OMG. She’s done it again. You turned your back for 5 seconds and now the trash is all over the kitchen. You didn’t realise she could get in that cupboard!
…Or the garden has been re-landscaped.
…Or the washing has now been sorted into ‘mud’ and ‘shreds’.
Living with a high-octane canine can be hard work. It can be frustrating. Why is that damned dog so naughty!?!!?! I’m sure anyone with a young, active dog can relate – and it’s not just puppies that drive us to distraction; even so called ‘adult’ dogs can be stress inducing in this way at times. (A friend of mine once came home to find her couch disembowelled because her 7 year-old dog had missed her morning constitutional. Seven, for heaven’s sake!!!)
What’s going on here? If your dog is getting adequate daily exercise (Not just a quick spin round the block please!) and some sort of training most days, surely that should be enough? Sadly no. For most dogs, that’s not enough.
“Enough what?” I hear you say. “Exercise? Playing fetch?” Nope.
Most dogs don’t need more physical exercise (although ‘enough’ can be subjective!). What they need is more mental stimulation. Often much more mental stimulation! Enrichment is one good way of providing that.
What is (Environmental) Enrichment?
Dogs are by nature hunters and scavengers. That means they are smart. Like, really smart. Problem solving is what has kept them alive and flourishing for a very long time. So what do we do? We make their lives easy (read: dull) by providing food in a bowl, safety in familiarity and repetition, and comfort at every turn.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all for providing comfort and safety for our dogs! Don’t change those things in the name of mental stimulation. However, we’ve removed a lot of the natural challenges and choices from our beloved dogs’ lives.
So what happens? Our dogs spice things up by going self-employed. They raid the trash even when they’re not starving. They steal things, bury things and destroy things, all for the fun of it.
One way to stop dogs going self-employed is to provide them with ‘work’. A dog with a job is generally a happy dog. Any type of training will do as long as it is somewhat mentally challenging and not too repetitive (fetching a ball is not ‘work’). Teach your dog to bring you the dirty laundry instead of stealing the clean stuff. Teach them to bring you the paper, your slippers, hidden toys, anything they can carry safely! Train searching and retrieving of your lost keys, wallet, socks, whatever.
Another alternative is to provide them with little challenges every day. I like to do this in conjunction with providing a ‘job’ for my dogs. I have Border Collies – they get ‘bored’ very easily but they’re not alone in this by far!
Why Does Your Dog Need It?
Enrichment activities should give an animal the opportunity to indulge in natural behaviours. Zoos are now very hot on providing enrichment for their exhibits; it’s good for the animals and who wants to see a pacing tiger or a rocking bear anyway?
Just because dogs are domesticated and they live with us doesn’t mean they don’t need outlets for natural behaviour. They do! That’s WHY they do the things they do that drive us nuts. Stealing, raiding bins, digging, shredding, fossicking: all manifestations of totally normal canid behaviour. Our dogs have been doing these types of things for thousands of years; they’re not going to stop just because we say so.
What are the Benefits of Giving Enrichment?
Enrichment allows your dog to do natural behaviours in a way that you find acceptable. It also provides mental stimulation – which is more tiring than physical exertion for most dogs. Basically, the more you can engage their active brains, the more relaxed and happy they will be. And the less mischief they’ll get into! (Be warned – it IS possible to overdo it! Ideally you want a nice balance between chillax time and active time.)
Think about the things your dog loves to do that you wish they didn’t. Can you think of a way to channel that into something else? Ideally you want an activity that leads to stress reduction and relaxation, not over arousal and frantic activity.
‘Enrichment’ to Avoid
I frequently see a very common example of ‘enrichment’ to avoid: letting your dog bark frantically out the window at passing people and dogs. In many cases the room has been set up specifically to enable the dog to do this: the curtains have been drawn back and a chair or similar placed directly in front of the window as a canine viewing platform.
This is all well and good if your dog can watch the world go by with calm detachment or mild interest; my older dog routinely falls asleep while window watching. If your dog is calm, then yes, this is an enriching activity. Go for it!
Barking and Lunging is Not Enrichment
It’s the ones that are throwing an absolute fit every time they see anything alive that bother me. This is NOT enrichment. Yes, barking at strangers is natural behaviour but, in many cases, it leads to frustration and re-directed aggression.
Your dog is being rewarded every time the stranger ‘leaves’ – they believe their hissy fit is what caused the person to leave. This makes throwing hissy fits far more likely to happen in different contexts. Or they’re frustrated and over aroused because they can’t actually get to the stranger/dog passing by. All that pent-up emotion tends to come out when we least expect it and it often leads to all sorts of unpleasant emotional outbursts. This is not what you want.
Enrichment activities should be fun at the time but leave your dog satisfyingly tired and ready to relax. The outcome should be pleasant contentment not emotional exhaustion.
The whole point of providing enrichment is to allow natural behaviours to lower stress, reduce boredom and enhance welfare. Usually we see lower anxiety levels, more relaxation and often an increase of confidence.
Enrichment Ideas for at Home
Providing appropriate chewing items should go without saying. Dogs need to chew. It is a totally natural behaviour and it promotes calm relaxed satisfaction in most dogs. A good ol’ chew session shouldn’t be underrated! But what else can you do to provide enrichment?
Think about how you feed your dog. Do you use a bowl? Most people do but that is such a waste of a great opportunity. Why not feed in food dispensing toys or scatter their kibble on the floor? Or on the lawn? If you feed raw, hide it in piles around the yard for them to find. Make sure it’s cleaned up quickly though or you’ll get flies and ants – yuck! Please use common sense with this.
Scatter Feeding Dinner
You can make homemade enrichment toys out of boxes, cardboard tubes, paper bags and large plastic drinks bottles with the loose lids ‘n’ bits removed. Goes without saying that anything you use needs to be SAFE! If you’d like more ideas do a search for CANINE ENRICHMENT on Facebook; there are a number of groups you can join or checkout for inspiration.
Here are Some Easy Ideas to get You Started.
I bought Felix’s snuffle mat but you can easily make then. Youtube has loads of ‘how to’ videos on making dog toys; snuffle mats included.
I used balls because I had them. (Bargain find in charity shop!) However, plastic bottles, shredded or screwed up paper will do just as well.
Cardboard Box Assault
Save your cardboard boxes for this game then put them in the recycling once they’re dead.
Rubbish Dump Hunt
This is a great one if you have some friends who’d like to get involved. Just meet up at someone’s house, with the odds and ends from your garage. Put them in a pile, scatter treats and let each dog have a turn.
Commercially Available Food Dispensing Toys
There is a whole plethora of food dispensing toys available these days. If you live in NZ check out Your Whole Dog as a great starting point.
Lots of things are also available on Amazon, just remember you’re looking at US dollars, not NZ ones. Don’t be tempted to buy cheap either. Those ‘too good to be true’ cheap knock-offs are cheap for a reason!
Enriching vs Overwhelming
Do remember that the key is to set solvable challenges! Make sure you take into account your dog’s problems solving abilities and don’t expect too much from an older or more timid individual. Introduce challenges slowly and be prepared to help at the beginning. Just scattering kibble around (as well as in) the food bowl might be challenging/different enough for some dogs.
Most dogs LOVE brain games. They love to problem solve, sniff things out and ‘work’ for their food. So, what’s stopping you? Start saving the recycling boxes and pop bottles, get creative and have some fun with your best friend.
If you’d like some more ideas about how to engage your dog’s brain (and why it’s recommended to do so) check out my free ebook, 6 Ways to Improve Your Dog’s Behaviour – No Training Required.
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