Enrichment: Beyond Food Puzzles
What does the word ‘enrichment’ mean to you? For many dog owners, it conjures up images of food puzzles, kongs and lickmats. Whilst these are brilliant examples of enrichment, the true definition is much broader and there are many other ways that we can, and should, enrich our dogs’ lives.
The definition of ‘enrichment’ is a muddled one, but in its truest sense refers to ways that we can meet our dogs’ physical, mental and emotional needs. When we bring a dog into our home, we are making a commitment to provide for their needs for the rest of their lives. And whilst we usually have a good understanding of our dogs’ physical needs, we don’t always have such a clear idea of our dogs’ mental and emotional needs. As well as being fed, watered and exercised, our dogs’ require mental stimulation and the opportunity to express natural and species-typical behaviour.
For our dogs, species-typical behaviour includes scavenging, sniffing, digging, shredding, dissecting, chewing and licking. These behaviours are completely natural and enjoyable for our dogs’ to perform, but are usually the very same behaviours that we see as problematic and actively discourage. Whilst no-one wants their dog bin-raiding, destroying pillows or digging up flower beds, it is the substrate, not the behaviour, that is the problem. Through enrichment, we can proactively provide our dogs with appropriate outlets for these instincts.
You might be wondering whether encouraging your dog to destroy, dig or chew will create more of a problem. But in fact, the opposite is true. If your dog loves to dig, providing them with a sand pit or designated digging area can go a long way to saving your plants from your furry gardener. Providing enrichment and ensuring your dogs’ needs are met will not only minimise ‘unwanted’ expressions of these behaviours, but can also reduce frustration and help our dogs’ to regulate their emotions. Enrichment can also complement training programmes for behaviours such as reactivity and separation anxiety, by releasing endorphins and lowering overall stress.
5 Easy Enrichment Ideas
1. Kongs & Lickmats
These are classic examples of enrichment, and provide an excellent opportunity for licking which is a calming behaviour for dogs. If you don’t have either of these, you can make your own by spreading something tasty across a plastic or silicone ice-cube tray and freezing.
2. Long Lasting Chews
Dogs have an innate need to chew, and I recommend having a variety of long lasting chews that you can rotate. If your dog has a particular liking for a certain material or texture, then focus on that. For example, if your dog likes your wooden table legs, then offering a root chew or olive wood gives a safe and legal opportunity to meet this need.
3. Create Desctructable Projects from Recycling
Dogs were made to destroy and dissect things, but this is one behaviour that we usually find particularly troublesome. By providing opportunities to shred and destroy, it is much less likely that your dog will go for your cushions, tissues or toilet roll. My favourite way to meet the need for shredding is totally DIY, and can be made from things you’ll find in your recycling box. Fill up an empty cereal box with some scrunched newspaper (you can also use toilet paper rolls, cardboard cup holders etc), scatter in some treats and close it using the tab at the top. Give it to your dog, and watch them go to town!
(The majority of dogs will not try to eat any non-edibles whilst doing this activity, but please monitor them closely in case they do).
4. Scatter Feeding
This is a super easy way to provide for your dog’s need to forage. All you need to do is take their breakfast, dinner or some treats, and scatter this outside in the garden or even within your home. Doing so allows our dogs to sniff, search and find their own food. We can also meet the need to forage by feeding from snuffle mats, or playing ‘find it’ games.
5. Remeber that sometimes, less is more
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that enrichment always means doing more, but sometimes what our dogs need is actually less of something. This is particularly important if there are things in the environment that your dog finds worrying (e.g. noises, people, dogs etc). Rest is also a very important aspect of enrichment, so always ensure that your dog is getting enough calmness, rest and sleep between the fun.
Written by Kerry Woods - Out of The Woods Dog Training
Kerry has a degree in Animal Behaviour & Welfare as well as being a certified Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer. After working with hearing dogs for deaf people for 3 years and gaining experience working with dogs from 8 weeks old right the way through to placement Kerry now works as a dog training and behaviourist consultant specialising in Separation Anxiety.Learn More