Dog enrichment is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. But what exactly is dog enrichment? In this blog I am going to delve in to what I believe dog enrichment is and why it is important in order to have a happy and well balanced dog and also the dangers of the wrong kinds of enrichment.
Dog Enrichment – What is it?
The term enrichment is used to describe endless different activities that you can do with dog. These activities are ones that make use of in built skills in our dogs that they enjoy using. Enrichment is seen a lot in zoo’s where they make wild animals work for their food by hanging it high and hiding it ect so they can display natural behaviours to locate their food.
Many people use enrichment toys such as snuffle mats, licky mats, treat dispensers, chew toys and many more the list truly is limitless. They are designed to make the dogs use their natural behaviours such as sniffing, licking, chewing etc. In short it is believed that when our dogs are able to use natural behaviours they have their needs met and are content. I totally agreed with this, but that there are better methods to do this – more about this later.
This has become increasingly popular to do with our pet dogs, but unfortunately in my opinion is overused and used in the incorrect ways.
The potential pitfalls of dog enrichment done incorrectly.
The problem comes with how people use these toys and tools to distract their dogs from doing unwanted behaviours. For example someone is working from home and the dog is constantly pestering the owner for attention so the enrichment toys are used to occupy the dog. This works fabulously whilst the dog is distracted, however what you often see is that when the dog finishes it is straight back to the owner attention seeking. This usually results in the owner caving in with another toy or treat so they can get on with their work. The dog never just learns to relax and not have to be entertained and actually often results in an overstimulated dog that is over tired. When dogs are over tired they can display behaviours that are often mistaken for hyperactivity so are kept busy resulting in worsened tiredness. The cycle continues.
How do I enrich my dogs?
So straight off the bat all different dog breeds will find different things fulfilling and fun. Look at what they are selectively bred to do and use it to your advantage. Obviously not all dogs with fit their breed “type” but it gives you a good starting place.
I have working cocker spaniels that were born to hunt and a terrier cross cocker who is definitely more terrier. For me enrichment is done when we are out on our walks. My dogs are all complete slobs at home as I have taught them to settle from a young age. (side note, settle is a massively important thing to teach our dogs and is not taught enough)
So when we are out and about I like to keep my dogs engaged with me so they enjoy my company and don’t go looking for fun elsewhere.
Enrichment in the environment
We play lots of hunting games where I hide balls and toys in the grass and find them together. It is important that the dog always finds things near you and where you’ve told them to look. That way your dog starts to pay attention to hunting with you rather than away from you. I also add in a bit of retrieving with my cockers as its something they enjoy. However, rather than toss a ball for hours on end I will drop a ball behind us and continue walking with my dog. This gives us a chance to work on some self control by leaving the ball and walking nicely away and then send them back for it. So if you see your dog getting further and further away from you when walking. Start to do some unpredictable hunting near you. The more you do this the more likely your dog is to stay with you as you know where the fun stuff is.
Of course not all dogs will like hunting for balls. It is finding what your dog enjoys and being involved in that activity with them. My terrier cross loves a game of tug (she’s a star ratter). So if she is beginning to disengage on a walk a quick call back for a spontaneous game of tuggy and she is back with me.
So in summary, yes it is important that we enrich our dogs. But, it is knowing the best times and ways to do this. You don’t need a hundred different enrichment toys. Just a knowledge of what your dog is bred to do and enjoys. Keep the home as a calm space – like your parents used to say “go outside to play”
Dogs are more than capable of settling down for the day and don’t need entertaining 24/7. Remember pups need 18-20hrs down time a day for healthy development. Adults not far behind at 14 hours which will then increase again as they get in to older age. Whilst we are enriching our dogs they are not relaxing. So just bare that in mind the next time your dog is demanding attention or displaying other unwanted behaviours. You may be better teaching them about how to settle instead.