Pooching grey matter to the test
Boredom-busting toys for hounds? Our reporter chats to the inventor of one and asks if mental stimulus means pawsative outcomes for all
When James and Laura McIlvenna's Labrador chewed apart their wedding album during his early biting phase, the couple didn't growl or snap.
Instead, James, an industrial designer from Howth, Co Dublin, was inspired to invent K9 Connectables, an interactive toy that satisfies a dog's natural instinct to hunt and work for food.
"Sandy gets up to two hours' walk a day," he explains, "but I knew that we had to find something that kept her mind occupied for sustained periods of time."
K9 Connectables are designed to be filled with food and provide both physical and mental stimulation. The chewing action exercises strength and dexterity, but the dog also has to flex its grey matter to break the connections apart and get at the food.
It now takes Sandy 45 minutes of constant play to get to his peanut butter reward inside, and the toys are designed to become more challenging over time.
Dog owners and product designers alike are beginning to realise that bored dogs can become destructive dogs, hence the increasing array of interactive toys available to help keep them mentally stimulated.
Yet unlike pet boutiques that sell doggie pyjamas and hybrid breeds like Labradoodles, this is far from a fad or a gimmick. The journal Animal Behaviour recently published a paper on 'bestial boredom' by animal welfare lecturer Charlotte Burn of The Royal Veterinary College.
She used cameras to observe dogs left alone in houses and concluded that animals that aren't mentally stimulated often show signs of "increasing drowsiness, alongside bouts of restlessness, avoidance and sensation-seeking behaviour".
"There are probably a reasonable amount of dog-owners who don't realise that mental stimulation is just as important as physical activity - and sometimes even more so," agrees certified clinical animal behaviourist and dog trainer, Maureen Byrne of Dogs Behaving Badly. "It's only in the last five or six years that I've seen more owners become aware of these toys without being prompted."
Owners used to have to go online to buy these products; nowadays they can find them in highstreet pet shops. K9 Connectables, for example, recently signed two new deals with Petworld and C&M Vetlink.
"I'm delighted that so many products are coming on to the market and are on the shelves in mainstream pet stores," says Liz McDonagh, the owner of Positive Dog Training in Sandyford.
McDonagh uses K9 Connectables, as well as interactive toys by Kong and puzzles by Nina Ottosson as part of her dog training, daycare and puppy social hour services.
"We do a lot of mental stimulation games to give the dog that enrichment," she says. "There is no point in them coming in and lying in a bed all day, or running around chasing each other. There is a bit of that but we like to keep them active. Then they are tired when they go home at the end of the day and that gives their owners a bit of a break."
Food-dispensing dog toys have additional benefits, she adds. They help dogs slow down during meals. "Labradors and Golden Retrievers are notorious for gulping down food," she says - while the increased chewing releases the happy chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
McDonagh once worked with a very energetic collie whose owners were at their wits' end. "The client was walking the dog before work, and only working part-time, but when she came home the dog had literally destroyed the house, even ripping skirting boards off."
The collie's owners assumed it was a separation anxiety issue but when McDonagh introduced some mental stimulation exercises, the destructive behaviour stopped after just one week. "It was pure boredom," she says.
Byrne says dogs that become destructive are similar to young children who 'act out'. "Dogs eventually learn, 'If I act like an idiot I might get attention. It might not be nice attention but it's better than nothing'."
At first glance, interactive dog toys might seem like just another facet of the pet humanisation trend, but Mcllvenna makes the point that dogs, like humans, thrive on both physical and psychological challenge.
"For thousands of years they have been bred to do jobs for people but the script has been flipped in the last 50 years and there is the impression that a dog is a pet and they're great for cuddling."
McDonagh agrees: "A lot of dog trainers say if you don't give a dog a job to do, they'll go self-employed..."
As owners become more mindful of their dogs' needs for mental stimulation and interaction, they are becoming more likely to invest in brain-boosting products and socialisation services. There's a canine leisure centre, complete with ball pool, in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, while online tool Dognition can describe "your dog's unique genius" with an in-depth personality profile.
Elsewhere, dog-friendly bar The Barbers in Stoneybatter, Dublin, is running a doggy brunch, with a separate menu for pooches, next month. All proceeds go to Cara Rescue Dogs.
"It's a win-win for all if you can bring the dog along when going out for a few drinks," says co-owner Aaron Groom. "Judging by the interest to date, it is clear that people are very keen to mingle with other dog owners and friends."
Groom, who owns a miniature Schnauzer called Woodie, uses a doggy daycare service when he's working. Doggie daycare, much like canine mental stimulation toys, is a relatively recent trend. However, it's not necessarily an option for every dog, as Sinead Clarke of Mutt Ugly, Dublin, points out.
Clarke used to offer a daycare service with a long waiting list but she now focuses on grooming. She likens it to a "crèche scenario". "If you have an alpha dog or a shy dog, it can make them worse. So you have to mix up their schedule, otherwise they can develop behaviours that you don't want them to have."
It's a matter of moderation, says Byrne. "With the right dog, any of these things, in moderation, can be great fun, but it's really important that the dog enjoys it," she says. "It shouldn't be the case that the dog is going along just to alleviate owner-guilt or to substitute for time being put into the dog at home.
"Dogs need to be able to sniff and scratch and dig and root around in things and meet other dogs." She adds that dogs can be over-stimulated too. "If we're constantly bombarding them with stuff to do then they can't switch off."
For Mcllvenna, whose product has been shortlisted in the consumer product category in the Irish Design Awards this Friday, canine interactive toys are "a complement to the complete care of a dog".
"There is a lot of responsibility and education required in dog ownership. We want to promote the whole package."
K9 Collectables are available in a range of independent stores, Petworld and Petmania outlets. For more, see k9connectables.com
'Her behaviour at home has improved'
Naomi Tracey, a canine hydrotherapist, from Churchtown, Dublin, attends the puppy social hour at Positive Dog Training with Daphnie, a four-month-old Chinese Crested.
"I've been taking Daphnie (pictured above) to puppy social hour for three weeks now. She was the runt of the litter and didn't have much exposure to her brothers and sisters and never really mixed with other dogs. As a result, she was too big for her boots and too bossy. They have lots of interactive toys and big play equipment at puppy social hour and they give them treats when they are well-behaved. Last week she was playing with Nina Ottosson bricks, the Kong Wobbler and the Snuffle mat. She slept for hours afterwards she was so exhausted. Her behaviour at home has improved since she started attending puppy social hour, and she is much more polite with my other dogs.
"It's a really safe environment for puppies to come out of their shells and learn to play, and the owners get an evening to themselves because the dogs are so tired when they get home."