stayed in her place while Grace played.

As Grace is moving into puberty, we also have to practice taking returns with her because now that she is bigger, she has also started to react to Nell. Unfortunately, this is probably a backlash from Nell’s original resource guarding behaviour but we’ll deal with it the best we can now.

Although she is calmer, Grace also has strong and lightning fast emotional reactions to events so we will need to practice calmness and self control daily. It took me 2 years to teach Nell to have some restraint with food but it was worth it because teaching self control spills over to other domains than the original one, so I’m prepared for the work that is to come.

Food this close to each other was not possible 6 months ago

Toy test: snufflestack

It’s taken me a while to post this but better later than never! Another snuffle toy we bought at the Animal Event was this “snufflestack” (my name for it, because it didn’t have one). Basically, it’s a pile of double layered fleece squares with a hole in the middle, stacked up in a fleece rope.

There are lots of ways to use this depending on your dog’s experience and drive – the recommendation is to allow your dog to familiarise themselves with it first by laying it flat on the floor and placing some treats in between.

However, I know my intense hunting drive dogs will just dive straight in to get the food so they don’t need that stage – in the video below you can see Nell starts straight from the tight stack.

This is the second time she is playing with it, and because the first time she pretty much pulled all the squares out of the rope, I decided to tie it quite tightly this time. I should note that Nell has a lot of experience with snuffle toys and is a very nose driven dog which means she quickly figures out toys like these – sometimes too quickly for my liking!

I also tried this with Grace and it was definitely more difficult for her, and thanks to her slightly gentler sniffing style I suspect this toy will have a longer life if she plays with it instead of Nell…

All in all, this is a nice little addition to our toy box!

Toy tip: Starmark Tetraflex as a mealtime toy

Today breakfast was served from Starmark Treat Dispensing Tetraflex – one of my absolute favourite mealtime puzzles.

It’s soft plastic so no noise on hard floors; the size and shape allow dogs to pick it up and most importantly, unlike many other treat balls, it has a little funnel inside the opening which reduces the likelihood of treats falling out which means the game lasts longer than with a simple treat ball.

It’s also relatively durable but I’d supervise heavy chewers as they will be able to shred it.

I’ve had this ball for years and it’s simply one of the best toys we have. Because the design of the ball means it is statistically difficult for the treats to fall out, this toy remains difficult however many times the dog plays with it – you could feed every meal from it.

The added bonus is that by playing with this ball, dogs also improve their proprioception (body awareness) because they learn to handle the ball with their paws and nose.

Toy tip: frozen Kong Quests for lowering arousal levels

I often give the dogs a chewing or licking activity after an active walk that has raised their arousal levels, like a beach trip is guaranteed to do.

Nell took 20min to finish her Kong Quest Star Pods and Grace 80mins her Kong Quest Foragers Flower because it contains more food and Grace is younger. These were filled with Ziwipeak canned food, apple chunks, frozen raspberries and some dabs of yoghurt or peanut butter – the fruit fills up space without adding calories and especially the apple chunks are tricky to fish out.

Highly recommended if your dog finishes a regular Kong very quickly!

These, and other toys suitable for freezing food are reviewed in this post.

Grace meets agility

Our agility class had only a few participants around last night so the teacher invited Grace to join too (adapted to her age of course).

This is Grace’s first time experience of agility equipment and she was totally unfazed by it – even the bendy tunnel that some dogs fear because you can’t see the exit. She also immediately understood sitting down, waiting and jumping over objects – all things the rest of us have been practising for 3 weeks now!

It wasn’t a huge surprise to me she loved it – the way she moves naturally in the forest and her intense handler focus have already suggested to me that she will also eventually enjoy agility.

I am definitely seeing the benefits of a thoughtful, responsible and focused breeding programme because she has only been with us for two months so what we see now is her innate ability and genetic makeup. We also have a comparison point of a similar breed with our working cocker Nell, who has bags of enthusiasm, similarly intense handler focus and a keenness to work, but mostly lacks the calmness and composure that Grace has which is a huge advantage in training.

I’m just in awe of this little lady and the grace with which she handles things thrown in her way – she is definitely living up to her name!

Balance training in nature: sniff game on a tree trunk

I try to make use of the natural environment to get the dogs to practice things like body awareness and balance, and although Grace does her own practice on the edge of our sofa, it never hurts to do some deliberately.

Here I’ve sprinkled some treats on top of a wide, mossy trunk which means she needs to sniff and balance at the same time.

I also go back to sprinkle more after she has sniffed it to encourage her to keep checking locations she’s already sniffed – this helps when we do formal detection training as she is learning to be thorough and that it pays off to double check.