How to Improve your Dog's Creativity


Creativity in Dogs you may ask? What on earth for? Well, if you are asking this question, then you are probably not interested in this article. Then you are probably also not one of the millions of people who watch the documentaries and reality type shows on TV where “unbelievable acts” are performed by pet or working animals such as police dogs, search and rescue dogs, guide dogs and so on. Most of these fantastic behaviours we watch on TV are well beyond the normal training of these dogs. That is what makes them so outstanding and worth watching. Not only do those dogs know just “what to do”, but they seemingly come up with the idea “all by themselves” and “just at the right time”. And that brings us right into the realm of creativity.


Creativity can be defined as: “…the ability to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality. The process involves original thinking and then producing…” (


So why don’t all dogs show the same level of creativity and why is Fido at home just lying around the yard? The answer to this question at least is pretty straight forward and can be answered by another question: Why is not every human a Thomas Edison, or a Leonardo daVinci?

Creativity in individuals, both canine and human vary. The good or in this case interesting news is however, that creativity can be learned.

Well known TV and radio person and more importantly highly acclaimed scientist Dr. Robert Epstein ( started his career studying creativity in pigeons and has since moved to models for enhancing creativity in big businesses among other areas of interest.


I would like to take his guidelines for the corporate world (Creativity for Crises; and look at it from the pet dog and owner’s point of view. I feel this is very different to the scientific experimental animal. Their lives are clearly defined and “programmed” to fit in with their next task and are largely shielded from every day problems. The scientist spends his life developing ways to train and record the resulting behaviours. Our dogs at home have a very different life, which may have a huge impact on their creativity, or lack thereof.


According to Epstein, in order to enhance your creativity you need to follow 4 steps:

Capture new ideas, surround yourself with an interesting/stimulating environment, challenge your thought processes and broaden your knowledge base.


In today’s society creative people are often seen as “odd”, “eccentric” and really living on the fringe of society. And yet, it is those people who propel society along with ever new inventions and technologies that the “normal” people subsequently take for granted and are quite happy to use, often in everyday life. How amazing it would be if we could elicit creativity in our dogs and through that not only develop a far better relationship between dog and owner but understand this loyal species better as a whole, resulting in even better interactions.


Looking at the 4 pillars of creativity

Capture: Part of capturing is “generating” ideas in the first place. Small children are very good at that, but as they enter the more structured realm of society, namely school, their creative thoughts get curtailed quickly by adults, telling them to stop daydreaming and get on with the task on hand. Epstein argues that today’s “outcome oriented” education is killing creativity. Children need “permission” to dream and put their ideas into words and/or actions and permission is rarely given.


If this is killing creativity in humans, let us now ponder for just a few minutes at the fate of the average pet dog. From the day the puppy is brought into the house, it is being told (sometimes nicer than other times), what to do and what not to do. Where to eat, what to eat, where to sleep, where to potty, more importantly where not to potty, how to interact with people, with other animals (if at all), with objects (chew this – don’t chew that; sit at the door before going out, don’t scratch the door; carry this in your mouth, don’t take that in your mouth; whatever you have in your mouth, don’t bite down hard, carry gently; walk this side of the human, not the other side; and so on). In essence we manage and micro manage our dog’s whole day, all interactions are according to our rules. It is safe to say that today’s pet dog is left with little, if any own thought process and hence very little basis for creativity.


Surrounding: Things around us both animate and inanimate need to be interesting, varied and stimulating in order to support creativity. Epstein goes as far as suggesting re-decorating your office desk regularly, putting “odd” objects into your décor and keeping company with a mix of people. Constant surrounds become boring and thwart creativity.


This does not translate as easily to our dogs. Firstly one would have to establish exactly what is and what is not stimulating for the dog. Secondly, pets are kept very differently in different communities around the world. Some dogs are allowed to accompany their owners to many places. I have seen dogs in some very upmarket restaurants in Austria and when entering some establishments with a dog, a water bowl is brought for the dog at the same time as the menu for the owner. In the UK I know many owners take their dogs for extensive off leash walks in the countryside. In many parts of the USA I have found “off leash” to be an almost unheard of word, and here in South Africa, many dogs only leave the home to go to the Vet. Else they remain at home.

Clearly, when translating this to stimulating environments, the “home dog” is the worst off. The best “change in surrounding” is probably when the owner comes home and a strange dog in another property managed to leave a mark on the car tyres. Stimulating people are visitors, where of course all interaction is carefully micro managed (see above): don’t jump up, don’t do that, sit nicely, etc.

The dog who goes on on-leash walks in most cases gets taken around the same area day in, day out. Whatever is in good walking distance from home. Clearly this is a more stimulating environment for a canine than that experienced by the “home dog”, but hardly very exciting when seen over a longer period of time.

While the pet who accompanies his owner to many different places may again be a little better off, but all behaviours are most carefully managed, since only “well behaved dogs” are allowed into society. It is also likely that the owner will frequent the same establishments over a course of time, so even those dogs do not really experience a very stimulating environment, because their reactions to the environment are curtailed.

From a dog’s point of view the off leash walk must be the “best” option. Not only can the dog follow scents as well as audio and visual stimuli if and when they are perceived, but he can do so mostly in a “dog like manner” allowing for some type of creativity to emerge. How to get over that log in his path, how to climb over those rocks, how to get to that interesting scent across the little pond, how to best carry the valuable piece of wood back home. Of course I say “mostly”, as even these dogs need to comply to strict human rules: no hunting/chasing of game, other animals, other humans, etc.; no rolling in disgusting smelling objects (disgusting from the human point of view of course); not too much barking, if any at all; and so on. But clearly these dogs have, at least for the duration of their walk, a stimulating environment.

However, does a constantly “natural” environment really enhance creativity? The way I read Epstein, the key to creativity is to find the unusual, the “odd”, rather than the “normal”. So yes, the off leash walk is clearly the best for the dog, creativity however may be better stimulated in some more unusual environments that get visited occasionally, so they are in fact unusual and don’t become the norm. Situations like that can be challenging the dog both mentally and physically, which is the next factor in Epstein’s creative competency.


Challenge: The mind needs to be challenged in order to be creative. Remaining in a comfort zone does not require innovative and creative ideas. Not being confronted by problems does not require creative thinking – challenges do. Although Epstein was mostly talking about mental challenges, the same applies for physical challenges. After all in order to solve a physical problem, it needs to be thought out first.


Unfortunately there are not many humans who cherish being challenged or perhaps even worse, like to challenge themselves. Many enjoy living in a safe, predictable situation. What is even worse is that many parents try to keep their children “safe” by eliminating challenges in the children’s lives and then extend the same to their dogs. Most pet dogs, after the first few months of family life, during which they have to learn the rules and regulations of home life, are confronted with few if any challenges for the rest of their lives. Owners either say that “My dog can’t do that” … before even trying, or make unrealistic attempts and when the dog fails say” I told you he can’t do that”, or worse, “I knew he was too stupid to do that”.


Which brings us to the last point:

Broadening the knowledge base. The more you know, the better you can solve puzzles and come up with creative solutions to previously never encountered situations. The bigger the knowledge base, the higher the possible combination of known behaviours or ideas for creative answers. The same is true for the dog. A dog who has never been taught to retrieve anything will battle to even pick up a simple object. A dog, like a service dog, who has been trained to pick up many different objects will find a creative solution to pick up a new object never seen before. How many pet dogs have a broad knowledge base? In fact how many pet dogs are taught much more than walking on leash (if that!) and perhaps attend the local obedience school? Teaching your dog to retrieve 100 different things, while better than not doing anything, or teaching only a dumbbell retrieve, does not satisfy the criteria of a broad knowledge base however. What Epstein means is to tackle and learn about wildly different topics. In canine terms teach you dog a few tricks, perhaps do a little Agility, take him tracking, even herding if the possibility exists, play mental games (and be amazed at Fido’s abilities when given a chance), let him play soccer with the kids on the street, play hide and seek, teach your dog useful tasks around the house like picking up the washing and putting it into the wash basket. Few pet dogs have been taught more than about 10 behaviours – and we expect them to be creative in finding solutions for previously unseen problems?



The above paints a sad picture indeed for our pet dogs and especially for their creative abilities. The question must be asked, if there is anything that could be done to improve this. I think there is.


In his hand book “Creativity for Crises”, Epstein outlines 10 quick and economical ways to get creativity and innovation flowing in big organisations. He claims some of these points can be used equally successfully at home. If that is the case, then surely the “home” can be extended to include our pet dog?



1)      No Fear

In order to encourage creativity, novel ideas must be able to be expressed by the candidate without fear of repercussions.


It is convenient that this is the first point on the list, as it brings me directly to an important point: our training methods.

I call it “old fashioned”, you may want to call it something different. In this method the dog gets “told’ what to do and any deviation from the “correct” behaviour or way of doing the behaviour gets corrected or punished.

Hence a dog learns very quickly, that any own imitative or “creative action” is to his detriment or best case, not in his favour. Hence there is no place for fearless expression of creative ideas from the dog in this type of home.

In the case of training with positive reinforcement however (most commonly known as “clicker training”, although clicker training is but one facet of PR), dogs are expected to “show” or “offer” behaviours. Desired behaviours get rewarded, undesired behaviours get ignored. So, right from the outset the dog is not only encouraged, but expected to be creative and show behaviours in an attempt to earn rewards. Furthermore dogs are taught that they can offer new behaviours without fear. Not everything the dog offers will be a success, but then not every invention of DaVinci was a success either.



2)      No Boundaries

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”–Linus Pauling

This is a fun one. It requires you to remain open ended and not put “caps” onto questions or creative thought processes. And this is yet another corner stone in our training. Sometimes we think we know how to teach our dog a new behaviour. But the dog has other ideas – don’t try to stop him and enforce your own way of doing things. You may be surprised that you get to the desired behaviour quicker if you go along with your dog’s way.

You also can’t switch a clicker trained dog off when you think training is over. Creative dogs, like creative people, have ideas flowing in all the time. You may think that 10 minutes training per day is enough for Fido, but he may come into the kitchen and offer you some new creative ideas – remember point 1: he can do so without fear! No yelling, no shouting. Of course you can choose to ignore it, but if it was a cute behaviour, why not smile at him and tell him how smart he is. He will love you for it and it costs very little, even if you are tired and had a rough day and really just wanted to sit in front of the TV ….


3)      Change your space

I discussed the issue of making the environment interesting for our dogs above. It is not that easy and varies from country to country and within different communities. However, with a little thought, things can be made more interesting. Try varying where you take him for walks. Don’t always walk from your home, take him in a short car ride and then walk. Visit a different park; Go somewhere and have a “take away” hamburger together, Go to a different training class occasionally where he will meet other dogs; take him on a train ride (where possible), meet a friend and walk together; Take the bicycle and teach him to run next to it; take him to a really busy fair or market; take him to a safe dam where he can swim, or take him to a structured “dog swimming school”; take him on a boat ride; take him on his walk at a different time of day/night. Take him somewhere where there is snow (if he has never experienced this before); take him to see “other animals” (farm animals for a city dog).

Also think about changing his home environment at times. Introduce new toys (supervise if necessary – some dogs chew and swallow toys very quickly); rotate toys around so even the old toys have new appeal after not having been available for a while; ask a friend with a friendly dog to come and visit you (provided your dog gets on with that dog of course); if your dog is good with children, ask children over to play and or help you train. Many dogs adore children; introduce a novel object into the yard without “warning”. This could be something simple like an old car tyre, or even a stack of them, a large barrel, even a new tree/plant, new garden furniture, get a children’s paddle pool, put a ladder flat on the ground for a few hours, make a fire (if allowed in your neighbourhood – if so make sure you supervise both your dog and the fire carefully); the list could go on and on. Often something small can make a big difference. Remember to allow your dog to explore the new environment in his own way – you are doing this to help his creativity develop.


4)      Retool your team

This comes from the corporate world. New research implies that the old “team work” and “brainstorming” is less effective than individual “thinking sessions”.

While we usually don’t brainstorm with our canines, we do have a plan in mind and try to convey this to our dogs, it may be useful to try the individual thinking sessions more. In clicker training we call it free shaping. Basically we wait and see what ideas the dog comes up with, without interfering other than rewarding the dog for his efforts. It is perhaps interesting to note that an exercise called “101 things to do with a box” (you can substitute any other item for the box) is one of the first exercises dogs are asked to do when owners want to change from the “old fashioned training” to clicker training. The dog is simply put in front of an object and allowed to interact at will, without preconceived ideas by the owner of what the dog is “supposed” to do. Again, as discussed in point 1 and 2 it is important to acknowledge all behaviours, even very small variations. We usually start with things as small as a “look” at the box. These are the dog’s first attempts at being creative – it may not yet be much, but it is his creative idea, and it must be encouraged, which is what the next point addresses:


5)      Capture the New:

In human terms you are supposed to document all ideas that come across your mind and only evaluate later. Never discard ideas out of hand.

Clearly dogs can not document their ideas. What we can do however is encourage and reward any and all ideas the dog comes up with. Unfortunately, to be realistic, we do have to put certain boundaries onto this exercise. Would it be a good idea to reward a dog who “creatively” rips down the curtains? – No. But then most pet dogs are very good at knowing their house rules anyway. Not being pre-judgemental in this case addresses the owner encouraging and rewarding even small, seemingly insignificant behaviours, rather than watching out for the huge, dramatic creative behaviour by the pet.


6)      Dare to fail

From failure rises success. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing, it shows ways of how things “don’t” work and develops creative ideas of how they could be made to work.

Dogs too must be allowed to fail in tasks, learn how things don’t work and go forward thinking up creative ways of how to solve the problem on hand. Most owners try to intervene far too early and don’t allow the dogs to draw conclusions from their failures. Often owners do so meaning well. In reality they take away the opportunity for the dog to develop creative ideas based on his own failure.



7)      Broaden the mind

This overlaps directly with a wide amount of knowledge that spurs creativity.

Epstein is adamant that broadening the mind must include subjects outside the normal field of interest for it to be truly beneficial for creativity. He maintains that you don’t need to become proficient in a subject – even a little knowledge goes a long way to develop creativity.

This is really a fun point for our pet dogs. It means we can “dabble” in all sorts of activities, without having to become world champions in any one discipline and still have great benefit for the dog’s mind. There are so many different activities available to dog enthusiasts. Endless books and videos on the internet with dog tricks, but also consider more active things. Race your dog, it does not have to be an organised race, all it needs is a second person to hold your dog at the start, a stop watch and you at the end of the run. See if you can improve his speed over time. Buy puzzles for your dog or make your own. Again, the idea is not to see if Fido will be world champion in everything you try, but the wider his knowledge base, the more creative he will become and the more fun you will have together.



8)      Treasure the new

“Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud.Any of us will put out more and better ideas if our efforts are appreciated.”–Alex F. Osborn

This sentence could have been written for dog training. Nothing will stop a dog trying hard quicker than being ignored or criticised by his owner. It may be worth pointing out that just like people, different dogs have different thresholds for criticism. What one dog may see as a mere bump in his training session, another dog may perceive as a stone wall, never to be attempted again. Owners need to tread very carefully and know their dogs to find the level of “criticism” their dog can tolerate without giving up, or “shutting down” as it is often referred to in the training environment. And because we are after all working as a team with our dogs, this point does link in to the dare to fail. Unfortunately, as a team, our communication with our dogs tells them when an attempt was “good” (= rewarded) and when it was a “failure” (= non-reward). There are some dogs who see even a “non-reward” as highly critical and having several of those in a row will result in this dog shutting down. The trick there is to make the problems and tasks small enough for the dog to maintain a high reinforcement rate (“little criticism”) in order for him to keep working at the problem and trying new solutions.


9)      Boost Creative Competence

Make sure that the 4 basic competencies: Capturing, Surrounds, Challenges and Broadening of Knowledge are addressed in the day to day life of your dog. Creativity does not happen overnight. It needs nurturing and ongoing attention and will take a while to be evident. But how much more fun you and your dog will have in the long run.



10)  Show them how

This may at first glimpse not be pertinent to dog owners. However, Epstein writes: “…Whether you’re a CEO or a floor supervisor, one of the best

ways you can boost creativity in staff is to lead, model, and

inspire. Tell people how much you value their new ideas. …

Remind them of the truth: that a culture of creativity and

innovation is critical for the survival, growth, and success of

your organization.”

Be a good leader to your dog – not in the old fashioned “dominant” model, but be someone your dog likes to be with. Do things together with your dog and let him show you what he would like to do at times and go along with that. Better yet, use those things to reward him for stuff he does because you ask him to do. You will find your relationship with your dog flourish and you and him will be becoming a team that will cope with unexpected situations in creative and novel ways – who knows, it may be you and Fido we see on TV next time.




The above ideas and thoughts came about during a course on “Modifier Cues” at “Learning About Dogs” with Kay Laurence ( Thanks must go to Kay and my class mates who inspired this discussion.




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