Canine Enrichment as a New Parent

Dear New Parent;

Congratulations on the new addition to your family!

I’m not a mom, but I’ve heard that this is a crazy, messy, sleep-deprived time for you and can only imagine what your stress levels must be like as you try to adjust to the incredible new life that you’ve just brought home. I’ve also heard that new parents often struggle with feelings of guilt as they attempt to continue to love on and care for their pet while they juggle new responsibilities, rest and visitors, so I thought I’d share some super simple, non-exhausting, non-labour intensive ideas.

  1. First, I really need you to know that your dog isn’t judging you. Seriously. Your dog isn’t looking at the neighbour’s dog out the window and lamenting about their twice daily walks while he is getting none. Dogs don’t think like that. He might be bored and he might be missing his regular routine or confused (or even scared) of some of the changes, but he isn’t judging you and he doesn’t hate you. Please, please, please don’t allow yourself to feel guilt around this. Additionally, these days/weeks/months of changes are not going to ruin your dog’s life or your relationship with your dog. This is a phase and everything is messy and you’re juggling a million balls. Things will settle down and you and your family will find a new normal.
  2. Consider hiring a dog walker or sending your dog to daycare while you adjust. Add a gift card for a local company to your baby registry. Ask friends and family who offer to help if they’ll take your dog out. Allow yourself to take something off your plate for awhile. The walkers aren’t going to show up and lecture you or condemn you for focusing on the baby instead of your dog. Everyone gets it, even non-parents like myself.
  3. Utilize food toys and brain puzzles. These. Are. Life. Savers. There are so many options, commercial and homemade. There are some that only take a couple of minutes and some that can occupy your dog for quite some time. A couple of my favourites include snuffle mats, Kong Wobblers and Kongs with meals frozen inside (there’s lots of yummy and healthy recipes online or wet dog food works awesome as well), but there’s literally hundreds of different options. In the summer, it can be fun to toss your dog’s meal out into the grass and let them scavenge for it.
  4. Short training sessions are acceptable (and preferred, actually). When you feel up to it, and have two minutes to spare, running through the tricks your dog knows or teaching a new one is a great bonding activity and an excellent way to tire them out. You don’t need to commit to anything crazy or time-consuming. You don’t even need to stand up. This might be a really great time to teach a “leave it” or “stay”, so you can solidify these before your baby starts moving around and tossing food over the sides of the highchair. I also like play a fun, rapid-fire trick/treat-retrieve where I ask for a behaviour and toss the treat for the dog to chase after, rather than just feeding him the treat. After he gets his treat and comes back, repeat with a new trick.
  5. Short walks are also absolutely fine. Once you’re feeling up to walks, five minutes down the street is more than fine. You can pump up the enrichment on walks by encouraging your dog to sniff lots (try tossing treats in the grass for them to find as you go), practice tricks on the way, or just enjoy being together.
  6. If your dog likes to fetch, a short game can help tire them out pretty quickly – and with limited effort on your part!
  7. Car rides count! You know when you just need to get out of the house for a change of scenery and the most boring trip feels like a vacation? Same for your dog. If you can safely bring them along for errands, this can be a low effort way to change up their day.
  8. Consider what is important to your dog and let the rest slide. For one of our dogs, walks are everything. She comes alive on walks, walks are what she gets most excited about and what she’d do all day. For another one of our dogs, our nightly training sessions are the highlight of her day. She follows me around while I get ready for bed because she knows we’ll run through a couple of tricks before bed. Our third dog loves to cuddle. Forget everything else, he just wants some snuggle time. If I’m running short on time or really just not feeling up to much, being able to commit to each dog’s favourite activity, even in a tiny way, really helps keep their quality of life up.

I hope this list helps! Please feel free to reach out if you have questions or need more ideas. If nothing else, I really hope you can take this as permission to take it easy, to let a couple things slide, and to stop juggling quite so many balls. You’re not a bad dog parent, you’re not a bad human parent, you’re not a bad person in general. Promise.