What is enrichment?

Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ physical, behavioural and instinctual needs are, and how we can meet those needs as part of our daily routine. All dogs are unique; therefore, enrichment is not the same for every dog.

Dogs, like any other animal, can suffer from boredom, stress and behavioural problems if they don’t receive appropriate mental stimulation. Dogs are extremely intelligent animals and deserve the opportunity to use their unique abilities each and every day.

Most of us are aware of the positive benefits of enrichment in captive animals. Zoo’s around the world have radically changed the way animals are kept ensuring they are mentally and physically stimulated with opportunities to engage in natural behaviours, thus enhancing well-being.

The majority of dogs today are kept as pets (although this is a word we do not approve of) and no longer have a working role like their ancestors once did. They are not free to do as they please and are therefore, captive animals. We decide what they eat, when they eat, where they go, who they socialise with, what they play with and how they spend their time. Hence it is our responsibility as their guardians to ensure they lead fulling lives.

We are aware of the importance of physical exercise, environmental stimulation and social interactions with other compatible dogs, giving your dog a chance to play, explore and keep fit. But just like us they need mental exercise too. Imagine being stuck in a house with no TV, no internet, no games, and no books for hours at a time, for many dogs this is how they spend the majority of their day whilst we get on with our busy working lifestyles.

So how can we enrich their lives?

Fairly simply, without the need to spend a lot of money or even take a lot of time from our hectic schedules. By building short and simple activities into our everyday routines we can make the dog’s life more interesting and keep their brain active.

Dogs are genetically designed to sniff; it is how they evaluate the world around them. Think of it as their ‘social media’ as they are gaining information of what is going on in the local area. We might not understand why they find a particular bush so interesting, yet equally dogs do not understand why we try to drag them away so we can ‘get on with our walk’.

The mental stimulation of allowing your dog to just sniff and explore can be just as tiring as physical exercise, and is also proven to lower blood pressure and stress levels.

Try taking your dog for a sniffy walk around your local area keeping them on a loose lead and allowing the dog to choose which direction they want to go, what they want to sniff and how long for. After all, you are walking the dog for their benefit, so instead of going out to walk the dog, go out with the mindset to explore and see where your dog takes you! Remember, dogs primarily go out to sniff, not to cover miles. Dogs will be much more tired by walking two street blocks and sniffing 50 lampposts, than going 2 miles and sniffing much less.

Offer investigatory opportunities indoors as well to engage the brain and encourage the dog to think and learn. Kongs, pick-pockets and snuffle mats are all great yet you can make your own games too without any cost involved.

Weigh out the dog’s daily food, including any treats so you are not overfeeding, and hide some around the house creating a scent trail; roll it up in a towel; hide it in an old cereal box stuffed with junk mail and let the dog rip it up. Be mindful of staples, sticky tape or glue.

Provide objects to chew made from digestible natural ingredients such as bully sticks. Vary treats using different textures and tastes. Take a visit to Paws Pantry in Rustington and speak to the staff about the natural products they have on offer.

It’s not all about food! Give them a choice of what to explore. Make a sandbox and let them dig, or a pile of leaves, or provide novel items for them to explore such as a pair of old gloves or line up all your old shoes. Use visual and sound stimulation as well as smell, let them investigate items that make a noise, or play calming music. Broaden their environment by varying walks, the beach, the woods, parks or street sniffy walks, taking different routes and going out at different times. Dogs are most active at dawn and dusk, early morning walks give your dog the opportunity to sniff out the activities of nocturnal animals, plus during late evening walks your dog can enjoy the scents left behind from the busy activities of the day yet in a calmer and safer environment. Include some fun games whilst out like a treat search or teach your dog to retrieve a lost item, or follow a trail, or simply sit and watch the world go by, just like us dog’s need time to observe and process information. Take the time to find out more about your dog’s natural ethogram, you might be surprised that what we assume they enjoy they actually don’t! Join the Slow Dog Movement and discover more about the simple pleasures of actually allowing your dog to be more dog. And most importantly, observe your dog, learn their language, and respond to their changing needs.

Enrichment should be simple, give choices and make adjustments to suit your dog.

Important note: When using food enrichment activities always make sure the dog has been fed first. A hungry dog will only find any games frustrating, not enriching. There is a current fad of ‘ditching the bowl’ and we ask how would you like it if your dinner was served scattered over a wide area? In the words of Anne Lill Kvam ‘food enrichment is the dessert, not the main course’.

Know your dog, what works for one may not interest or even worry another. Think breed type; age appropriate; physical capabilities. Think dog!

Enrichment is only ‘enriching’ when the dog is being successful and enjoying the moment.

© Lisa Edwards 2019 – 2022. All rights reserved.