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Increasing a dog’s awareness

There’s a huge range of intelligence from dog to dog just as there is from human to human.

We can’t do much to increase the actual intelligence of our dogs, but we can increase their awareness of themselves and how they fit into their surroundings.

All dogs can learn.

Introducing a dog to as many different environments, scenarios and obstacles as possible affects how he thinks and behaves in certain situations. A dog that has experienced more will make better choices. He will act smarter than other dogs.

A person who has traveled more or studied more than others is not necessarily smarter, but she can use her experiences to make smarter decisions. It’s the same for dogs.

For example, about a third of the dogs I walk will untangle themselves if they get their legs caught in their leashes. They menouver their bodies by stepping over their leashes, backing up and twisting around, all in the correct order. The other two-thirds of the dogs I walk will just stand there waiting for my help. Some dogs do not even seem to understand why they are stuck.

The dogs that know how to untangle themselves are not necessarily the breeds typically credited for being smarter (German shepherds, border collies, Australian shepherds, etc.). Instead, they are the dogs who have experienced more with their owners. Their owners consistently reward them for thinking!

The dogs that “get out more” are very aware of themselves and their relation to their environments and to me. They are able to avoid getting tangled in their leashes in the first place. They also avoid bumping into my legs or cutting me off. They make eye contact. They do not react aggressively or excitedly to passing runners or dogs. They might show a lot of interest, but they do not freak out. Basically, they’ve seen it all before.

If a dog rarely gets out of his house and yard, he won’t have much of an understanding on how to act or what to expect beyond those boundaries. He’ll be full of energy and excitement, for one thing, and he’ll probably pull on the leash, knock things over and react to something as unexciting as a person pushing a stroller.

The dog might need help figuring out how to step over a fallen log, jump down from a ledge or walk through an automatic door.

If this sounds like your dog, don’t worry. It’s never too late to increase his awareness.

How can I increase my dog’s awareness?

The easiest way to do this is to bring him out and about in the “real world” as often as you can.

Bring your dog to new places

I’ve taken Ace to countless places, and it’s paid off. Mostly, he doesn’t act like a freak if we visit somewhere new.

Ace has gone for walks in many different neighborhoods and parks around town. He’s visited all the pet friendly stores in our area. He’s gone on camping and backpacking adventures, carried his own doggy backpack and slept in a tent. He’s attended fairs, garage sales and fundraisers. He’s gone to softball tournaments, marathons and rugby games (along with rugby parties).

Ace goes to picnics and trips to the lake and bike rides. He goes for boat rides, jumps off the dock and swims. He participated in a 5-mile race complete with live bands, a gunshot at the start of the race and people screaming. He’s taken several agility and obedience classes. He’s been around guns and fireworks. He climbs on playground equipment. He’s visited nursing homes, churches and schools. I’ve left him at different boarding kennels and dog daycares and with various friends and family members.

All of the above are everyday scenarios your dog could also take part in. It’s not too hard to come up with places to bring your dog, even if it’s as simple as walking him in a new neighborhood every day. You are guaranteed to come across something new.

Train your dog for agility or create your own obstacles

Dogs love agility! They love the challenges of climbing, crawling and jumping at fast speeds. Ace loves agility, but he also loves playing on playground equipment, walking across beams and logs and jumping over random obstacles I put together at home.

Some dogs will be hesitant to climb on different obstacles because they’ve been told “no” every time they try to get on the furniture. So teach your dog that it’s OK to climb when he gets permission. Use commands like “up” or “chair” or “climb.” Reward your dog for making small attempts. If he puts one paw up, tell him how good he is and give him a treat. Do that a few times and then keep challenging him to go a bit further. Two paws, three paws.

Make sure to also teach the word “off” to use when you do not want your dog jumping on you or climbing on the furniture. For Ace, “off” means “keep all four paws on the ground.”

Pretty soon you’ll have a dog that can climb onto a bar stool or sit at the piano!

Set up mental challenges for your dog

Ace the black lab mix sitting with a blanket over his head

Have you ever heard of those exercises to test your dog’s intelligence? One trick is to put a blanket over your dog’s head and see if he can figure out how to get out. Some dogs will get out instantly. Others will take a few seconds. Some dogs will just stand there waiting for help because they’ve been conditioned not to think for themselves.

Don’t use exercises like this to judge your dog’s intelligence. Instead, use them to test your dog’s awareness. If he can’t figure out how to get a blanket off his head, then encourage him to figure it out himself and reward him when he does. Treat it like he’s won an Olympic gold medal! The next time you throw a blanket over his head, he won’t be so confused.

There are all kinds of mental challenges you can set up for your dog. I put treats under cups and hide them around the house for Ace to find. He has to use his nose to find the treats and then knock over the cups with his paws or nose. Sometimes I hide the treats under rugs or above his head, like on a bookshelf or on top of a scratching post. You’d be surprised how many dogs don’t seem to understand the concept of looking up.

Teach your dog commands for directions like “back up” or “turn”

Ace loves to “back up”! And it’s really increased his awareness. He has to be aware of what’s around him so he doesn’t back right into a table or a wall. He will now “back up” while turning corners, and we are working on backing up the stairs (see video below). This is good exercise for him because he uses his muscles differently. It also encourages him to think about himself in a different way.

To teach your dog to back up, start by rewarding him for very small successes. Say “back up” and then walk directly into him so he automatically takes a step back. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Build your distance slowly over time.

The “turn” command comes in handy when we are out biking. I haven’t taken the time to teach Ace “right” or “left,” but when I say “turn,” he knows we will be switching directions so he pays very close attention to where he is in relation to my bike.

Dogs make associations based on past experiences

Just because a dog knows how to lie down on command at home doesn’t mean he will lie down on command at the dog park. But, if a dog’s owner practices commands with him in many areas and situations, the dog will soon catch on.

For example, I taught Ace commands such as “climb it,” “crawl” and “jump” during agility practice. But now they come in handy when I want to tell my dog the safest way to get from point A to point B – from the dock to a boat, for example. My dog is an awkward klutz, but he has learned how to control his body and how to balance himself when needed.

As another example, last weekend we were visiting some friends, and Ace was in their kitchen showing off his begging skills. Josh gave him the command “out!” which means “Get your butt out of the kitchen!” Ace understood this and walked out of the kitchen to the place where the linoleum met the carpet and lied down. He knew what to do even though he’s never been in our friends’ apartment before.

The point is, our dogs are capable of much more than we give them credit for. It’s our job to take the time to teach them and to lead them. A smart dog can do really stupid things if he’s not aware of how he fits into an environment. A border collie might be “smart enough” to break out of his gated yard, but he might also be “dumb enough” to run right into a car if he’s unaware of how he fits into his environment beyond the backyard.

My mutt is by no means a genius when it comes to dogs. After all, he might be part dane! But he still has a vocabulary of at least 70 words, and he knows how to “behave” in a variety of situations. He knows how to pay attention and how to re-group. And yes, he knows how to maneuver his body in order to untangle himself from his leash.

In what ways do you increase your dog’s awareness?

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 7th of February 2011

Haha. Hank is a smart boy! How often does he guess correctly when you hide a piece of food in one hand? Is he guessing or can he smell which hand has the food? I haven't done this too much with Ace, so Ace seems to just randomly hit one of my hands without much thought. I'll have to work on this more with him.

I fill my Kongs with peanut butter and then stick them in the freezer for a good hour.


Monday 7th of February 2011

Since Hank is very food orientated, I often use small kibble for games.

For example, I will sit on the floor in front of him and put a small pile behind me. I will put both hands behind me pick up a piece and then bring both closed hands out and he has to guess which hand has kibble in it. Sometimes I will give a clue by a movement behind my back, other times he just has to guess.

When I am cooking and so am standing and can see him and follow his progress I will make him go down where he can't see what I am doing and hide a piece of kibble somewhere. He then has to find it. I will often make noise in areas, other than where the piece of kibble is hidden, to make it harder.

I tried using Kongs and similar to hide food, but within a couple of minutes he figured out how to throw them up in the air and rapidly dislodge the food on impact with the ground.


Saturday 5th of February 2011

I freaking love the videos of Ace! He's such a goofy, adorable guy! And the backing up video is just cute. :P I got such a kick out of how much he seemed to enjoy it. **wag wag!**

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 6th of February 2011

Yeah, he's a good boy :) I didn't realize how happy he was either until I watched the video and really noticed that tail!


Monday 31st of January 2011

I like the idea of setting up mental challenges. I am going to try that.

Valdese Blogger

Sunday 23rd of January 2011

You mentioned about some dogs getting tangled up in their leash and not knowing what to do, while others step out it or don't get tangled up in the first place and I had to smile. I've experienced both, and I'm happy to say that Pickles rarely gets tangled and when she does she steps right out of it. Also, if she's on a leash and we approach something like a tree or a post, she knows to go on the same side of it as I do. I didnt teach her these things, she just seem to learn. We also put treats in cups for her and let her find them, we play "guess which hand" and other weird games. She's pretty goofy. Good post.

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 23rd of January 2011

Yeah the dogs that get out walking more just learn these things, whether they are taught or not. And of course the dogs that are taught to "heel" or walk on a loose leash will naturally get tangled up less, too.