Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Canine Enrichment is a concept that focuses on providing your dog with the chance to use their skills- mental and physical- to engage with their environment in an interactive, self-directed way. This can have huge benefits that include decreased stress and boredom, increased confidence, and keeps dogs mentally and physically healthy.
Enrichment started with wildlife biologists who were trying to improve the lives of zoo animals. For wild animals in situations that only mimic their natural habitats, enrichment provides critical benefits to allow them to express natural drives. For our domestic pets, it’s much easier to meet their social and emotional needs through being part of our family, but enrichment techniques can still be amazing for promoting calmness and relaxation.
We spoke with dog trainer Alex Oldenburg of Messy Dog LLC (Iowa), a trainer and blogger who has previously presented on enrichment and uses it to great effect with her own dogs. “My dogs are truly much more content. Just giving them physical exercise doesn't cut it. The times they are troublesome and shred things or chew things are without a fail, times when I've been busy and slacked on providing them with enrichment.” Especially for young dogs with boundless energy and endurance, enrichment burns off some of that energy without requiring a daily marathon training run.
Dogs’ primary sense is smell, and many enrichment activities involve encouraging them to use their noses such as hunting and foraging for food (either a portion of their meal or treats), or even simple sniffing on walks. Dogs have approximately 400% more of their brain devoted to processing scents than we do, and experiencing and processing that information burns energy! Alex says, “With client dogs, my favorite enrichment is allowing the dogs to sniff on walks. So many of them are concerned about their dog walking in a rigid heel position just when going around the neighborhood, and it's relaxing for both the owner and dog to reframe what a walk means. Instead of a stressful battle, walks become a time for both ends of the leash to relax!”
Not all enrichment is done interactively with their human. Forage-based enrichment includes things like feeding meals out of Kongs, Toppls, or other food-filled toys. Alex recommends feeding at least one meal per week as an activity rather than simply from a bowl. “I also try to get all my clients to use some sort of puzzle feeder, like a Kong or Toppl.” Many of these toys can be filled with regular dry dog food, a mixture of wet and dry food, or entirely wet food in the case of toys like Licki Mats.
Last but not least, enrichment toys can be made up of safe household items like staple-free cardboard boxes (such as cereal boxes or cardboard egg cartons), toilet paper, or paper towel roll tubes with the ends folded in, crumpled paper, or nested bowls or pans of different sizes. Hiding food in and among different containers and encouraging the dog to search for it rather than simply eating it from a dish is excellent enrichment and really fun for most dogs. (Warning, though- it can be messy and depending on the type of food and your dog’s enjoyment of shredding paper or cardboard, it may be a good activity to conduct in a crate or outdoors where it is easier to sweep up shredded cardboard.
For reactive or fearful dogs, enrichment activities at home can be a great way to relax without any worries about environmental triggers. For high-energy dogs, it can be a lifesaver during bad weather or when you are too busy to do as long of a walk as usual. And for puppies, enrichment can stimulate brain development, encourage problem-solving, and help puppies learn and practice emotional regulation by providing a limited amount of frustration before an eventual satisfying reward. We love enrichment for our dogs, and we hope you will too.
If you’d like to learn more about creating enrichment activities for your dog, feel free to contact us at Venture Dog training to set up your free, 30-minute Discovery Consult!
Have you tried any enrichment activities with your pets? Did you see any differences in them after you’d started?