Canine Neurobics: A Curriculum to Improve Brain Health

Written by Camille King

Canine problem behavior can stem from issues related to anxiety, impulse control, and boredom.  Applied animal behaviorists often prescribe mental stimulation exercises for dogs to treat some of these problems. A unique way to provide this level of treatment is through a group therapy class known as Canine Neurobics (CN).  Neurobics is defined as mental exercises designed to create new neural pathways in the brain by using the senses in unconventional ways. The term was first coined in humans by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin in 1998. They stated that aerobic exercises emphasized different muscle groups, while neurobics increased “range of motion” in the brain. In humans, routine actions are hard-wired in the brain, but changing these patterns can increase cognitive function.

As an applied animal behaviorist and an advanced practice psychiatric nurse, I see many similarities in humans and other animals related to learning, sensory information and cognition. Research studies of children revealed that increased attention and maximizing short- and long-term memory through patterns of active problem solving were correlated with physiological changes in brain structure, and with cognitive improvements.

Patricia Heyn conducted a study with 13 nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s disease. She developed a multifaceted exercise program including sensory stimulation, storytelling and visualization to examine cognitive function, behavior, and physiological indicators. Results showed a reduction in resting heart rate, an improvement in overall mood, and more engagement in physical activity. Sensory and brain-based teaching strategies are valuable in a learning environment. Therefore, I developed a science-based curriculum to provide sensory stimulation for dogs in an attempt to improve brain health. The exercises in this curriculum provide an outlet for dogs that experience anxiety, struggle with impulse control, or present an energy level that calms with focus and new learning.

Canine Neurobics is a group class for dogs that need a little something more than the typical obedience training class. I offered this specialty class for three years on a weekly basis. Pet owners enjoyed this class because it gave them a new skill set to manage their dogs’ problem behaviors. The multiple trials presented with each exercise also provided increased confidence in owners training their dogs. The activities also enhanced relationship between pet owners and their dogs. Many owners commented that the class gave them the nuts-and-bolts on how to redirect, interrupt, divert, and calm dogs who were presenting out-of-control behavior. The class curriculum is based on neuroscience and utilizes multiple senses to improve learning. Exercises based on sentient learning and cognition were introduced in each class. Canine participants were required to have completed a basic obedience class or have solid compliance with cues.

The course program lasted for five weeks, meeting for an hour per week.  Group size was small (four or five dogs) to accommodate individualized attention and learning. Each owner would go to a specific part of the classroom to work their dog. Although the owners and dogs were focused on a particular task, the class provided a group setting, so the owner/dog teams received the benefit of exposure to other dogs, at a distance that took into account any existing dog-dog issues.

The class opened with a short discussion about sensory exposure and training techniques. Dog owners were taught the importance of understanding their dog’s emotional state by learning to read their dog’s body language. We placed a strong emphasis on developing a good relationship between handler and dog. Owners would work at their dog’s level throughout the class. The group leader provided a lot of feedback, and coached owners to understand, be patient, and teach their dogs.

There were a number of exercises each week, all embracing a specific theme. Multiple activities were introduced in each class, and exercises were repeated for three trials. Throughout the repetitions, we instructed owners to notice their dog’s improvement in tolerance, acceptance, and learning.

The group leader coached the owners throughout the class on ways to manage their dog’s arousal, anxiety, or inattentiveness. The owner and group leader would monitor the dog’s body language, and set the dog up for success at all points in every exercise. Depending on the dog’s presentation—whether he was aroused or anxious—the owner would keep him on task by slowing or speeding up the number of cues given in a certain time period (once a skill had been learned), or they could discontinue the task to get the dog’s arousal or anxiety back to baseline.

Owners understood that at any time they could opt not to perform an exercise, based on their dog’s past experiences, medical problems, or current stress/arousal levels. Instead, owners could perform a prior exercise or go for a short leash walk.

Week One: Tactile learning

The tactile class started with a warm-up exercise. These activities encouraged touch of the dog’s body.

(a) As a warm-up exercise, owners were asked to sit down on a cushion mat, and then ask their dog to sit. This change in pattern (from a dog usually sitting while the owner stands) allowed for a learning pattern change from their routine.

(b) Once the sit warm-up was completed, the owners were asked to lie down on the mat and have their dogs lie down. They were told to give only one verbal cue, and to follow up with a hand signal if necessary.

(c) While the dogs and owners were on the mats, we had them conduct a handling exercise, touching different parts of the dog’s anatomy from head to tail, spending the most time on muzzle lines and hind limbs.

(d) We instructed owners to use an acupressure technique on the dog’s ear. With slight pressure, the owner placed their thumb just above the inside base of the ear and their index finger just above the outside base of the ear. With slight pressure pushing the two fingers together, the owner slowly dragged their fingers up from the base to the tip of the dog’s ear, holding slight pressure on the ear. We asked owners to watch how their dogs calmed by monitoring body language as they repeated the activity. Many of the dogs softened their eyelids, hung their heads low, or lay down.

(e) The next activity we taught was a touch command. Owners were instructed to hold out their hand in front of their dog’s face (four to five inches away) and wait. If the dog showed interest (moving forward to sniff or touching the palm of their hand with their nose) then the owner marked the behavior and rewarded the dog. Then they added a verbal cue. When the dog learned to touch the owner’s hand, the owner held different items and allowed the dog to touch them. Materials included a stuffed animal, a tennis ball, a block of wood, a paper bag, a plastic grocery bag, a Kleenex, and some Playdoh.

(f) Each dog walked on leash through the Texture Walk line. The training center was set up with multiple stations that the owner could walk the dog over or through. These included a sheet of plywood, cardboard with double-sided tape, gel pad, sandpaper, foam, water bath pool with four inches of water, artificial grass, kitty litter in a cement mixing tub, yoga mat, ripped up newspapers, a welcome mat with a rough surface for cleaning boots, and dried leaves. There was an option during this week for an extra station that desensitized and counter-conditioned dogs to the application of a life vest. I found that Bulldog owners especially enjoyed this station!

(g) Owners encouraged their dogs to run through a tunnel. Most dogs had prior tunnel experience—those who didn’t were worked in a slow manner to build up their confidence level. Eventually, the dogs would barrel through the tunnel. We eventually changed the shape of the tunnel so the dog couldn’t see the exit to encourage the dog to problem solve differently. Dogs with prior tunnel experience got an opportunity to walk through the tunnel as owners slowly rolled the tunnel. This gave the dog the experience of slow tactile movement and touch along the sides of their bodies.

(h) The group therapy ended with canine massage. Each owner had their dog lie down and we taught them how to give a comforting massage.

Week two: Visual learning

(a) The session started with the group leader encouraging the owners to teach the dog to sit and down by offering eye contact only, no verbal or hand signal. The owner had the dog on leash to interrupt if the dog tried to leave the training area. The owner cued the dog to sit by first looking at the dog’s face and then looking at her hind end. The owner didn’t say anything to the dog. At first, the dog had no idea what the owner wanted. Once the dog offered a sit, the owner immediately rewarded her. After their owners repeated this multiple times, the dogs began to sit when the owner looked at the dog’s hind end.

(b) Once a dog was successful, they were encouraged to perform a down using the same technique. The owner would use a verbal cue for the dog to sit, and then once the dog sat, the owner would look at the ground. When the dog offered a down, the owner would immediately give the dog a reward. It was fascinating to watch how quickly the dogs succeeded with this activity.

(c) The next exercise was to have the dogs and owners practice a “Find’It” exercise. (This was a great diversion activity for dogs that get aroused in barrier-intensive situations or just needed to be diverted to another activity in class.) The dog was on leash and the owner threw out a piece of kibble for the dog to find.

(d) The earlier hand-targeting exercise was transferred from the dog touching the owner’s palm to touching an item placed on the floor. The chosen item was something of low value to the dog, so the focus was on the activity and not the arousal associated with a high-value item.

(e) The Cups Game: The owner placed a treat or piece of kibble under one of three upside-down cups as the dog watched, while in a sit- or down-stay.  If necessary, the owner would teach the dog to find it by lifting up the cup to allow her to see the treat or kibble underneath. When the dog was successful, the owner put her back in a stay position, and repeated the game. Once the dog was reliably finding the treat, the owner started to move the cup over the treat in a figure-8 or circular motion. In a few trials, each dog was able to find the treat from under the cup that was moved. Once successful with this step, then the owner would move all the cups and release the dog to find the treat. The owner provided more stimulation by changing the routine some: either the owner moved the cup farther away or placed the cup with the treat behind another object.

(f) Another activity involved presenting multiple puzzle toys throughout the room that the dog and owner could learn to use. There are many puzzle-type toys on the market that provide mental stimulation for dogs; we presented 20 or 30 items throughout the room and told the owners to find the top three toys that were most fun for their dogs. Then the owners were to find the top three toys that allowed their dog to focus, and the top three toys that allowed their dog to calm.  Any item that is diversionary or able to alter a dog’s behavior in a positive way is of value.

(g) Owners and dogs practiced out-of-sight stays in odd areas of the training center. Once successful, owners would play a short game of hide-and-seek with their dogs. A large training center was conducive for this type of work. Owners hid in corners of the rooms, behind doors or a blanketed exercise pen, inside covered walk-in kennels, and behind potted trees. This exercise used visual memory and thereby built confidence in dogs that were able to find their owners.

Week three: Olfactory and auditory learning

(a) After a short warm-up exercise, the owners would walk their dogs on leash down the Scent Line. For 200 yards, small glass candy jars with a rubber seal cover were placed in a line. Each jar contained cotton balls or gauze freshly scented with odors such as lavender, citronella, cod liver oil, mustard, beef broth, licorice, tuna, cherry juice, bone marrow, and honey. The owners had to learn which scents were more arousing for their dogs, which scents the dogs didn’t like, and which scents seemed to have a calming effect. Each dog had to sit at each jar while their owner removed the cover; then they were allowed to sniff the jar and show interest. Once the owner was able to read the dog’s body language, they would move to the next jar. At the end of the line, each owner took their dog for a short walk before moving onto the next exercise. Owners and dogs really enjoyed this exercise!

(b) Owners were given five four-inch squares of flannel cloth. Owners would rub one piece of flannel on their person, especially around their face, under arms, and so on, to capture a good scent. After allowing their dog to sniff the cloth, the owner placed their dog in a stay, walked a good distance away, dropped the cloth and returned to their dog. The owner then walked the dog toward the cloth, but didn’t give any direction. Over the course of three trials, owners were asked to notice how much time the dog spent on the cloth that had their scent on it. For the second part of the exercise, dogs waited in a stay while their owner rubbed all five pieces of cloth on their body. The owner would walk away from the dog, dropping a piece of cloth every few yards, and hide behind a barrier. Then a spotter would silently walk the dog to each of the pieces of cloth. The dogs were rewarded for following the trail by getting to their owners. There was a learning curve with this exercise, but once the dogs caught on, there was no stopping them!

(c) Moving on to auditory learning, the leader placed hula hoops on the floor throughout the training center for a game of musical hoops. Owners walked their dog from one hoop to the next while music was playing. When the music stopped, the dog not sitting in a hula hoop would be removed from the game. Rock, country, and classical music were all used during this game. The dogs didn’t seem to play differently from one genre of music to the other, but in a few short trials the dogs would run with their owners and slam into a sit when they got near a hula hoop.

(d) A second auditory exercise was conducted in which a low-level thunderstorm recording played in the background. If dogs became worried, the owners were instructed to work their dogs with a triplet pattern of basic commands (sit-down-stay, sit-down-stand, sit-up-down,  and so on). We found that keeping the dogs moving and continuing to work alleviated some of their anxiety. The hula hoops were brought back out as the storm and rain noises continued to play in the background. It was interesting to see that this diversion allowed for the dogs to keep playing even though low-level thunder was in the background. Dogs with thunder phobia problems were removed from the area by their owners to work on calming exercises instead.

(e) The last olfactory exercise was for the dogs to maintain a down-stay position while warm, freshly baked liver cupcakes were presented onto a table. The smell was quite fragrant! (Note: The recipe was specially formulated for dogs. Owners were given the cupcake recipe the week before, so they could to assess if their dog should take part in the activity.) The dogs loved this exercise best!

Week four: Gustatory learning

This class added a mix of exercises to involve all the senses. Owners were able to assess which stations to bring their dogs to, depending on what food item the dog could tolerate or if the dog had any prior medical problems or allergies.

(a) The dogs were walked along a Taste Line, where they could have a lick/taste of different items such as warm chicken broth, a tiny piece of string cheese, a frozen beef-broth-soaked braid toy, one Cheeto or orange cheese ball, and a slice of banana.

(b) A second half of the Taste Line included larger items that a dog could taste—items included a pig’s ear, bully stick, raw beef bone, and a Greenie—and then the owner would have the dog perform a drop-it behavior. They were instructed to use a high-value item to trade back for these items.

(c) Three new cat litter boxes were filled one-third full with water, and placed on top of a large towel. The owner would show their dog a piece of hotdog, allow the dog to sniff it, and then drop it in the water. They would encourage the dog to find the hotdog. At first, the dogs attempted to retrieve the hotdog in numerous ways—pawing at the box, nosing the box, and so on. After some coaxing by their owners, the dogs would finally stick their mouths into the water. In about three trials, all the dogs were fishing hotdogs out of the water.

(d) Owners placed their dogs in a down stay, and the group leader put a small saucer with a few beef broth Jello cubes in front of each dog. Owners were instructed to allow the dog to investigate the Jello cubes. Many dogs hadn’t had a Jello cube before and would pick it up, roll it around, lick it, etc. This exercise included visual, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile learning.

(e) The owner would show the dog a biscuit treat or some dry kibble in their hand. The owner was advised to drop the biscuit onto the ground near their feet and tell the dog to find it. The dog would immediately scoop it up. On the fourth trial, the same step was repeated except that the group leader would turn out the lights out. The owner would tell the dog to find it. In a few seconds, the lights came back on, and owners observed if their dogs found the treat. The owners and dogs enjoyed this exercise, which served as both visual and olfactory learning.

(f) The class ended with another hula hoop exercise. The owner held the hula hoop on the ground and encouraged the dog to walk through the hoop. After three trials they were advised to hold the hoop up in a vertical position, so that it was just a couple inches off the ground and encourage the dog to walk through again. Slowly they allowed the hoop to gently rest on the dog’s back. As the dog became more confident, the owner made other attempts at allowing the dog to feel the hoop on his body. If the dog ran through the hoop quickly, the owner would let go of the hoop and allow the hoop to fall on the dog’s body. This was an exercise in tactile learning and body awareness.

Week five: Cognitive learning

This final week focused on problem solving and accessing short- and long-term memory. These activities were modified from some of the IQ tests in Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs. The activities were not timed, and were used in this class to expose dogs to different textures and memory work.

(a) A biscuit treat was placed under a piece of paper and the owner encouraged the dog to find it. Once the dog was able to complete this task, owners used different items that hid the treat for the dog to learn to find. These items included: an empty dog food can, a plastic bag, and a shoebox with a half-open lid.

(b) A blanket was placed over the dog’s body and head. The owner talked to him and coaxed him to figure out how to remove the blanket.

(c) A treat or favorite toy was placed under a Kuranda bed so that it was partially hidden. The owner would allow the dog to see the placement of the item, and then release the dog to find it.

(d) The dog was encouraged to find “treasures”—favorite toys or other items—by digging in a kitty litterbox of sand.

(e) A square hole was cut into a small cardboard grocery box. The owner placed a biscuit treat under the box, where the dog could see it through the hole in the box. The dog was encouraged to find the treat. This took a few trials.

(f) A short-term memory exercise: The owner placed the dog in a sit- or down-stay, and allowed the dog to see a treat or toy placed in the corner of the room. Then the owner returned to the dog and released the dog to go find it.

(g) A longer-term memory exercise: With the dog in a sit- or down-stay, the owner put a treat along the wall of the room. The dog was distracted with some other training exercises for three minutes or so, and then released to assess if he remembered where the treat was.

The leader spent time in discussion at the end of the group, while the owners massaged their dogs.

We held Canine Neurobics group classes for a three-year period. Anecdotally, dogs showed good understanding of each activity and ability to successfully complete the activity by about the third trial. Owners had the opportunity to discuss what aspects of class were helpful in getting their dog to calm, which were arousing for their dog, and what exercises they would use in the future. Dogs that were anxious showed improved confidence from owners coaxing them and rewarding them for their hard work. Dogs that were impulsive showed calmer behavior from multiple trials and intense focus. Dogs who came to class for mental stimulation slept well after class, per owner report. It was surprising how many dogs really attended to their owners and presented overall calmer behavior. This course improved relationship bonding and enhanced human-animal interactions.

I believe this class could be a valuable addition to more traditional class structures. Canine Neurobics represents a unique and enjoyable approach to learning that may have some cognitive benefits beyond the simple learning of new behaviors.

Camille King, Ed.D, ACAAB, CDBC is an applied animal behaviorist who owns Canine Education Center, LLC in Colorado. She specializes in assessment and treatment of dogs with severe aggression and anxiety disorders.  Camille conducts professional research on canine stress and anxiety.