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The Dog's Mind

Developmental studies have been conducted on dogs to determine how environment can affect intelligence. Evidence indicates that there are critical periods (also termed “sensitive periods”) during which particular kinds of information are absorbed more readily than at other times. Early studies focussed on puppies and how exposure to novel situations stimulated the brain to grow, but more recently studies have focussed on the aging canine brain and what sorts of things tend to prevent senility and rapid aging. These studies are invaluable for planning the socialization of companion dogs and for allowing dog lovers to enjoy their companions to the utmost extent.
It is usually considered safe to take a puppy out in public well after the last parvo shot. Going to a pet store, a park, or a dog event gives a puppy opportunities to meet strange dogs and people. A children’s zoo provides opportunity for a puppy to meet other species of animals, but it’s important to keep safety and health issues in mind as well. A jungle gym designed for children may give a puppy experience on different kinds of footing; some may even enjoy a slide. The first couple of years of a dog’s life are most important for these activities in which novel sights, sounds, smells, and textures stimulate the young dog’s brain to develop to its full potential.

More recent studies on aging have indicated that, in addition to diet, mental stimulation is important in keeping a dog young. Think of the brain as a muscle, like your bicep; if you don’t exercise, the muscle shrinks and weakens. Similarly, a dog’s brain, like a human brain, atrophies from lack of use. Keep your dog mentally stimulated with activities like regular workouts, training, and trips. Hiking, agility classes, or lure coursing provide both physical and mental activity.

For those who must leave their dog alone during work hours, creating a situation in which the dog is bored as little as possible is very important. If it is safe for your dog to have the run of the house, that may be the best solution; my dog loves looking out windows and monitoring traffic on the sidewalk, and she is more comfortable at home than anywhere else. Some people have a separate room for their dogs where they are safe when left alone; safe toys and treats and comfortable bedding minimize stress and boredom while the dog is left alone. Dogs left outdoors are vulnerable to heat and cold, not to mention unwanted attention from passers-by; keep these factors in mind when planning a safe situation.

Where diet is concerned, anti-oxidants have proven effective in slowing the aging process. This means that fruit and vegetable extracts should be added to a dog’s diet. New kinds of kibble have been developed to include these supplements, but many dog owners include fresh fruit and vegetables in their dog’s diet as treats. Dogs are omnivores, unlike cats, and want to consume a variety of different foods; establishing a correct balance is important, of course. The general rule is to add no more than ten percent of the kibble intake, but possibly this rule will be adjusted in light of the recent evidence of beneficial effects from fresh foods.

Vitamin E is one source of anti-oxidants that can be found in fresh foods such as plant oils, butter, liver, egg yolk, green and leafy vegetables, wheat germ, whole grain products, milk fat, seeds, and nuts. Soybean oil, wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, and corn oil have high concentrations of the vitamin. I like to make peanut-butter biscuits and add some fresh wheat germ to the dough. Peanut butter is extremely nutritious, but the fat-reduced type has less vitamin E. The best source is refrigerated, cold-pressed oils available at health food stores and consumed within six weeks of opening the bottle because light, air, and heat tend to destroy valuable nutrients such as fatty acids and Vitamin E.

Vitamin C also is an anti-oxidant and although dogs can synthesize this vitamin, it doesn’t hurt to supplement the diet with small amounts of asparagus, apples, strawberries, oranges, or potatoes, for example, when convenient. Sharing a little at the dinner table can be a good socialization experience for dogs as long as the rules of dominance are reasonably adhered to; in other words, make sure you don’t serve your dog first: you have a bite, then she/he has a smaller bite.

Diet, exercise, and mental activity can enhance a long active life for your dog, and allow you to reap the full benefits of your relationship.

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