Many dogs do not know how to learn. They were never taugh. Maybe they're just a puppy, starting off, or a rescue with you just got, or maybe a personal dog that didn't need much training until problems arose. No matter the reason, when we begin our training journey, we want our dogs to be primed to capture new knowledge as quickly as possible. Thankfully, science has found that there are concrete things that we can do to help stimulate the chemicals that will help the brain gain and retain more information faster and more efficiently.
Study after study has shown that exercise helps stimulate neurogenesis (making new brain cells, and cementing new pathways in the brain). For many dogs that experience reactivity to the outside environment, exercise is the first thing they lose, so we need to replace walks with other activities.
Setting up a parkour or agility course in the house or backyard is a great place to start. Don't think of speed, but rather think of motion, muscles, and surfaces. Uneven surfaces cause tiny muscles to fire, and these muscles are often under utilized, but are necessary to balance. They fatigue quickly, so pay attention, but things like blow up mattresses, couch cushions placed on the floor, home made teeters made with a board over a pivot point, are all great.
Training that is active, such as sit to stands, quick position changes, bows, and sit prettys also use muscles and encourage balance and thoughtfulness. Training heel, spins, and other obedience work can tire the mind and body.
Lastly, do not forget the value of foraging and scent work. Village dogs spend much of their day foraging for food. Being omnivores, dogs want to follow their noses and seek out great stuff. Help that along with scatter feeding, hidden food treats, and other scent work games. Hide things in hard to access areas, and ensure that the hunt takes enough time to tire the dog both mentally and physically.
Those who know me, know I do not fall for woo, and stories. I like science. Facts help me feel grounded. There are foods and substances that have been found through multiple studies to aid brain health and memory function.
The first is Essential Fatty Acids. This is the only nutraceutical that I have consistently recommended, both as a vet tech and as a dog trainer. The studies on the anti-inflammatory effects of EFAs is compelling and at this point fairly settled. Studies have also found that EFAs may be helpful in preserving and maintaining brain health. While studies in normal people showed little effect, the elderly and those suffering from dementia and other diseases of the brain saw improved memory function.
EFAs are especially important in the elderly, impaired, and puppies.
Tumeric. I hate trendy foods, and turmeric is the new does everything magic supplement. It doesn't do everything (nothing does except unicorn horns), but the studies on memory and brain health are compelling.
Resveratrol is the chemical found in cranberries and blueberries that has anti-oxidative effects. Studies have found that it helps with memory and brain function. Again, there are many studies, and they seem fairly robust.
How to give: I always prefer Whole Foods to supplements. Having said that, I cannot stand the smell of fish, nor do I want to feed salmon to my dogs.I do buy salmon-based canned dog food where salmon is the primary ingredient, but I also buy human grade EFAS and simply add them to my dog's food four to five times a week. Tumeric, I looked and looked and unfortunately, the best way to get the benefits is through a supplement. Dogs do not enjoy the taste of Tumeric, and you would have to give a lot. Instead, look for a certified supplement. For Resveratrol, I simply use blueberries and dried cranberries and add them to my dog's diet.
Certification: Nutraceuticals are not FDA regulated. I can put anything in a pill capsule and sell it. Because of this, dosing is all over the map (how much, how often, is it safe?) and claims are ridiculous. Do not buy a nutraceutical that has not been certified by an independent agency: NSF/ANSI
Sleep; You can't think if you're tired. Your brain cannot make the chemicals necessary to do it's job and build new pathways if you do not sell long enough your sleep is interrupted, or you fail to achieve adequate amounts of REM sleep.
Puppies and high drive dogs especially supper from sleep deprivation, as do dogs in busy households, or dogs that are constantly alert for danger.
Find a place to put a crate that is quiet, and undisturbed. Play background music, close curtains, cover the crate, do whatever you must to ensure your dog is able to sleep as often and as long as necessary - for adult dogs, this is 16 hours! For puppies, it is longer.
Learning, exploring, touching, feeling, and doing all increase brain function. Training anything, a trick, hand touch, anything is better than nothing. Providing an opportunity to problem solve, figure out pathways to reward either through training or physical obstacles are incredibly powerful.
This can be as simple as food puzzles or as complex as running agility or sorting sheep. An enriched environment not only helps our dogs live fuller, more robust lives, but studies in rats have found that enriched environments actually create more complex wiring in the brain.
All the training in the world won't work if your dog is sleep-deprived, uninterested, and lays around all day. We can help jumpstart the training process by helping our dog's brain function better.