Taking Free Work Concepts onto Walks
ACE free work is a fantastic concept developed by Sarah Fisher, as part of Animal Centred Education (ACE). Sarah describes free work as being “designed by dogs, for dogs” which I love. Free work often involves the dog exploring a range of different textures, surfaces, angles and heights, and being offered a variety of different types of treats within this area. There will also be water bowls at different heights in the free work area.
Free work is a fantastic tool to help dogs decompress and destress, to build confidence, to offer mental stimulation and enrichment, and can also be used to help to desensitise our dogs to triggers that they may be unsure of or worried by (whether that is a specific trigger or new environments). An experienced eye can also teach you to spot choices that your dog may or not make, notable ways in which they move, and also make observations about posture and coat. If we begin to notice patterns (for example, a dog never taking treats from raised surfaces) we can start to learn more about this dog’s physical experience and explore why this may be the case. We can also notice things our dogs do/don’t like – e.g., the dog you thought loved lickimats actually really enjoys using a snuffle mat when they have the choice and the freedom to make it.
Free work is an such a useful and easy tool – so how can we take elements of this and build it in to our every day dog walks, in a way that can be accessible to everyone, to offer our dogs some of these benefits and choices?
One of my favourite things about free work is that it helps our dogs to destress. We know that acts such as sniffing and licking release the neurotransmitters serotonin (which aids relaxation, confidence, and wellbeing to name a few things), dopamine (which regulates mood, feelings of pleasure and reward, cognition, movement, and memory; again, to name a few but not all), and endorphins (the feel good stuff!). Taking free work/enrichment concepts out and about on your dog walks can lead to a more fulfilled, happier dog, that has had the opportunity to destress. Your walks will also be of better quality to your dog because we have spent time doing things that are of value and benefit to them. Where walks are concerned, the quality of the walk far outweighs the quantity.
The idea is simple – get your dogs doing stimulating ‘dog stuff’ on a walk. Dogs are natural foragers. They like to get their nose in to things and have an explore. A more sensitive dog may need to be coached in to this and supported to feel more confident, so how much we are expecting of our dogs is entirely based on the individual. A dog that has never experienced enrichment of this sort may take a little longer to engage than one with plenty of practice and confidence.
Spreadable treats in squeezy tubes are easy to put in our pockets or treat bags, and take with us on our adventures. Head to somewhere reasonably quiet, which offers some environmental enrichment anyway (not necessarily the local field that has a lot of dogs whizzing past after toys…think peace and relaxation!). Squeezing things such as primula cheese on to tree bark, stumps, and accessible surfaces can provide different heights/textures, and an enjoyable reward, and give our dogs an enriching opportunity. We will also be encouraging them to slow down and process their environment. We can also make observations that inform their lifestyle. Does your dog like taking their primula from a raised surface, such as the side of a tree, rather than a short tree stump? This dog might benefit from a raised, angled bowl at home rather than one that is on the floor.
Those treats that you have in your pocket – make accessing them a stimulating process! Scatter them amongst leaves (nature’s snuffle mat), dog safe plants such as long grass, and encourage them to have a good sniff to find them all. Ensure that you are not scattering treats amongst anything harmful that your dog may accidentally ingest, such as gravel or small stones.
Do you have a dog that enjoys toy play on a walk, more so than food based rewards? Teach them to find their toy when it is dropped or hidden, and encourage them to do this on a walk, so that they search/sniff their toy out (and enjoy having it at the end). Toys that you can fill with food are often good choices so that there is scent to follow, even if your dog is more interested in the toy than treats.
Lastly, a good old sniffy walk is always beneficial to our dogs. If they aren’t working to access rewards or treats but are just having a sniff, let them continue. When appropriate, it is nice to let your dogs follow their nose on a walk rather than directing them, so that they have choice. After all, whose walk is it?
Mix and match the above ideas (as well as some of your own) to give your dogs choice. A dog that has choice and is able to make their own choices, is a dog that will begin to feel more confident.
Know Your Dog