What is it?
Freework is an activity I recommend to almost all of my clients - but what is it, and most importantly why is it so GOOD?
ACE Freework was created by Sarah Fisher, founder of Animal Centered Education in order to observe the movement and preferences of animals, identifying possible physical ailments and record the observations for further investigation.
Another great use of this activity, and usually the reason why I recommend it, is that it is a fantastic opportunity to provide sensory stimulation for our dogs; this builds their confidence, encourage a calmer state of mind, helps them focus and teaches them the power of positive choices with no pressure from humans. It is a fantastic activity for newly rescued dogs who have suffered from trauma and are experiencing high levels of anxiety in their new home.
So, how do we actually provide a Freework set up for our dogs? It can be as creative or as simple as you prefer. The idea of Freework is to provide a few known and novel enrichment opportunities. Each enrichment item is referred to as a 'station'. These can be range from the simple: Snuffle-Mats, Licki-Mats, Kong's, Puzzle Feeders, Chews, Bowls, Cardboard Box. To the more exciting: Noise Box, Plastic Cones, Yoga Mats, Agility Equipment, Plastic Boxes, Step Stools.
To begin with, especially if working with very nervous and/or anxious dogs, I suggest starting with 3-4 different 'stations'. Try to provide a variety of;
Textures & Surfaces: Anything they can step on or over, ensuring it is not slippery. Flat Cardboard Boxes, Blankets, Towels, Yoga Mats, Agility Ladders, Hoola Hoop, Carpet Cut Offs.
Heights: Place some items on the floor and some on Step Stools. Use an upside down Plastic Box/Container.
Feeding Stations: Licki-Mats, Snuffle-Mats, Chews, Smeared food on box, Treats scattered into blankets and towels, Cardboard Box with newspaper/wool and treats, Box with items that make noise (bells, tissue paper, plastic bottles, keys - this should be adjusted to your dog's confidence level), a Bowl of Water.
Set your items up in a medium sized room, or outside in the garden. Ideally, the dog will be off lead and not wearing a harness/collar when engaging in the items, but this isn't always possible. Once you have set your Freework up, take a look and ensure you have at least one station/opportunity for the dog to LICK, SNIFF and CHEW. These behaviours are naturally calming and build confidence whilst reducing stress levels - result!
You can use your dog's regular food for this, but i do recommend adding it some novel food items; a new chew, some dog-safe fruit & veggies, minimally processed canned dog food is a great choice for smearing (e.g. Nature's Menu). For dry food I recommend cold pressed or air/freeze dried kibble - this is a much healthier option than standard dry kibble.
Release your dog and let them explore! Allow them as much time as they need, you can sit and watch them from a distance. If you are trying this with a newly adopted, very nervous dog, give them as much space as possible. Stand in a different room and watch through a camera or through a window. The idea is that there is no pressure on the dog, and sometimes the mere presence of a human can be overwhelming.
Your dog might be very food motivated and start eating the first thing they find, but most dogs will actually explore each station, sniff the items/food and circle around before starting to eat.
Once your dog is completely finished and walked away, you can pick the items up and away. If your dog has a historyof resource guarding or is very nervous, please ensure they are secured if a different room/behind a stairgate before collecting items.