Stefanie Strackbein, owner and creator of What Dogs Want has built a business around offering dogs in her care canine enrichment when they are at her school. Imagine hiring a sitter for your child and that sitter simply places your child in front of the television for the day — not a great way for him or her to be cared for, right? Now imagine dropping your dog off at a doggie day care and they are left to their own devices, or play with the other dogs there — kind of boring, right?
Stefanie believes the dogs at her school deserve to be enriched and introduced to games that work their brains and their bodies.
In a recent interview with Stefanie we discussed many items including the fact that the General Manager of DOGTV, Beke Lubeach, takes her dog Payton to What Dogs Want. In fact, Stefanie first new Payton as Apollo and he attended her school as part of the outreach she does with a local shelter, Love Pup. It was an interesting connection!
Canine Enrichment Is The Name Of The Game
Q. How long have you run What Dogs Want?
A. I have been doing this since 2007 but started in a different context. I was providing pet sitting and in-home enrichment for pets. I’d go to their houses armed with games and activities and leave “homework” for the pet parents. The homework involved games that they could do with their dogs once I was gone for the day.
In 2017 I was working with a friend a couple of days a week in a facility. Then I had a pet parent who asked if I wanted to move to central Phoenix because she had a facility there. Her dog had been coming to our classes in Scottsdale and she was paying more than $150 a day for an Uber ride to get him to school. It was flattering she did that. I said YES I’d love to work in the facility in Phoenix. My colleague didn’t want to make the move so I made the move on my own.
The new facility is larger and allows me to focus on bigger, better enrichment activities for the dogs. We do some “learning” and play games where the dogs have to practice patience (like sitting until it’s their turn to get a snack).
My goal is to provide more mental and physical stimulation for the dogs at the school. I also am always looking for things the pet parents can do with their dogs when they are home, with items they can find in their homes.
Q. What made you think enrichment activities are important for dogs?
A. I have always worked with animals and have worked in shelters in the behavior department helping with evaluations of the dogs’ temperaments. I found that many “problem” dogs who were surrendered were under-stimulated. That’s my theory, anyway. Many of the dogs weren’t well-socialized and that came to light when I fostered an eight-month-old dog who’d been surrendered because he was a “problem.” The owner didn’t have enough time for the pup, who was a Corgi-Sheltie mix. This dog was the smartest dog I had ever seen in my entire life. He was definitely a foster fail because I adopted him. I found out he wasn’t a problem dog — he was a bored dog. I found things to do where he could entertain himself and then bond with me during other enrichment activities.
Truly, our relationship built to the point where we could communicate with one another — we were so connected. It may sound weird, but he is a cool dog. His name is Indy, he’s ten-years-old now. It was because of him that I started thinking of doing enrichment activities with dogs at the shelters.
Dogs need a job even if that job is searching for snacks or playing with a ball or in a plastic kiddie pool filled with empty water bottles.
Stefanie says dogs live boring, sterile lives because pet parents do a lot for them. The dogs don’t have to work or make too many choices. Enrichment keeps them active mentally and physically and dogs love and need that.
Q. Why start a doggie school? I understand from Beke that What Dogs Want is much more than a doggie day care.
A. As mentioned above Payton/Apollo attended What Dogs Want when he was a shelter dog at Love Pup. I bring shelter dogs here on Mondays so they can get a break from the shelter and get some enrichment. We had actually talked about adopting Apollo/Payton but we weren’t in the right place at that point to take him. It was so much fun to reunite with him when Beke brought him here.
Beke, as you know, has a passion for dogs and for enrichment. She takes a stand on dog enrichment and is on the forefront with it with what she does with DOGTV. I don’t know if many pet parents truly understand what canine enrichment means.
Q. I understand Payton rides a bus to get to your facility?
A. Yep, We have a bus and we go around and pick the dogs up and bring them to the school. It’s a great way to get the dogs accustomed to riding in a vehicle. We play games on the bus and we teach them good behavior — like not barking at cars next to them at a stoplight. The pet parents love it and we’re so glad we can offer this service.
Q. We’ve touched on it a bit, but you have “enrich” right in your business tag line. Why is it so important?
A. Our school has a bit of a pattern to it. After the dogs get off the bus — those who ride it — we come in and follow a curriculum. The pet parents know what their dogs will be doing for that day, week and month. We have a balance between body work and mental work. We do a modified agility class with balance beams, A-frame and other things to climb on. We work with exercise balls, too. All the activities are modified to suit the dog’s age, health and activity level.
For the mental work we do food puzzles, snuffle mats, the dogs find items with food treats in them, they uncover items, they jump into the kiddie pool with the bottles in it and look for the treats I’ve tossed in.
The games are also modified so every dog gets a treat. Some dogs are truly into the games and into the treats and others sit on the sidelines. We try to get everyone involved and everyone gets a treat. The games we do are those that a pet parent can do right at home with their dogs to keep them entertained, enriched and stimulated.
In all my years of doing this I only had one dog who didn’t want to work for a snack. He didn’t seem to enjoy the program because he was so attached to his mom he didn’t want ot be away from her. He just came to school and stood in the corner. He ended up dropping out, but his mom brought her new puppy here and he loves it. Some dogs just want to be with their moms and not with other dogs — every personality is unique.
I love seeing the dogs who come here blossom when they are playing games and playing with one another.
Q. Do you still bring shelter dogs here?
A. Every Monday the shelter dogs came here — well until coronavirus shut everything down. I anticipate starting this program up again once the restrictions are lifted. We bring the dogs here and let them do the physical and mental games and it’s great to watch them have so much fun and just be dogs. I think it also helps them to find their forever homes — if the pet parent understands that his or her new dog may get bored and we offer them ways to keep them engaged and enriched.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A. Dogs need to be set up for success. They need to have fun, feel safe and have their confidence built up.
I am such a big believer in canine enrichment and in providing opportunities for dogs to explore and just be dogs. We expose the dogs to new and unique materials and items. For example, we might have them explore the pool filled with plastic bottles — to get accustomed to odd noises. We give them items they can sniff out to do some nose work.
It’s been proven that adult dogs who live in an unenriched environment lose brain cells. Once they begin to be enriched, though, those brain cells may regenerate. Enrichment for your dog needs to happen from the day you bring him home — whether he’s a puppy or an adult dog.
Taking your dog for walks — especially during this quarantine — is great BUT you also want to stimulate them mentally. Play a game, let them “hunt” for treats.
I have had people reach out to me and ask, “how can I entertain my dog?” I give them advice on different games they can play at home. Games don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. You can spend five to ten minutes a couple times a day — with items you have right in your house — to enrich your dog.
I cannot emphasize this enough — it is so important to enrich your dog’s life. Find new ways for them to make decisions and use their brains. You can do something as simple as throwing some kibble or pieces of cheese in the yard and let them run around and sniff out the treat. If you have a dog who likes to dig and you don’t want him digging up your yard, fill a small pool with sand and toss in some items he can dig for. You may be able to redirect him from digging in the garden to digging in the sandbox.
Every fun thing you do with your dog builds your bond. It really doesn’t take much time and it is so rewarding for you and your dog. We owe it to our dogs to give them the best, happiest and most enriched lives we can!
Click here to learn more about Stefanie Strackbein, owner and creator of What Dogs Want, LLC Stefanie and her dogs and some of the activities she provides them were featured on an episode of Dog Hugs on Positively Woof.
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