Enrichment has become a bit of a buzz word in the dog world. It has been a big topic for years but it has been discussed more than ever while we’ve been at home with our dogs in recent weeks.
‘Enrichment’ can seem daunting, there are so many activities, games and ideas to choose from. Where do you even start? What’s best for your dog? What if you don’t have time to create extravagant games or the money to buy all sorts of equipment to enrich your dog’s life? And is it really THAT beneficial?
We control almost every aspect of our dog’s lives, we control their feeding, walking, socialising and pretty much everything that happens in their day. They adapt remarkably well to our lives and, on the whole, they cope amazingly with the limited choices on offer to them.
When you consider just how much control we have over our dogs, it seems only fair that we give them opportunities to make choices for themselves and find an outlet for some more natural behaviours. Do you get frustrated when your dog tries to stop and sniff every tree on your walk? Do you shout at him for digging in the garden? What about barking when someone walks past the house?
We find it hard to tolerate some of the behaviours our dogs try to engage in. Understandably, digging up the garden or barking out the window are behaviours we find difficult to live with, but we have to appreciate that our dogs have their own needs to fulfil. A simple walk and a quick play in the garden aren’t enough for many dogs, and when we repeatedly stop their attempts to entertain themselves, it’s no wonder they become frustrated. Given how much time we have all been spending at home recently, I think we have a new appreciation for just how boring and repetitive our dog’s lives can be.
Creating suitable activities for your dog will help reduce his need to engage in other unwanted behaviours. These activities have many benefits, they can teach a dog to problem solve which is a great confidence booster … how good do you feel when you solve a problem or puzzle?! Successfully solving a problem will boost your dog’s mood and help him feel more positive. Dogs who experience success will have a more positive outlook on life. Just imagine repeatedly being told off, having your ‘fun’ activities taken away and having no freedom to make choices, you would soon lose confidence and develop a negative outlook about everything you do. Compare this to an environment where you learn new skills, successfully overcome challenges and have the opportunity to make good choices … how much more positive would you start to feel?
Rather than continually stopping our dogs behaving in ways we dislike, we need to create opportunities for them to behave in more appropriate ways. A dog who is always told ‘No, no, NOO’ will be left confused about what he CAN actually do. He may turn to other behaviours in an attempt to diffuse the negative situation or to find new ways of gaining attention. In comparison, a dog who is calmly redirected onto an appropriate activity, or encouraged to make good choices in the first place, will be more positive and enriched.
Enrichment provides a relaxing way for your dog to practice his problem-solving skills, improve his tolerance of frustration and tire himself out, all in a safe and appropriate manner. Food is a great way to activate your dog’s natural behaviours. All dogs need to eat so by changing how your dog receives his food, you can transform his meal times from a boring bowl of food, to a whole range of activities.
Sniff and Search
Start with a simple task of sniffing for breakfast in the grass or around the living room. Sniffing is a calming and tiring behaviour, it’s also a basic skill which all dogs will have. If your dog isn’t sure then help him out by ‘searching’ for the food with him. Gradually increase the difficulty, letting him find it more independently or in more tricky places.
Create a little trail of sprinkled food for your dog to follow. You can use crumbly food, like grated cheese or broken up dry treats, so your dog is focused more on the sniffing than the eating. Create trails to around different surfaces or areas of the house or garden. You can even do sprinkle trails around your walk to encourage more sniffing and exploring.
Set up a selection of objects, cardboard boxes are a good way to start, and scatter some food around the objects. Sit back and let your dog take his time to work out how to find the food while exploring the objects. Always work at your dog’s pace and don’t force him to get involved if he’s not sure. Some dogs will need a lot more time to decide to interact with the game but this is all about CHOICE so let him decide on his own! If needed, begin with one or two boxes or objects, gradually building up the challenges as his confidence increases.
We can be very creative and set up our own activities for our dogs, but sometimes having ready-made options is essential. Toys like snuffle mats, licki-mats or Kongs are handy to have ready prepared or can be made in a hurry. These engage your dog in calming activities by encouraging sniffing, licking and chewing.
Our dogs often eat the same food every day, even if we use it in enrichment activities, it’s often the same dry kibble. Eating a variety of foods can be enriching in itself. Different textures, tastes and smells will create a new interest for your dog and these can be incorporated in other activities. You could hide some vegetables, fruits or meats in the games you play, or fill an old cupcake tin with a variety of food options. Let your dog choose what he wants to eat and give him time to investigate and taste all the foods on offer. Make sure you choose foods which are safe for dogs though!
Dig it Up
Digging is a typical behaviour which we find wholly inappropriate in our beautiful flower beds or vegetable patches. Yet it’s a wonderfully reinforcing behaviour for many dogs. If you have a dog who loves to dig, why not create a specific dig-area where he can engage appropriately in this activity. A sandpit can be cheap and easy to make, even in a small space, and within this you can hide toys, treats or chews for your dog to find. If you’re worried about just reinforcing digging everywhere then make sure you supervise him and direct all his digging into his sandpit, he will soon learn this is where he can dig and find reinforcing items!
Forget the Food
Enrichment doesn’t always have to be about food. If your dog enjoys toys then create a search game for his favourite toy, or play hide-and-seek with other people in the house.
When you’re on a walk, make a conscious effort to allow him to sniff and take time to encourage this behaviour. Remember sniffing is a calming, tiring activity. If your dog doesn’t do much sniffing then use ‘sprinkles’ to encourage him to sniff during your walk. If you’re concerned about lead walking and don’t want to be dragged from pillar to post in search of sniffs, then work on lead walking but stop frequently and give your dog a clear ‘sniff sniff’ release to encourage him to stop and sniff for a minute or two, perhaps choosing patches of grass or trees where you can use sprinkles of food to reinforce the sniffing.
In summary, enrichment activities are a great way to boost your dog’s confidence, it will give him opportunities to make his own choices, build his tolerance of frustration, and offer an outlet for his natural behaviours and energy.