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How Enrichment Can Help Your Dog Be Happier and Better Behaved

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By Erin Buvala

Is little Sparky sniffing around on the kitchen counters?

Is Dusty rifling through the trash when you’re not looking?

Does Stormy bark incessantly at the birds in the backyard?

Has Missy turned your yard into swiss cheese?

Then it sounds like enrichment activities could be just the thing for you! Read on to learn all about this important, but often-overlooked element in raising a happy, well-behaved dog.

What is enrichment?

Discussions around the idea of enrichment began in the zoological community in the 1960s. Back then, it was about how to make wild animals who were captured and placed in giant cement enclosures go just a little less insane. Thankfully, we’ve moved very far from those days.

For dogs, we like Allie Bender and Emily Strong’s definition:

“Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs.”

This definition encourages us to look at the whole dog, as an individual, and their relationship to us and their place in our lives.

Why does it matter?

Targeted enrichment lets dogs express their natural behaviours in a non-annoying, structured manner. Dogs come preprogrammed with the innate need to do certain things, and they can’t control that need, so it has to be satisfied somehow. If we don’t provide human-approved outlets for those behaviors, our dogs will find outlets themselves. Usually ones that are very much not human-approved.

Enrichment helps you be more successful at training. Without enough enrichment in their lives, dogs are liable to be pretty terrible students with the attention span of a gnat. If those innate needs haven’t been met, then the cookie you’re holding in your hopeful little hand as you ask Darling to be a good pup and sit nicely… just isn’t that interesting. #sorrynotsorry

Finally, enrichment is a crucial ingredient in fostering some really important canine character traits. Training is the process of teaching a behaviour, but the foundations to good training start in teaching our dogs how to be confident, or creative, or calm under pressure, or enthusiastic about learning, or excited by the concept of “new”. Enrichment is a key way that we can encourage those personality traits to develop and grow.

Your dog has seven needs that enrichment can meet

The best way to think about what enrichment boxes we need to help our dogs tick, is to look at what needs enrichment programs fulfil. In their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, Allie and Emily break these needs down into seven categories:

  1. Agency
  2. Physical Exercise
  3. Safety and Security
  4. Instinctual Behaviours
  5. Foraging
  6. Social Interactions
  7. Mental Stimulation

These are broad categories that cover some pretty big things, so let’s go over them quick ‘n dirty crash course style.

1: Agency

The latest research tells us this: the ability to make choices that result in predictable, understandable changes in an animal’s environment is key to their overall welfare.

This doesn’t mean that we should hand over total control to our dogs and let them be free to make whichever choices they like, of course. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a dog try and cross a busy highway all by themselves, but spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well.

What it does mean is that, under supervised, controlled, safe conditions, it’s important to allow dogs to choose how they would like to engage in their world.

This is a balancing act, as too much choice can also be detrimental to our dogs’ welfare. But there are plenty of small ways we can incorporate this into our daily lives, and allow our dogs to have some basic controls over their bodies, their comfort, their security, and their engagement.

2: Physical Exercise

This is the one everyone knows, and it’s the one we most often overdo when we’re looking to address behavioural issues.

Not every type of physical exercise is right for every dog, and this can differ based on health, age, breed, size, access, interest level, and the ability to feel safe and secure in various environments.

It’s important to ask your dog what they want to do (hello agency!), and make reasonable efforts to ensure that the exercise is something they actually enjoy doing, and isn’t bad for their health or wellbeing.

3: Safety and Security

So, these sound like kind of the same thing, right?

As responsible dog owners, we tend to focus on the safety part: can we identify any potential dangers within the general vicinity of our dogs? No? Cool, all done!

Not so much.

Ensuring that our dogs are actually safe is extremely important, but so is making sure they feel secure.

Our dogs may be in what we know is a safe environment – maybe we know the dog across the street is on a leash, and is only staring and barking because they want to play; and maybe we wonder why our dog is straining at the end of their leash, giving deep barks and growling under their breath. But what really matters is whether our dogs feel safe. If they don’t, it can exacerbate anxiety or aggression issues.

Think about taking a child to the doctor to get their shots: The wisened adults in the room know that what’s about to happen to that child is extremely minor.

But the child feels afraid. They don’t feel secure in their environment. And the angelic, quiet, polite kid we may have known them to be only five minutes ago is gone, replaced by a screaming, kicking, crying, wriggling creature we don’t recognise.

And although the wrath of that creature may seem to dissipate as quickly as it arrived once the ordeal is over, there are many wisened adults who still carry those traumatic memories around to this day.

4: Instinctual Behaviours

This is a tricky one.

The idea of “instinct” and the role of genetics in behaviour is a controversial, complicated topic of ongoing discussion within the animal welfare, training, husbandry, and ethology worlds. But, the underpinning idea is this:

Some animals have the genetic likelihood of performing certain sets of behaviours. These instinctual behavior sets are called modal action patterns.

A good example of this is a border collie who chases cars: She doesn’t see a car and consciously go, “I’ve decided to chase that car and completely ignore my human screaming at me to come back!”

Instead, she sees something whiz past, and her genetic predisposition for chasing fast moving objects switches on, and off she goes. She probably doesn’t even hear her owner.

These behaviours aren’t choices, because they’re not something dogs learn to do. They’re something they were born with the likelihood of doing – they just need the right set of circumstances to kick those genetics into gear.

This is an important enrichment box for us to tick. There are some instinctual behaviours that are somewhat universal to all dogs – smelling, touching, tasting, barking, chewing – and then there are others that crop up in some dogs, but not all. Behaviors like chasing, stalking, digging, shredding, nipping, guarding, and many more.

5: Foraging

Dogs are scavengers by nature. They have developed a keen sense of smell and sight in order to both scavenge and hunt for their food.

The idea that dogs want to work for their food is called contrafreeloading, and it was first discovered in rats in 1963. There have been many scientific hypotheses proposed to explain this, but the big takeaway is that dogs – and many other animals – have an innate need to search for food.

We can work with the idea of contrafreeloading by using our dogs’ meals in their training, but often this really lacks in the “searching” department. Letting your dog forage for all or part of their meals is a great way to fulfil this need.

6: Social Interactions

Dogs are social creatures. For at least the past 40,000 years, they’ve been evolving with sociability with humans as part of their design. This is now so much a part of their evolutionary history, that they have developed facial muscle structures specifically to mimic the facial expressions of humans, in order to increase our ability to communicate together (Kaminski et al, 2019).

So, when we’re thinking about meeting our dogs’ need for social interaction, it’s arguably much more important to them that they have meaningful interactions with us, than with other dogs.

This is not to say that, for some dogs, social interactions with other dogs aren’t important; they absolutely are. It’s also not to say that socialisation activities aren’t important for dogs of all ages, especially puppies.

But there’s no rule that says all adult dogs must interact with other dogs. And there IS evidence to suggest that the relationships that dogs build with their humans are of primary importance.

7: Mental Stimulation

Regular training can provide a perfect outlet for our dogs’ mental stimulation needs. Dogs are problem solvers. They have sharp minds that were created to solve complex puzzles in the struggle for survival, just like our brains were. In modern pet life – with their dinners delivered in shiny silver bowls, their beds fluffy and provided from a pet shop, their “prey” now in the form of tennis balls and stuffed toys, their sheep to herd or guard now children and household guests – their brains don’t tend to get used for much.

Trick training, obedience, and dog sports are wonderfully engaging ways to allow our dogs to solve puzzles once again.

Enrichment myths and misconceptions

Playing in the hose is one of Hazel’s favorite enrichment activities.

Enrichment is an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of things. So it’s understandable that for a long while, enrichment – and the behavioural issues that arise when enrichment needs are met in problematic ways – has been discussed in a kind of mysterious, catchall way. And that’s created some confusion.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that “exercise” and “enrichment” are the same thing.

What most people mean when they say “exercise” is aerobic physical exercise. And this certainly can be a form of enrichment! But aerobic physical exercise is not the be all and end all.

And the most glaring, hapless victim at the centre of this misunderstanding? The humble dog walk.

There was a time where many trainers and well-intentioned advice-givers would meet almost any behavioural issue with “they need more exercise. How often do they go for a walk?”

Unfortunately, simply walking is not the panacea we once believed it to be.

It’s true that many dogs don’t get enough physical exercise. But a brisk walk at a controlled heel up and down the street is not meeting any dog’s enrichment needs no matter how many times a day they do it.

To a dog, the activity of walking is so much more than putting one adorable paw in front of the other. It’s a whole experience that engages their whole brains. A walk is about sniffing all the sniffs, watching all the people and dogs and cats and birds and trees and STUFF, listening to all the sounds, feeling all the textures.

On the flip side, the emphasis on the Dog Walk has also blinded us to the idea that not all dogs should be going on walks.

I know, but hear me out.

Many dogs with fear, anxiety, reactivity and/or aggression issues become far too overstimulated on walks. Not only are they unable to enjoy the walk, but it can make their behaviour issues worse. For dogs who cannot go on a regular walk without encountering their triggers, other forms of enrichment are crucial to their recovery.

Another common myth is that for dogs to have an enriching life, they should be socialising with other dogs. Play is definitely a big component of an enriched life for our dogs, and social bonds are also at the core of their emotional and mental welfare. But this doesn’t mean that every dog needs to be comfortable with every other dog, in any environment we throw them in.

Some dogs just aren’t built for the dog park, and that’s okay.

Social bonding needs can be met by some other important relationships in their lives: us! For some dogs, a world without dog friends isn’t a small world, it’s a secure world.

Many pet dogs can have perfectly fulfilling lives playing with just their humans, or maybe a small circle of close dog friends. Their play-enrichment needs can be met with a good game of tug, flirt pole, hide and seek, chase, or wrestle with their favourite people.

If your dog doesn’t get along with other dogs – in large groups, in certain circumstances, dogs of certain sizes or ages or sexes or breeds, or even at all – you don’t need to feel guilty for not having your dog socialise with other dogs. On the contrary, you should feel proud that you are making choices for your dog that respects their boundaries, wants and needs.

A win-win: make your dog happy and save your sanity

Most annoying behaviour issues are a result of a lack of appropriate enrichment. Many of these behaviours are completely normal activities for the dog’s breed, history, or living situation. But they’re manifesting in ways that suck for us. Like, sure, stepping on a Lego is painful, but have you ever twisted your ankle in a freshly dug hole in the yard?

Yeah.

One of our favourite trainers over here at 3LD HQ is Grisha Stewart, and one of the many wise things we’ve heard her say (which I’m paraphrasing) is that all behaviour has a function.

See, dogs don’t do stuff for no reason. That would be a huge waste of energy, which is a pretty valuable thing. So if your dog is doing things – digging, chewing, barking, watching, sniffing, ripping, stalking, etc – then they are attempting to fulfil a need, and that’s a space that targeted enrichment activities could fill.

“So, hang on. I have to get up and give my dog enrichment literally whenever they do ANYTHING?? That feels unsustainable, Erin.”

And you’d be right.

Fortunately, the world is full of enrichment. We don’t always need to be the direct providers of it. For example, our dog, Flower, makes up games all on her own. When she feels the need, she goes outside, plucks a lemon from our lemon tree, and throws it for herself. We allow this behaviour, because we don’t actually need lemons and it’s adorable to watch (let’s be honest, it’s enrichment for me at this point!).

7 questions to help you plan your dog’s enrichment activities

What does your dog enjoy doing? The answers can often be found in the irritating behaviors you wish they’d stop doing.

What makes your dog feel unsafe? For example, when our dog River was a puppy, she hated walking in the neighborhood, because the sound of dogs barking in their backyards was scary. If you’re not sure how to tell when your dog feels unsafe, take our free online course Dog Speak 101.

How do you allow your dog to express choice in their life? One of the easiest ways to do this is to let your dog pick the path on your next walk.

How does your dog want to enjoy their physical exercise? Some dogs like chasing toys, some like structured activities like agility, and some don’t care about any of that and would rather go on a nice relaxing stroll.

In what ways can you allow your dog to engage in searching behaviour? There are many ways to let your dog search for their food: snuffle mats, scattering it in the lawn, hiding puzzle toys around the house, etc. You can also play hide and seek and let Sparky search for you!

How does your dog enjoy bonding with others? Some dogs are cuddlers, and some are more the doing-fun-activities-together type. Some love meeting friends, and some would rather stick with their own family.

What behaviours is your dog genetically predisposed to displaying, and how can you allow them to express those behaviours? Your dog’s breed(s) can give you some hints here. Look up what they were bred to do, and you can find a ton of dog sports and other activities designed to channel those instincts.

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