Studies have shown that thinking and learning can slow or even reverse the effects of aging on the human brain. Learning new skills, like playing the piano or line dancing, doing crossword puzzles or brushing up on quadratic equations, is important for humans at any age. It seems that the axiom, ‘use it or lose it’ is true for our minds.
I thought about this when I began my journey of working with Sunny. When he first arrived he spent all of his time in a corner of our living room, too afraid to move. After spending all of his life in a pen with other dogs, his brain had not had the chance to develop in the same way my other dogs’ brains had. He was also displaying ‘learned helplessness’ meaning that nothing he had tried to do to escape his situation had succeeded so he stopped trying. It was heart wrenching to see and I wish I had given him a more comfortable place to hide in, but I was still acting on training advice that dogs should not be comforted when they are afraid. It is the biggest regret I have in how I have worked with Sunny over the past 3 plus years.
I decided that movement should be a part of his rehabilitation. It began slowly, with me enticing Sunny to go after a tennis ball I rolled past him or out into the room. My border collie Finn and old cocker Bugsy, helped infuse the activity with positive excitement, running after the ball themselves. In time we were able to move on to a harness and long line for walks down the dirt road or through the woods.
When I finally let Sunny off the leash to join the other dogs in their explorations of the scents and other delights of the forest, it was a joy to see him behave exactly as a dog should, with enthusiasm and curiosity, his brain processing new information and hopefully becoming better at it. At home I began to work on providing him with novelty in ways which did not frighten him. Many fearful dogs find any changes in their environment scary. I used different bowls to feed him, moved his water dish to accessible but different locations, introduced new toys, and began working on targeting.
Think about ways you can add new experiences to your dog’s life with the goal of arousing their curiosity, not their fear.