Enriching Your Dog’s Life

Enrichment is a popular word in the companion parrot world, and of course, in the zoo world. But most people don’t realize the importance of enrichment for dogs.

Enrichment is defined by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as:

…”a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare. “

Obviously, this definition is intended to give zookeepers direction when caring for wild and exotic species, but the same definition applies itself well to the dogs in our homes, too. Not only is enrichment a fun concept, it’s an important one, even for our domestic pets.

Dogs – even our modern day couch potato dogs – weren’t designed to do nothing all day and lay politely by our feet at night. Each breed, from the tiny Chihuahua to the enormous Great Dane, was designed with a purpose in mind. When we take away their purpose, we’re asking for all sorts of trouble.

There are several types of enrichment, and the AZA states:

“Several categories of enrichment are then used to enhance that species’ behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and psychological well being. These categories are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, however each, if relevant to the species, should be incorporated into an animal’s enrichment plan. “

The AZA website explains several types of enrichment, including devices, habitat, sensory, food, social, and behavioral conditioning. So how do these apply to our dogs?

Enrichment devices for dogs are becoming more and more common. Designed to be manipulated by the dog, things that fall into this category include food dispensing toys like the Kong Classic and the Wobbler; Premier’s Kibble Nibble; and Nina Ottoson’s Puzzle Toys. Digging boxes also fall into this category.

Habitat enrichment, for those of us lucky enough to have a yard, encompases using all of the space your dog has, not just the space on the ground. Things like tire swings with food or toys tucked inside, springpoles and flirtpoles (not just for pit bulls!), scents placed (intentionally or not) on trees and shrubs, kiddie pools, wooden platforms, hiding spots like half-burried tractor tires and even dog houses, all fall into this category. Changing substrates – hay, wool, cloth, and so on – either in the general environment or in a hiding spot is also included.

Sensory enrichment is intended to use your dog’s natural senses (sight, scent, taste, hearing, and touch) to elicit natural behaviors. This can include scenting the envionment, items that can be manipulated, food dispensing toys, anything that elicits prey drive, edible bubbles, walks (especially  in new areas), music or animal sounds, and so on.

Food enrichment involves presenting food in ways that elicit hunting and/or foraging behaviors, encourage problem solving, and yes, even as a part of training. Foods may be frozen, hard, warmed, soft, and so on, and may be presented in new ways. Scattering kibble in the yard, buring Kong toys stuffed with wet food in a digging box, and placing treats into cardboard boxes to be shredded are all things that fall into this category.

Social enrichment involves allowing dogs to socialize, either with humans, other dogs, or other animals, and what is appropriate for each individual dog will vary. Some dogs are very social with other dogs, and others are not – know your dog! Play dates, dog parks, walks with a favored human, and living in a multi-dog household are all examples of social enrichment.

Behavioral conditioning is, simply put, training your dog. It isn’t just important for providing your dog with much-needed mental stimulation – it’s also a great way to spend time interacting positively with your dog while at the same time teaching him how to behave in a very human-oriented world. Training shouldn’t just be about sitting and staying. Encorporate behaviors that will make both of your lives easier: teach your dog to sit still for and tolerate veterinary exams, to “station” when guests arrive, and to enjoy nail trims.

Of course, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) feel obligated to provide enrichment from every category every day. Many enrichment options will overlap categories (stuffed Kong toys, for example) and adding even just one item to your dog’s life each day will make a difference. With a little forethought and effort, both you and your dog will be happier and more relaxed!

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