Enrichment is important for most species. We all have experienced boredom. It’s the birthplace of regrettable ideas. Just remember some of the things you came up with as a teenager when you were bored. Some of them probably got you into trouble. But this is not just about the sins of our youth. Boredom and mental stagnation are rarely good things. Once we stop engaging our minds, we are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and mental decline in general. Hence, mental stimulation is important for long-term health. This is no different for dogs. Teaching dogs to make good decisions and solve problems doesn’t happen through solitary confinement. Engaging dogs on multiple levels is essential for happiness and well-being.
Most importantly, we must provide dogs with mental and physical stimulation when they are kept in closer confinements like crates and kennels.
What is Canine Enrichment?
Enrichment in general is defined as “the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something.” Canine enrichment in particular is defined as modifying a dog’s environment to improve its quality of life.
Primarily, this means increasing the range or number of normal behaviors and reducing the frequency of abnormal behaviors. The goals are:
- Increasing behavioral diversity.
- Encouraging positive utilization of the environment.
- Increasing the ability of the animal to cope with challenges in a normal way.
Further, environmental enrichment is important to maintain a dog’s physical and psychological well-being. As lack of enrichment can lead to a range of stress behaviors, including:
- Excessive licking or chewing of their feet, tails, or other body parts, resulting in self-injury.
- Increased or excessive vocalization (e.g. barking).
- Manipulation of enclosure barriers, digging or escaping from the yard.
- Stereotypy (abnormal repetitive behaviors like circling or pacing).
- Coprophagy (eating feces).
- Deliberate self-mutilation.
In contrast, it is also important for a dog to learn to cope with some solitude, frustration, and boredom. It is an acquired—and important—skill. Hence, I am not suggesting that dogs must be entertained 24/7. But providing adequate enrichment is about quality of life and it is essential to strike the right balance.
Types of Canine Enrichment
We generally differentiate six types of enrichment: cognitive, physical, occupational, social, sensory, and nutritional. The different forms of enrichment can be provided separately but are usually combinations. For example, visually open crates can give a dog the opportunity to view its surroundings. Increased visual access is both physically and sensorily enriching. Most examples and suggestions provide a combination of enrichment, which is good. Naturally, combinations create more complexity and stimulate dogs better mentally.
Cognitive Canine Enrichment
Cognitive enrichment focuses on mental stimulation. All other enrichment types also have mental components but some activities target cognitive development directly. Examples include:
- Developing predatory hunting skills through play-based learning games.
- Teaching decision-making skills by encouraging dogs to think before acting.
- Psychological resilience to stress and unfamiliar things.
- Building the ability to handle frustration without resorting to fight or flight responses.
Physical Canine Enrichment
Physical enrichment includes altering the quality and complexity of a dog’s living space. Examples include:
- Toys: the most common way people attempt to enrich their dog’s environment is through toys. However, toys must be carefully selected to be safe and enriching to the dog. Typically, toys should be rotated to remain enriching and must be sanitized regularly to remain safe.
- Enclosures: Rotating the enclosures dogs are kept in adds complexity to their environment. For example, crates, exercise pens, kennels, back-ties, and to-person-tethering in rotation all make a difference. Also, enclosures can easily be combined with rotating toys to increase the complexity further.
- Features: Different types of beds, pillows, Kurandas (raised beds), platforms, structures, and doors (for indoor/outdoor access) add variety to the dog’s environment. These features provide dogs with more control over their social and physical environment and depending on the choice, a more comfortable place to rest, a better view of their surroundings, access to the outdoors, or a place to hide.
- Breed-Specific Outlets: For example, sandboxes for digging can allow terriers to engage in normal digging behavior and sheep herding is a wonderful activity for breeds in the herding group.
- Games: Play allows for the natural expression of biological drives. Ideally, games allow the dog to engage in the aspects of play that matter most to them. The aspects dogs generally enjoy are all part of the predatory hunting sequence: search, stalk, chase, fight, celebrate and consume. Games have rules and stimulate dogs mentally as well as build skill and confidence. In addition, games can be either cooperative (e.g. fetch) or competitive (e.g. tug of war).
In summary, physical enrichment should provide outlets for the positive expression of natural behaviors.
Occupational Canine Enrichment
Occupational enrichment challenges dogs by providing a “job” that encourages physical exercise and mental stimulation. A job can be as simple as paying attention to the owner without losing social connection. Or a job can be as complex as being a service dog to a person with disabilities providing—often life-saving—support. Examples include:
- Dog sports (e.g. GRC, agility, fly balls, dock diving, protection, detection, tracking, and so on)
- Obedience training
- Trick training
- Emotional support dog training and service
- Therapy dog training and service
- Service dog training and service
- There are many more
Social Canine Enrichment
Social enrichment refers to facilitating contact with dogs and other species, especially humans. Examples include:
- Supervised group socialization or playgroups
- Unsupervised group socialization (e.g. dog parks or dog beaches)
- Dog walking; if possible in varying locations
- Participating in group obedience classes
- Group housing of compatible dogs; social living provides constant complex mental stimulation.
- Cooperative games (e.g. catch and release aka “fetch”)
- Competitive games (e.g. possession games aka tug of war)
Social enrichment is different from socialization. Social enrichment fulfills dogs’ needs to interact with other dogs and humans through housing and other encounters. In contrast, socialization is the guided and safe exposure to the environment the dog lives in.
Sensory Canine Enrichment
Sensory enrichment is about stimulating the different senses of dogs: sight (visual), sound (auditory), touch (kinesthetic), taste (gustatory), and smell (olfactory).
- This can include both stationary and moving images.
- Being able to see inside and outside their environment. For example, being able to see inside the kennel environment can provide a sense of security.
- Visually stimulating objects can be placed outside a dog's run to add interest.
- Playing music or sound can buffer out the noise of kennel environments or other stimulating sounds in home environments and as a result, provide more calmness. Also, classic music for companion animals is available for purchase and worth exploring as studies have shown classical music can reduce stress levels and increase resting and sleeping in dogs.
- Auditory stimulation should not be constant, must be assessed based on the dog's response, and should be kept low in volume (< 70dB).
- The stimuli must be tailored to the needs of the dog and not the caretakers. Many sounds that are pleasing to humans can be displeasing or distressful to dogs.
- Dogs enjoy all elements of the predatory hunting sequence: search, stalk, chase, fight (view it as overcoming obstacles), celebrate, and consume.
- Play is simulated hunting and taking down prey and is highly stimulating. Consequently, great play stimulates all six aspects of hunting.
- Dogs are very physical beings and enjoy all elements of predatory play.
- Games with toys allow us to tap into these aspects when interacting with our dogs.
- This also includes affection. A good petting can go a long way.
- Nose work activities can be used to garner a dog’s interest and have been shown to be beneficial in mitigating distress.
- Placing lavender-scented cloths in kennels can have a calming effect, reduce the amount of barking and other activity. For easier application diffusers also work.
- While varying regular food is not advisable to avoid diarrhea and digestive upset, variety with treats can be beneficial.
- Some things taste better than others. Adding taste variety with food puzzles and training can be quite rewarding.
- Consider using different food options: training treats, beef/turkey/chicken jerky, hot dogs, lunch meat, ground beef, and so on.
- Don’t get hung up on ‘people food’ vs ‘dog food’. If it’s good meat your dog will like it.
Nutritional enrichment is also called feeding enrichment. It encourages the dog to engage in natural foraging and feeding behaviors with the use of food as a reward. Feeding enrichment adds additional activity to the dog’s routine and can help improve a dog’s physical condition.
Natural foraging activities often include scent and search elements of locating food prior to consumption. Snuffle mats are a good example of this category.
Suggestions for Canine Enrichment
Vary your enrichment! Anything can become boring over time. Your dog will lose interest in even the coolest enrichment activity if this is the only thing offered every day, so be creative. You can find our recommendations for toys, puzzles, and alike for easy purchase on Amazon on this related page: https://happydogtraining.info/enrichment-toys/
Kong's stuffed with food and frozen solid provide extended stimulation. Choose high-value stuffings to make it interesting for your dog and come up with a couple of different options.
- For raw-fed dogs, it is usually easiest to simply set aside a small portion of their regular meal, mix it in a blender, and stuff the Kong with the mixture.
- For kibble-fed dogs, take some of their kibble, a table-spoon of canned wet food of the same brand, and protein (beef, chicken, lamb, fish, etc.) and mix that in a blender or by hand. Don’t use too much wet food, you want a thick paste.
- For wet-fed dogs, use their regular canned food and mix it in a blender with some of the suggested mix-ins below.
For all dogs, add some mix-ins to make the mixture more tempting and add variety. Good ingredients to add to the blender are canned pumpkin, carrots, broccoli, green beans, spinach, kale, beets, coconut oil, raw eggs with shell, peanut butter (make sure it does NOT contain Xylitol—that is deadly for dogs), cheese, lunch meat, cooked meats or sausages, jerky, marshmallows.
Obviously, avoid any ingredient your dog has known allergies to.
You can find a large variety of treat-dispensing toys from Kong and other companies that can entertain your dog. These are easy to use as you just fill them with kibble or treats and let your dog work on getting them out of the toy. Most of the treats can be accessed by “messing around” with them and chewing them. The mental stimulation from these toys is lower than with puzzle feeders. The advantage is most of these toys are widely available and fairly cheap.
These are great games that require a dog to move pieces around to access hidden treats they can clearly smell. These are more mentally challenging than treat-dispensing toys and require your dog to think more. These can help slow your dog’s mind down, which is especially helpful to more chaotic and restless dogs. One of the bigger brands in this space is Nina-Ottoson from Sweden, their products are distributed in the United States by Outward Hound. These are easy to find on Amazon and our Enrichment Toys page contains a good number of them.
These provide mental stimulation. Slow feeders are often just advertised for slowing down eating and helping prevent bloat but these have another advantage. But, slow feeders also make the dog use its nose and eyes while eating and as such offer some cognitive benefits as well as teach dealing with frustration better.
Great tools for freezing some wet or raw dog food on. They are in the slow feeder category but offer additional sensory enrichment when the food is frozen and offered as a mid-day treat rather than a full meal feeding tool.
Any chance you have to get a dog’s nose involved in eating should be jumped on and snuffle mats are wonderful for that. Sprinkling a handful of kibble or tasty treats on a snuffle mat will keep your dog busy for a while and provide olfactory, cognitive, physical, and nutritional enrichment.
Hide and Seek
Hiding a few items for your dog to find around the house is fun and engaging on multiple levels. You can actively play with your dog, encouraging him to use his nose or hide 2-3 treat-dispensing toys or just regular (favorite) toys around the house when you leave. You can also play this game with scents. Dab some scents (cinnamon, lavender, orange, or other interesting scents) in a few places in the yard to encourage your dog to investigate. Unfamiliar or new smells are always of interest to a dog.
Treats in Ice
If your dog spends time outside, you can leave him a block of ice with some treats frozen inside. Use a plastic bowl or small bucket as a mold. Fill it three-quarters full with water and put it in the freezer. When the water is slushy, mix in some dog kibble, carrot chunks, apple slices, and bits of cooked meat. When frozen, turn it over and pop it out. Give it to your dog outside on a warm day.
When your dog is in his crate, exercise pen, or kennel run, stop by and just drop some tasty treats in without otherwise interacting with your dog. Just walk up, say “Hi” if you like, drop the treats in, and walk away. This is a great activity to increase your own value for your dog and spark curiosity. You didn’t ask for anything, you just dropped by and delivered something valuable. Who doesn’t like a friend like that? Once your dog considers you valuable, your relationship will thrive like never before.
Play is free-style. Games have rules, penalties for breaking the rules, and rewards for winning. Playing well with a dog so they enjoy it, takes a bit of effort to learn but is a lot of fun once you master the basics. It engages your dog on a whole new level by focusing on the aspects of play YOUR dog enjoys the most. There are six general aspects of play: searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming. Games can be competitive (e.g. tug of war) or cooperative (e.g. fetch). If you would like to learn how to become your dog’s best playing partner, you can start by reading our article “Play is the way”, available at https://socal.dog/Play. Additional resources can be accessed from there.
Canine enrichment reduces undesirable behaviors resulting from boredom and frustration. It also increases desirable behaviors like problem-solving and positive social interactions.
Enrichment tailored to meets dogs’ needs can help improve many aspects of their health and welfare. It should be incorporated whenever possible into the standard management practices at kennels, short-term boarding facilities, and homes (Garvey et al., 2016)
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