Enrichment: The Spice of Life
Updated: May 4, 2022
Enrichment comes in more than one flavor because variety is the spice of life. If you are reading this, more than likely, you already provide your dog with a wonderful and happy life. The larger majority of dog owners view their pooches as family members. And as such, we try to do our best to give them a well rounded life. When considering the bare pet essentials, the majority of us think: diet and nutrition, access to medical care, and exercise. Play time, snuggle time, treats, and training are considered “happy extras” and not a necessity for a healthy, happy pet. When in fact, those “extras” are just as important things to provide your animal. A healthy mind is AS important as a healthy body! Wouldn’t you agree?
As stewards of our pets’ well being, it is our responsibility to provide our animals with a truly well-rounded, fulfilling life. One of the ways we can nurture a healthy mind is by providing enrichment.
We, as humans, know just how important stimulating our own minds, senses, and body can be for a fulfilling life. It is the same for our dogs. But there is good news! There are many ways we can positively impact our dog’s quality of life!
In this article, we will discuss enrichment in all it's glory; what it is, benefits of enrichment, the different types of enrichment you can provide your dog and how it might look. Let's start with the basics.
What exactly is Enrichment?
Enrichment is any activity that stimulates the mind, body, or senses and allows an individual to engage in natural behaviors. Enrichment helps to develop the overall well-being of an individual and gives the animal an outlet for performing a natural behavior. Providing appropriate enrichment can redirect an animal from finding their own outlet for those natural behavior; which sometimes results in behaviors that humans do not appreciate.
“Enrichment can be defined as meeting all of an animal’s needs as closely as possible to how they would be met in the wild, in order to empower them to engage in species-typical behaviors in healthy and appropriate ways. Enrichment is not defined solely by what we do, but more significantly by the outcomes of what we do. It can only be enrichment if the result is a physically and behaviorally healthy animal.”
— CANINE ENRICHMENT FOR THE REAL WORLD, ALLIE BENDER AND EMILY STRONG
Consider all the things that your dog finds fun and satisfying -- sniffing, digging, running, rolling, exploring, scavenging, chasing, playing fetch, tugging, chewing, ripping, shredding, licking, gnawing, snuggling, and the list goes on. Engaging in these behaviors on a regular basis is not only normal and natural, but essential for their physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
Why is Enrichment Good?
Animals that have good mental health will engage with their environment more, be less aggressive, less fearful and are more peaceful, exploratory and at ease with their surroundings. Enrichment encourages curiosity, bring out joyful play behaviors, prevent boredom and problem behaviors, build confidence, and develop cognition and problem solving skills. Enrichment can support this positive mental welfare and give them a way to appropriately express those natural doggie behaviors. Enrichment creates choices for our animals so they feel more in control over their environment. Giving an animal choice and agency goes a long way towards good mental health.
Enrichment is not a substitute for poor living situation, poor diet, lack of healthcare or any other poor management activities. While it is an important aspect of positive animal welfare, alone it cannot compensate for sub-standard care that results in poor welfare.
Wait a minute! Choice?! Encouraging curiosity? If I gave my dog free rein, he would run havoc over everything! And can't teaching confidence to a dog teach them aggression?
Confidence doesn't lead to an aggressive dog. The vast majority of aggression cases are created by fear and anxiety. Individuals (human or canine) not correctly reading nuanced body language that says "hey, this is making me uncomfortable. Can you give me space?" can create a dog that realizes they need to be louder and more dramatic in order to be heard. Confidence, on the other hand, creates a dog that is much more willing and able to engage in training. Confidence increases a dog's ability to focus on us.
And of course, giving your dog complete free rein could result in a dog that gets into everything and has no impulse control. That's why training your dog is important! We train our dogs to teach them what are GOOD choices to make, and HOW to make those choices in the face of temptation.
What are the different types of enrichment?
There are 6 main types of enrichment: sensory, food-based, environmental, cognitive, social, physical activity. Of these, I will only go into sensory, food-based, and cognitive enrichment in the interest of keeping this material succinct.
Sensory enrichment focuses on the stimulation of your dog's senses. You can divide it into four subcategories: visual, olfactory (smell & taste), auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) enrichment. These senses are all important means of communication and are routes of gathering information about the surrounding environment.
Sensory, and especially smell based enrichment, is an essential form of enrichment for your dog. Dogs possess up to 300 MILLION olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about 6 million in ours. Because of this, scientists guess that a dog's sense of smell is somewhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours! In addition, the part of the brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is 40 times greater than ours. Not only that, but dogs posses the vomeronasal organ (aka Jacobson's organ) which humans do not.
(read this article to learn more!)
For all these reasons, smell based enrichment is a wonderful thing to incorporate into your enrichment schedule. This can be as easy and simple as taking your dog on a sniffing walk as opposed to expecting a perfect heeled walk. As a dog owner, I like to be able to go on physical exercise based walks as well as sensory based enrichment walks where the only rule is to keep a loose leash. Because of the amount of information dogs can analyze through their nose, sniff walks can be as tiring (or more for certain individuals) than running around. You can also incorporate scent work games into their enrichment which is gaining popularity in the dog parenting world.
enrichment examples: sniff walks, scent work, doggy tv channels, relaxing sounds, dig box, hanging bungee balls, mirrors, doggy massage or brush out, etc.
A good and easy way to keep your dog's mind occupied during the day and help give him an outlet to practice natural behaviors is providing your dog food-related enrichment. This type of enrichment focuses on the way we present their food to make feeding more challenging. Figuring out a puzzle expends brain energy which can help reduce the amount of pent up energy he may be building. It can also be enriching providing a novel food item. The ultimate goal is to stimulate and extend the appetitive and consummatory behaviours of your pooch. Puzzle feeders function dually as food-based and cognitive enrichment.
Set aside a portion of your dogs diets just for use in enrichment toys. In fact, I encourage my clients to slowly start moving away from the use of a feeding bowl entirely as you get more comfortable with the idea of hand feeding and preparing enrichment toys. Frozen kongs, kong wobblers, hollow balls, lickmats, snufflemats, rolled up towels or blankets, scrunching a towel or blanket in a box and hiding food in the ridges, scatter feeding their kibble or treats in your yard, etc are all great options and having more options to put in rotation will keep things interesting for your dogs.
I recommend trying out a few different toys. Having more than one type of enrichment toy allows you to put them in rotation keeping the item novel every time your doggo receives it.
enrichment examples: scatter feeding, stuffed frozen toys, hidden food, puzzle feeders, novel food items, and hand feeding games.
Much of the enrichment that falls under this category is learning based; that is, Training! While puzzle feeders are also categorized under cognitive enrichment, I want to stress the importance of training as not only a way to get our dogs to do the things we want them to do, but a way for us to provide our furry companions with a mentally stimulating enrichment.
Training, when done properly, is one of the most stimulating forms of enrichment. Because training is an interactive game between two individuals, yourself and your dog, the skills you are teaching your dog and communicating with them are constantly changing. And change is exciting! It makes training with us (using various games) fun and interesting! It is how we can keep our dogs engaged with us even in the face of some pretty strong distractions.
Of course, when we refer back to the quote above by Allie Bender and Emily Strong, it is important we understand that force-free, positive reinforcement based training can be considered enrichment. Learning has to be enjoyable for your dog and result in a behaviorally healthy animal for it to be enriching.
**note: Traditional, "balanced" and other types of training that utilize aversive methods are NOT enriching to your dog. These methods rely on coercion and, by definition, using force or threats is not enrichment.
Using force-free methods of training requires us to get creative in the ways we teach our animals. The training game works as a puzzle game; both for our dogs and for us. It is a two-way communication method in which our dogs are given choice and control over their environment. The power to make the right choice by their own agency is incredibly empowering, enriching, and creates a dog who wants to learn what the right choices are because it is fun to get it right!
Enrichment comes in more than one flavor because variety is the spice of life. To excel in giving your beloved pet a well rounded and fulfilling life, we actively promote establishing an enrichment program for your pooch. And no enrichment program is complete without a training program based on game play! Not only will your dogs thank you, you'll be thanking yourself for creating more relaxed, healthy, happy, well-mannered pups!
If you would like to learn more about the "Training Game!" please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your initial consultation.