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Enrichment: What Is It, Anyways?

Enrichment is one of those concepts most dog and puppy owners hear about at some point, but with how much information is out there these days it can be a little confusing to understand what it really is, or if it's something you should even care about! So, what is enrichment anyways?

In simple terms, canine enrichment is engaging your dog in activities that stimulate their minds, bodies, and meet an instinctual, breed-specific, or biological need.

While our dogs ARE domesticated animals and with domestication comes several perks of having their "wild animal" traits subdued or even eliminated, we can't completely ignore that our dogs are still just that: animals! This means that to a degree, they will always have biological needs that will need to be met to some degree or "channeled" into specific outlets so that we don't see them happen in inappropriate contexts for our humanistic lifestyles. There are LOTS of situations in which people may mistakenly believe their dog is displaying undesired behavior because they are "lacking training," but in reality the dog is just simply behaving on an instinct that needs a proper, acceptable outlet. The dog isn't "behaving badly," they're just being a dog! And even if that behavior is undesirable or annoying for us, sometimes giving them opportunities where they are allowed to express that behavior in a controlled setting is all we need to do to eliminate it from other aspects of life where we would rather not see it (for example, providing a recreational hole digger a "dig pit" or sandbox to play in, while the rest of the well-manicured yard is off limits for digging).

What are some different enrichment needs dogs may have?

Social Enrichment

This outlet can vary widely depending on the dog you have, their sociability levels, energy levels, etc, but in general, dogs are fairly social creatures who really enjoy social outlets with their favorite people or animal friends. This does NOT mean any and all dogs should be taken to a busy dog park 5 days a week, as these kinds of environments actually tend to be quite overwhelming for most dogs. Instead, think about your individual dog's breed traits and sociability levels, and give them outlets they enjoy. Some examples include:

  1. Helping your dog make a couple of trusted dog friends for individual, structured play dates at each other's houses. Having small play groups with familiar dogs can be a more enjoyable, healthy social experience for playful dogs over an uncontrolled and variable environment like a city dog park.

  2. Having your dog go on a "group walk" with 1-2 other dogs where they can move together and explore a space, sniffing the same smells, and enjoying each other's company in a "lowkey" way. This is a better alternative for dogs who may enjoy lower intensity interactions with other dogs instead of off leash, high-adrenaline play.

  3. Spending intentional, 1 on 1 time with your dog. If you are your dog's favorite person, don't underestimate how enriching spending some focused 1 on 1 time with you can be! Put the phone down and turn off the TV for an hour, and cuddle your dog, play with them with their favorite toys, or go outside and engage in some social play together to build your relationship and fill your dog's social cup. For dogs who enjoy learning something new, having a short training session for tasty treats can be a great way to boost their social time as well.

Scent-Based Enrichment

This one goes for any and all dog breeds, as all dogs are olfactory-driven creatures and take in the majority of the world around them through their sense of smell. Did you know a dog's nose is at least 100,000 times stronger than ours?! Allowing your dog to sniff and take in the world through their nose isn't just a nice activity, it's a welfare need. Some ways you can incorporate more sniffing opportunities in your dog's life:

  1. Simply allowing more sniffing on walks. Many people get annoyed by their dogs wanting to stop and smell all the roses, but this is extremely enriching and enjoyable for our dogs. Remember, their walk is for them and their enrichment. If you find yourself walking a dog who wants to sniff more than you would like, resist that urge to tug on their leash and let them enjoy themselves. You can take yourself on an exercise walk without your dog later. Have a super sniffer? Long line sniffy walks are even more enriching than a normal neighborhood loop!

  1. Try scatter feeding in the yard or around the house. If you have a backyard at your disposal, one great way to add some quality to your dog's mealtimes is to scatter their kibble in the grass in your backyard and let them go to town using their nose to forage for each and every piece! IF your dog isn't as enthusiastic about their kibble, you can go this same concept with higher value food like cut up bite sized pieces of chicken, cheese, or training treats. No yard? No problem! This can also be done by putting your dog away momentarily and hiding treats/kibble piece by piece around your house, and setting your dog loose to follow their nose! Cookie searches are a great way to get your dog working for their meals in an enjoyable way and giving an outlet for foraging behavior.

  2. Teach your dog the activity of scent detection! This can be extremely fun for you and your dog to do together, and can be easily recreated at home. All breeds, all ages, and all mobility levels of dogs can engage in scentwork games! Here's a tutorial example on one of many ways to engage your dog in scent detection games:

Licking And Chewing Enrichment

Most dogs also really enjoy the opportunity to lick and chew when it comes to their food. And, depending on the breed of dog you have, they may be even more heavily selected to be orally fixated or have a stronger need to lick, chew, and shred. The great news is that providing ample outlets for this behavior can significantly reduce or even eliminate its appearance in undesirable ways. Give your dog enjoyable and regular outlets to lick and chew, and you'll find fewer chewed up shoes around the house! Some ideas to provide outlets include:

  1. Providing edible chews. I prefer providing dogs who enjoy chewing edible chews often and regularly to give them a "dissection and consumption" outlet. This could be items like bully sticks, himalayan yak chews, tendon chews, trachea chews, or even stuffed cow hooves. Depending on how aggressive of a chewer your dog is, you may want to chat with your vet about what "hardness" or textures are the best fit for your dog to prevent tooth breakage. And remember, we aren't trying to find the longest lasting chew on the planet, we're trying to improve our dog's quality of life by providing them with enjoyable outlets.

  2. Stuffables. I really like providing my dogs stuffable items as a means to give them a licking outlet and to self-soothe. These could be anything from Kongs, West Paw Toppls, Lick Mats, or Soda Pup Toys. Stuffable dog toys are generally made from durable rubber and have an opening inside to stuff with kibble, dog treats, etc and seal off with something soft and spreadable, like peanut butter, plain yogurt, canned dog food, etc. If your dog flies through a stuffable toy, you can even store them in the freezer first before serving to make them last longer.

  3. Shredding activities. Shredding is a part of a dog's natural predatory sequence and many dogs need an outlet for this to prevent them from displaying it in other ways we don't like (dog de-stuffed your favorite throw pillows, anyone?). If your dog isn't known to consume paper products, my favorite way to provide an outlet for this is to save cardboard boxes or paper towel roll inserts and provide them to my dog as an opportunity to shred and dissect. If your dog DOES consume paper, even providing an edible outlet like a head of cabbage or iceberg lettuce from the grocery store can give them the same level of shredding enjoyment.

Breed-Specific Outlets

Different dog breeds have rich and extensive histories of being bred for certain "jobs" or to serve different purposes. Even today in our more modern world, those breed specific behavior traits and instincts are still strong in our dogs. While sometimes their behavior may not be the best fit for a modern urban household, it's still an instinctual need for our dogs that needs to be provided an outlet in order to ensure their behavior doesn't become compulsive or come out inappropriately. Do some research on the breed(s) you chose for your family and determine if that problem behavior you're seeing is part of their genetic sequence. If so, provide an outlet! Some examples (not extensive) may include:

  1. Herding breeds need outlets for their need to control the environment and work cooperatively with their owners. Trick training, taking agility classes, and any other engagement-based, interactive game can help your herder thrive. They generally enjoy having a "puzzle" to solve, so brush up on your DIY skills to help provide them plenty of outlets for problem solving.

  2. Guardian breeds need outlets for their "protection" based behaviors like being allowed to patrol an enclosed space, and have opportunities to engage in independent activities like scentwork, having unstructured time in the yard, or taking the lead on a new hike. These generally aren't your "rigid obedience training" types.

  3. Terrier breeds need outlets for their "crittery". behavior as they were predominantly bred to control pest populations. Your terrier may really enjoy hunting for food in the yard by following their nose, engaging in dog sports like barn hunt and FastCAT, or playing with a flirt pole to give them a chance to "chase and catch" a pretend "prey" animal.

  4. Gun dogs/Setters need outlets to run free and move their bodies. These dogs were bred to range in far natural spaces and need opportunities to follow their nose/track scents, run freely, and work cooperatively with their owners through enjoyable training like trick training, agility classes, or dock diving sports. Even easy, entry level sports like FastCAT or CAT can give them an outlet to run and chase.

  5. Toy breeds are companion dogs at heart, so they enjoy quality time with their chosen humans the most! Never underestimate how enriching cuddle time, taking a 1 on 1 walk together, or engaging your toy breed in social play can do for their mental health. Toy breeds also tend to enjoy many different cooperative activities like agility training, trick training, and going on social outings with their humans. If the location is dog-friendly and your toy dog is friendly and social, bring them along with you on your outings!

Nature-Based Enrichment

All dogs, no matter their breed, size, or energy level, can benefit from having some unstructured time in nature. Especially in today's day and age, our dogs can spend a really significant amount of time in their lives removed from any natural space or setting, and this can lead to overall increased stress or undesired behavior. No matter the dog you have, try to make an effort to get them out in nature for running, biking, gentle hiking, or a decompression walk on a regular basis to allow them to express some natural behavior and get some much needed exercise. What is a decompression walk, you might ask? Read all about it here!

What kind of enrichment your dog enjoys most is going to vary widely based on the individual dog, their health, upbringing, energy levels, and personal interests. But, taking time to learn about the activities your dog likes the most is a worthwhile endeavor to add quality to their daily lives and increase their overall welfare. Take some time today to provide your dog a little extra enrichment!


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