What is Enrichment, and why is it important?
Behavioral Enrichment includes any additions to an animal’s environment with which the animal voluntarily interacts and, as a result, experiences improved physical and/or psychological health.
The opportunity to solve problems, use cognitive skills and focus energy in a constructive way contributes to an animal’s well-being and reduces the likelihood of abnormal or undesired behaviors.
Enrichment techniques are used widely throughout the animal world in zoos and sanctuaries, increasingly in dog/cat shelters, and even in elementary and middle school programs! The form of enrichment considers the species of the animal, their breed and individual preferences, the available environment, and other factors. For formal enrichment programs, a goal-oriented plan is developed for each animal, and then as implementation takes place, the plan is modified to fit that animal.
For dogs of any age, we encourage enrichment because when your dog is engaged with a fun enrichment activity, they will not be barking, pestering you for attention, chewing inappropriate items, or engaging in any number of other activities that we humans consider undesirable. Games that encourage interaction between a dog and his/her person also build a deeper bond and foster greater communication. Enrichment, especially that which is selected based on a particular dog’s needs and preferences, leads to a more balanced and confident dog.
In a shelter environment, enrichment for all of our dogs is important to maintain the wellness of dogs, reduce the potential for inappropriate behaviors, and increase “adoptability”. Through enrichment, we can teach useful and interactive behaviors, and also reduce stress. While reducing stress through enrichment is a difficult concept to study, the Tufts Center for Shelter Dogs has started to collect data in the area of stress and enrichment to try correlate enrichment activities to a reduction or extinction of undesirable behaviors. While a small study in sample size, it points to what we can see with our own dogs: dogs who are tired from appropriate enrichment are more relaxed and confident.
Types of Enrichment
Any stimulus that brings about a positive response can be considered enrichment. Our goal is to promote desirable behaviors and reduce stress. When we think about enrichment, we consider a variety of types: Mental games (training; experiences with smell, sight, sound, taste and tactile; foraging puzzles) (M), physical exercise (P), and social activities (S). Often enrichment involves changing the dog’s environment, presenting food in different ways, or providing items which can be manipulated in some way. Kongs, daily walks and the dog park are not the only options. In fact, for some dogs, and at some over-crowded or poorly monitored dog parks, a dog park is not a good option.
As with all activities, start slowly and with opportunities that are easily mastered so that your dog gains confidence. If your dog appears reserved or unsure/shy, proceed more slowly. If your dog is uncomfortable or stressed, cease the activity altogether and try something else. Make sure that you consider the kibble or snacks used in your enrichment games as part of your dog’s daily calorie allowance. Many enrichment activities cover several “types” at once – what a great bonus for the dog and the human!
Think about the types of activities that your dog enjoys, or even those your pups has not yet experienced. Select a variety of enrichment types to challenge your pup, and obtain the materials or toys. As you get started, think about outlining an enrichment plan, or tracking your activities. Tracking will allow you to see what activities that your dog enjoys most, and also where you need to add activities to ensure inclusion of all three types (P, M, and S).
The number of activities per day will be driven by the environment of the dog, their natural activity level and their age/physical health. Younger dogs, dogs in quarantine, and higher energy dogs will require more activity (such as two of each type per day).
Coded for type: Sensory/Mental Enrichment (M), Physical (P), and Social (S)
- Soft music or the TV in the background during the day. We like “iCalmPet” which has been specially designed for calming. DogTV is also created specifically for dogs. (M)
- Towel puzzle: Either roll up some kibble in a bath towel, or roll kibble in a hand towel and slip that hand towel into a paper tp roll. (M)
- A car ride: Drive through a new neighborhood with the window cracked, which will offer a host of new smells; a drive-through or a quick errand where you are able to stay in your car provides a nice break from your dog’s routine. (M, S)
- Stuffed kongs or similar: You can make a homemade “Kong toy” using an old plastic peanut butter jar (we prefer the small jars). Add kibble and shake to get it to stick to the leftover peanut butter, then enjoy! Don’t feel compelled to fill the whole jar; your dog will enjoy the PB with kibble all around the edges. (M)
- Find-it, with variations: Remember to start with easy puzzles (more dry kibble = easier) and in an easy to find location while your dog gains confidence in how to play these games. (M)
- fill a kong and place it in your yard or patio to be found
- fill 3-4 brown paper sacks with a few pieces of kibble and some special snacks, and then fold or crunch the tops down (no staples or tape!), and place (or hide, once your dog gets really good at the game) these in your yard or different locations in the house
- fill 3-4 toilet paper or paper towel rolls with kibble and snacks, and hide these in different locations for seek/find. Fold both ends inward to make a little “wonton.”
- old cereal boxes or cardboard boxes (nothing with plastic “windows”) also work great for presenting a new toy and a cookie, and make great puzzles once folded shut
- Enroll in BarkBox or Bullymake Box which delivers different snacks and new toys monthly. (M)
- Use food games to feed normal meals such as a puzzle feeder, Kong, a wobble feeder. Rotate for the most fun! We like:
- the Green Interactive Puzzle Feeder;
- Buster’s Puzzle Feeder;
- Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble;
- Make a disposable puzzle feeder for dry kibble using an old cereal box: using only the cardboard (discard the plastic sleeve that once held the cereal), cut three small quarter sized holes in both sides of the box in different places (5-6 holes total); fill with kibble and close it up – let you dog do the rest!
- Make another version with a clean plastic milk jug (do not leave out unattended for a long period as we don’t want the plastic bottle to be ingested). (M)
- Snuffle puzzle mat (instructions on how to make them can be found on YouTube or you can buy them): This is a fabric foraging puzzle with dry kibble that encourages dogs to use their nose. (M)
- Training: Spending 15-20 min going through basic commands is great brain work. Teach a new behavior like shake, stay or roll-over. Take your training on the road and practice the commands that your dog knows well in a new location, such as a new park, a friend’s yard or house, or even ask for a sit in the aisle at PetSmart (wow, that’s an area with big distractions, right?! What great practice for a dog that has demonstrated consistency elsewhere.) Or enroll in a short positive reward-based training class for a fun refresher! (M)
- Blow soap bubbles in your yard for something fun to chase (M, P)
- Unstuff it: Take a rubber ball toy (like a Holee-ball). Cut an old t-shirt or towel into 12” x 2” strips. Put a small snack or piece of kibble at the end of each strip and roll each strip up and put into the toy with some of the ends sticking out. Goal is for the dog to pull each strip out of the toy.
- Another version uses a cardboard box and gluing toilet paper rolls upright. Roll the t-shirts and place them in each toilet paper hole with a little end/tail sticking out for grabbing. (M)
- Pupcicle: Using a small Tupperware bowl or a disposable paper cup, add a mixture of low-sodium chicken or beef broth with water (we like a mix of 25% broth to 75% water). Add a rubber toy, a nylabone, some kibble and a few other cookies or snacks and freeze. If your container is large, check back in one hour to “mix” and ensure that the items are distributed. When froze, tear off the paper cup or pop out of the Tupperware and place outside for your pup. (M)
- Muffin Tin puzzle: Using a standard muffin tin, place a snack in each hole. Cover each with a tennis ball (or as many tennis balls as you have). Start with leaving almost all of the snacks “exposed” and only one or two covered until your dog gets the hang of the game. (M)
- Dognition: Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center created Dognition, which is an online tool which is available to the dog owning public to help better understand how our dogs think through the use of innovative games and digital content. This ‘citizen science’ project allows the scientists to collect valuable information about canine cognition while providing dog owners with the opportunity to grow their relationship with their dog. It is a paid service. (M, S)
- Walk a new route or select a new park to go walk with your dog. (P)
- Take your dog to the beach (we recommend always staying on leash; take a 20-foot “lead line”) (P)
- Tunnels and agility work: Enroll in an agility class or use the mini-agility courses found in various Houston parks. Flyball, rally classes, and dock diving are all social and physical outlets. (P, S)
- Baby pool: Get a baby pool and allow your dog to experience some water fun. If your dog loves water, get a sprinkle and run it on a low water pressure for some fun.
- Fill a baby pool with sand to create a “dig box”! Or select a spot in the yard where digging is permissible, fluff the soil and bury some smelly tasty stuffed items to encourage exploration.
- Fill a baby pool with plastic balls or an assortment of toys to make a ball pool. (P, M)
- Hula hoop: Get a hula hoop and teach your dog to jump through; start with it on the ground and gradually increase the height at which you hold the hoop. (P)
- Play tug: Start the game with a command (“Take it!”) and then after 15-20 seconds, stop tugging. When the dog lets go (“YES”) and immediately start again. Add the word “DROP IT” once the dog it consistently letting go. Never shake your dogs head up and down – this can injure their neck. Also, do not tug too hard or you will injure their teeth.
- Teach fetch or Frisbee: Have the dog sit before each toss, and at first, trade the ball for a treat, gradually phasing out the treats. (P)
- Ride a bike: If your dog likes to jog alongside, use a Walky-dog. For smaller pups that like to be passengers, the BuddyRider and Solvit Houndabout may be just what you need. (P)
- Flirt Pole: Have the dog sit before starting; say “Take It” to release the dog and toss the toy. Keep the toy just ahead of the dog and then allow the dog to catch the toy and get some good gnaws or shakes. Reel the toy in, wait for the dog to release the toy (“YES!”) and start again. (P)
- Meeting new people or dogs (if your dog is comfortable around other dogs) by going to an outdoor pub or patio. (S)
- Having other pups that your dog has met and likes over for a play date. (S, P)
- Enroll to become a therapy dog: Faithful Paws is one or several organizations in Houston.
- Group training classes: These are excellent social opportunities as your dog is interacting with you, with a trainer, and in a group class setting, with other dogs present. (S, P)