How enriching

cartoon dog wearing clothes juggling balls while riding a unicycleScientists working with lab rats discovered that by providing rats with an enriched environment there was a thickening of their cortices. This is a good thing. An enriched environment for a rat might consist of mazes, toys, and novel objects. Things and activities that provided the rats with the opportunity to ‘think’. But scientists also discovered that regardless of how enriching an environment they could create the cortices of wild rats were thicker than those of the lab rats. I am sharing this information because I don’t think all of those rats should have been dissected in vain. This information is helpful to us as dog owners.

Dogs who grow up in confined or limited spaces are affected much as lab rats are (I am extrapolating on this since I am not aware of any specific studies on dog brains, but mammalian brains are similar in many ways, so go with me on this one, or not). This does not mean that our puppy mill, hoarder or backyard kenneled dogs are stupid but it might mean that we need to give these rescued dogs more time, more attention and consideration when we are expecting them to learn new skills and behaviors. Interactions with humans that make sense to a dog with more early experience with novelty and handling, may not make sense to a deprived dog, and this can contribute to their level of fear and anxiety. Dogs are amazingly adaptable but perhaps their ability to adapt is due in part to their ability to think things through and come to a conclusion that makes sense for them beyond their initial fright.

I am not sure at what point a cortex ceases to grow, or if it ever does, brains it turns out are much more plastic (changeable) than had been thought. But as handlers we can do whatever we can to help our fearful dogs by providing them with the opportunity to change whatever parts of their brains is possible. We don’t do this by flooding them with novelty when their brains are not prepared to deal with it. We do it by providing them with an environment in which they feel safe and then begin to add interesting and non-threatening diversity to it. Giving my fearful dogs the opportunity to feel safe and use their brains and bodies in ways that delight them is good for them, and it delights the heck out of me as well.


12 comments so far

  1. Holly on

    “but it might mean that we need to give these rescued dogs more time, more attention and consideration when we are expecting them to learn new skills and behaviors”

    indeed. The rust sometimes flakes off slowly. As well, there may be a top limit to what they learn, but the joy most of them know as they begin to emerge should not be discounted. Even if they only become comfortable in a known environ….it is STILL more than they had before.

    another consideration is that the very fear that we see, may be what kept them alive, so it would be even more difficult for these dogs to let go of that and it might require more patience on our part.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sunny gives you a big thumbs up for your comment. He grew up in a pen with other dogs. Life in the big world still overwhelms him, but he has a very good life here.

      Here’s my fearful boy and little Nibs who is blossoming into a fun dog to spend time with.

  2. Jana Rade on

    Very true, great stuff. This can even REVERSE brain degeneration.

    Another cool research was into the effects of walking on the brain. Same results also. Apparently works (not only because better oxygenation and all that) but because the original purpose for formation of brain was coordination of movement.

    • Debbie on

      It’s fascinating isn’t it? Non-habitual movement is very helpful for changing brains which is especially useful for our dogs who were confined for much of their lives.

      Debbie Jacobs

  3. Ann M. McHugh on

    I adopted a 3.5 yr old female Keeshond a year ago September. She belonged to a small breeder who socialized the puppies, took great care of them and placed them in loving homes. She had kept this bitch with the plans to finish her AKC championship, make sure ALL health checks were done and then breed her. She was NOT a backyard breeder. In fact I have the older half-sister to the bitch I adopted who is healthy, fit, affectionate, and has earned her CDX(advanced obedience title and is a therapy dog) BTW they shared the same father. I adopted this beautiful dog because the breeder became extremely ill with what turned out to be terminal lung cancer(yes she was a smoker and I do wish none of the puppies had ever been exposed to 2nd hand smoke, but…) This dog had just finished having her first litter when the breeder went into the hospital. To make a long sad story shorter, I found out that the breeder had been feeling ill for a long time, telling no one so this little girl had been crated most of the time for the past year! She’d be fed in her crate, let out in the yard to play some and do her business, and then crated again,spending probably 22/7 in a plastic crate!! I did not find this out till later. It explains why this dog was not reliably housebroken, had no house manners and barked and barked for food, attention, most anything. She did not even know the command to sit which I had to teach her after she knocked the food bowls out of my hands so many times. People wanted her, but only to be “breeding stock” and at that time her AKC papers were not available so the puppies would not be registerable and then they didn’t want her which tipped me off for their “generosity” to adopt this “orphan dog”. She has an umbelievably sweet nature, but and now you know why I’m commenting here – she appears to be “dumb” or lacking intelligence as in “dumb, beautiful blond”. Do you suppose it is because of the lack of stimulation she suffered. She loves stuffed toys and to play with her older sister. She was well accepted by my dogs and as I said before she is unbelievable sweet in nature. I did teach her to sit, she no longer “counter-surfs” daily,in very housebroken and the barking is now only when my husband and I are eating, Do you think she can be trained in obedience/agility or is it too late? Reading your story of the rats, I am leaning toward trying to train her more as I feel she would enjoy it and I feel badly leaving her at home when the others go to trials etc. However, I don’t want to stress her OR ME or frustrate both of us. She is now 4.5 yrs old, but in great condition and very agile during play etc.
    BTW she does get along with Tinkerbelle, the eskie rescue I wrote about last week.
    Any comments, suggestions appreciated. Please don’t slam the breeder who died a yr ago – it won’t do any good -I just want to do the best for this dog …
    Ann & the 7 fuzzbutts

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s never too late to achieve some kind of change in behavior in a dog. It may not be to the extent we’d dream of, but it’s always worth training. Using mark & reward training methods would be most appropriate for a dog like this. The better trainers we are the easier it is for our dogs to learn. Traveling and hanging out at competitions may not work for the dog (or they might), but it doesn’t mean you can’t do low stress classes with her. There are always meds that can help with the process.

      Some dogs seem to be dumb because they were never trained and so never had the opportunity to figure people out. Dogs trained using reward based methods learn to offer behaviors. There’s an expectancy and enthusiasm about interacting with people that they can have, even if they were compromised in some way. I’d start targeting games, they’re easy and can get dogs moving.

  4. Ann M. McHugh on

    This dog is not fearful in anyway, just seems “dumb” and I’m hoping that more training will help her desperate need for attention(barking, jumping, in your face type of behaviour). I know I didn’t make that clear -sorry. I just wonder what type of training method would work better, in your opinion, esp since I do think she lacked stimulation as a young dog, unlike her sister who I have had since she was 8 wks old. I use only reward training as Keeshonden and many eskies are too sensitive for harsher methods and are usually not needed. But “dumb” is not what I have trained before. I’m just glad she can’t read to see this
    thanks and sorry I didn’t make the no fear, just dumb part clearer.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Same things. Clicker and other mark/reward training methods help dogs put 2 & 2 together. Start with eye contact, name recognition and targeting. All easy behaviors to get from a dog. Use whatever reward motivates the dog. It’s funny but sometimes the better we are at training the smarter our dogs seem 😉

      • Ann M. McHugh on

        I don’t think you meant it that way, but your last comment could be interpreted to mean I am a poor traner ‘cuz this dog is “dumb”(smile), but having trained several including her sister with the CDX + titles, I won’t take it that way or did you mean it that way, really??
        I don’t really like clickers, but I will start targeting -she is a food-freak so I have that going for me. I think I’ll really concentrate on her for a month and see if there is an improvement. Thanks – I’ll keep you posted on whether a stimulating environment can help the “intellectually challenged”. She is very sweet tho and tho she started out as a foster, she won’t be leaving, sigh!

  5. fearfuldogs on

    Don’t mean you are a bad trainer, but every single one of us could become a better trainer. As I was told, we learn the most from our most challenging dogs.

    Can a dog be stupid? Sure. You can always use that as a fall back. 😉

    Also- prolonged stress and lack of movement can affect different parts of the brain which deal with memory and learning. Voluntary exercise can help.

    • Ann M. McHugh on

      Yes we can all become better trainers. But I am going to really try with her – she seems “sad”(ya I know) when left out of stuff necause she doesn’t know what to do. I can use the “dumb” excuse, but also since she has a very light colored mane, I’ll just say “she’s a blond” and let it go at that. Thanks again.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Keep us updated! And be careful of what you say around your fair haired friends!

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