Do you want to know what your dog really likes to do? Ace free work is an excellent way to provide our dogs with enrichment, relaxation, and the chance to communicate with us, if we choose to observe them. It’s simple to set up and it offers safe fun for your dog.
It looks a little like an open plan obstacle course, and you can set it up without any investment whatsoever, just using recycled stuff and items you already have at home. You can set it up inside – perfect for rainy days! – or outside in the garden, on a walk, in the park… it’s a totally mobile activity.
WHAT IS ACE FREE WORK ENRICHMENT?
Ace Free Work was developed by Sarah Fisher as part of Animal Centred Education (ACE). When analysed in detail, it can be used to identify potential physical concerns and inform investigation for possible treatments.
On a simple level, it also offers us an excellent way to identify the activities our fur babies really enjoy, and help them gain confidence in areas they may be unsure about.
HOW TO SET UP ACE FREE WORK
We don’t need much space to offer our dogs free work. It can involve as few as 3 or 4 different areas – so could easily be arranged even in reduced spaces like a hallway.
Start small and simple. Here’s a suggested layout which includes the essential elements of Free Work and requires no purchase of any equipment whatsoever:
- Different surfaces: a towel, a rug, or a large piece of cardboard. Your dog will be walking over these so make sure they’re not slippery.
- Different heights: a box or upturned plastic crate (a plastic crate is preferable as you can smear food on it and clean it easily afterwards).
- Engagement Activities: a noise box / enrichment toy / snuffle mat / licky mat (if you don’t have a licky mat, there are lots of other plastic items that will do, like rubber floor mats for instance (make sure it’s clean first!).
Make sure you put a water bowl in the area too.
You can get instructions for how to make home made toys like those that I used for the Free Work in this article.
If you’d like to add some other elements, things like snuffle mats, enrichment toys and lickimats are great additions to a free work setup and can be bought very cheaply online:
Once you’ve laid out the different elements, add the food. There’s no need to buy treats for this activity if you don’t want to, or if your dog is on a diet. You can use your dog’s normal dinner.
Be sure to throw some food directly onto the floor in the area too, so your dog has the choice of not engaging at all with the different elements if she chooses not to.
Ideally, you would provide both small sized food, such as treats or kibble, as well as wet food that you can smear onto some of the surfaces. If possible, you would also include larger, chewy food items in the free work.
Licking, chewing and sniffing are healthy activities for our pups – studies have shown such activities release endorphins, thereby calming and comforting the dog, helping her to relax and reduce stress levels. Smearing wet food on licky mats or the surface of the plastic boxes will encourage licking.
If you have more than one dog, think about whether this activity is best done one at a time. If your dogs fight over food, you don’t want them to do it together.
DO IT NAKED (not you, the dog!)
Take your dog’s collar off so she has nothing on her to distract her. Most of us pet parents have no idea if wearing a collar annoys our dogs. So many dogs live with their collars on permanently. Many years ago, mine did too. These days though, they only wear a collar if they are out on a walk. I remove all equipment when they get home.
We had an incident once where the jaw of one of my dogs got trapped in my other dog’s collar and that is potentially fatal. You might be thinking, ‘Oh, but my dogs don’t fight’. Neither were mine, it happened during play.
ACE FREE WORK ENRICHMENT OBSERVATION
Once your dog is naked, let her explore freely. Try not to intervene in any way – just let her move through or around the activities as she wishes.
This is when you watch your dog carefully – even better, video her so that you can analyse it in more detail later. With careful observation, you should be able to see if she has preferences – or dislikes – of certain elements.
For instance, one of my dogs is a little nervous, especially of things that make noise. She always leaves these activities til last, when all the rest of the food has gone. To build her confidence I make sure I always put some activities in the free work that give her the chance to safely explore at her own pace.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR DOG BETTER
If you observe your dog closely, you will be able to learn so many things about her in free work – what does she go to first; does she run in, or advance cautiously; does she seem relaxed or tense; how does she respond if you move, or if she hears a noise; is there any activity that she avoids totally; does she happily step on all the surfaces, or does she walk around them; does she look at you for reassurance and permission; what are preferences (licking / chewing / sniffing); does she relax during the free work; does she shake? All these observations can help you assist and understand her more.
You might even become aware of some physical movement that you think needs further investigation, for instance, does she avoid turning in one direction, does she have trouble balancing, does she struggle stretching her neck to get to the food, etcetera?
Sometimes we don’t notice small physical difficulties in our dogs, but this activity encourages us to observe carefully. We might then realise there is a potential problem that can then be dealt with promptly. We can even show a vet a video of the movement, to get a professional opinion.
In this short video, my other dog Toxa does Free Work in a larger set-up. She has more options to choose from and I purposefully included new elements and things that she is unsure of, to help her gain confidence with those things.
She was very cautious around the noise box (the large plastic tub filled with things). She approached it several times during the session, even slightly jumping away from it a couple of times when something moved inside it. The position of her ears shows her concern too. This next short video shows her engagement with the noise box (I edited out the in-between parts).
I arranged exactly the same set-up again 5 days later, but this time I put her harness on to see if there was any difference. She seemed far more confident this time – perhaps as she had done the same layout just a few days before hand. Though she started off the same, she surprised me by ignoring the raw food on the far licky mat and circling back to the noise box (the large plastic tub).
It was great to see her approach it with more joy and confidence the second time.
We can use this set up to introduce new and possibly worrying things. For instance, my older dog needs a wheelchair to go out on walks. To introduce him to the wheelchair, the first step might be simply to leave it near one of the stations in a Free Work arrangement. This enables him to get used to it and explore it at his own pace. If he seems fine with it, I might then pop a lickimat right next to it. The next step might be to put some food on the wheelchair, etc.
FREE WORK AND FEAR OF CARS
Similarly, if your dog dislikes being in a car, for instance, you could set up free work outside, within view of the car. Begin at a safe distance, where you know your dog is already comfortable. Each time you set up free work, gradually offer stations a little closer to the car. The important point here is that your dog should be free to go to those stations if and when he is ready. There is no obligation.
As his confidence builds, you might see him explore activities a little closer to the car each time. Be sure not to have the car moving during these activities – the last thing you want to do is scare your dog. As your dog chooses to go closer to the car, you could introduce something new – for instance, leaving the car doors open. Take it slowly, bit by bit. It will feel like watching paint dry, possibly, but it has to be at your dog’s pace.
When your dog seems ready, continue to offer free work stations ever closer to the car until you can eventually put one inside the car. Make sure that the other doors are open, so that if and when your dog chooses to go into the car, he has plenty of exit possibilities.
Add more stations within the car. When you observe that your dog seems comfortable spending prolonged periods in the car doing free work, you could start the whole process again, from a distance, but with the engine running, and build up from there.
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OUTDOOR FREE WORK
Here’s a video of ACE Free Work outside in the garden. I have more room to spread out the stations outside. I had particularly wanted to set up a long path area to see how Toxa would approach it.
I chopped out a few seconds here and there where she stayed at the same station for a long time. Some things I noticed: she pretty much repeated the same circuit, in the same direction. Initially there were some stations that caused her to feel unsure or nervous, but as the session went on and she returned to those same stations, she was more confident. Sniffing was her primary means of finding food – this is totally different to how she used to be. In the past she didn’t sniff much at all, instead seeming to rely on vision.
Free Work can, at it’s most superficial level, be a great form of entertainment and enrichment for your dog. With closer observation, it’s a wonderful tool for understanding your dog better and becoming more aware of her needs and behaviour.
Rethink dog walking – why letting your dog sniff more is good for them
Dog treat recipes – if you’d like to make some dog treats yourself for the Free Work activities