Take a Walk on the Thinking Trail: Dog Enrichment at WHS

With the help of dedicated volunteers, Willamette Humane Society introduces its latest dog enrichment project: The Thinking Trail. An important aspect of Willamette Humane Society’s animal care? Enrichment. Our community pours its hearts into each dog, making sure that they have the best home they can while they wait for their forever families. A core part of our enrichment program is making sure the dogs get outside at least three times a day with our volunteer dog walkers to adventure along the path bordering our fields or playing in the yards.

This path is respectable and we are so fortunate to have one. There are plenty of scents for the dogs. Dogs are free to wander into the grass on either side, while the walkers remain on well-mulched ground. What’s not to love?!  Even so, we wanted to improve the experience for both the walkers and the dogs.  

That is when Anakin Purser, a local Eagle Scout, came to help. He was willing to take on an enrichment project, what we now call the Thinking Trail, for his community service project!  I had no idea how many steps would be involved when we started, but he stuck with it to get approval, donations, and over a dozen helpers for the build days!

Building the Thinking Trail

Completed mid-December 2016, the Thinking Trail provides our walkers with seven opportunities to try small, simple training tasks. Custom-built weatherproof sign boxes along the trail display these acitivites. The tasks are divided into three categories: confidence building, polite leash walking, and basic manners.  

signOne of the stations has multiple posts to incorporate into the exercise, while another has wonderfully sturdy wood platform. We even have benches to add as needed! Every week, we will be rotating them so that there are novel activities and that no one—two-legged or four—gets bored.

We expect many benefits from the Thinking Trail. First, it will make walks more fun! Training is (or should be) enjoyable for both ends of the leash! Our volunteers love seeing dogs interact with them happily and willingly. Moreover, it’s thrilling to see them trying something new, or better yet, being successful! The dogs will have more fun working (more like playing!) with our volunteers while earning tasty treats. It’s win-win.

The trail further enhances the mental enrichment the dogs receive while here.  Bored or stressed dogs get frustrated and destructive—to themselves or their environment. Especially in a shelter, it’s critical that we don’t let boredom or stress take our pups down a slippery slope. The training tasks chosen are quick and easy so there will still be plenty of time to “smell the roses” around the trail. But they will provide extra opportunities to do what we fondly call “brain work!” Exercising the mind can be just as tiring exercising the body, helps to reduce stress and allows dogs to relax when they are in their kennels (or homes).

Another benefit to note is confidence building in our canine friends. Many that come to the shelter have had limited life experiences. Even our well-cared for family pets can feel stressed and become shy in a setting without their people, home, and old routines. Being successful and earning rewards is confidence boosting in dogs, just like it is for people. While there is a whole confidence building category that is specifically created to be silly and simple, every sign is basic enough that most of our dogs should be successful in some way!  

Even better, the training methods described on the signs are all rewards-based. That means the dogs don’t experience any stressful corrections or force, which decreases learning, confidence, and trust.  These lucky pups have got nothing to lose and some really yummy stuff and cheerleading to gain.  (Speaking of building confidence, stay tuned for more blogs on the topic to help your dog!)unspecified-26

Training with Confidence

Getting back to National Train Your Dog Month, each station is training focused, so our dogs will be practicing and learning new skills! That’s win-win for both the handlers here and their new homes. We’re starting your dogs off right, and you will reap the benefits when you add them to your family! Now, we’re not promising perfectly trained dogs!  After all, learning requires a lot of varying and challenging setups, while our trail signs have to be simple enough to be one-size-fits-most. Still, the dogs will at least get to learn how to learn and will have a better head start than before with their life skills!  Plus, they are practicing focusing on their person when they are out and about–that is no small feat for most pooches!

We hope you now share our excitement for our wonderful Thinking Trail!  I couldn’t write about it if it weren’t for support from our Eagle Scouts and Anakin in particular. We are so grateful for his perseverance and quality job. It’s amazing how many different ways our community helps our animals and mission. Ready to get involved? Learn how here!

Has reading about our Thinking Trail got you thinking about how to do something similar for your own pups?  Here’s an idea for you!  Make index cards with skills you both know or new skills you’d like to work on, and draw one a day to work on! Or, place these training cards in various rooms of your house so that you get to interact with your dog as you go through your day-to-day life!  Need hands-on help? Check out our training services!