Canine or dog enrichment is a term that you’ll often see when reading about dog training, pet health and wellness or behavioral issues such as separation anxiety. Enrichment is a good and necessary thing for all living animals, especially those in a captive environment such as a zoo, shelter or home.
What Is Canine Enrichment?
According to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative, enrichment is defined as anything that modifies an animal’s environment to encourage physical activity and mimic behaviors that animal would do in the wild to satisfy their physical and mental needs—think hunting for cats or fetching or foraging for dogs. In order for animal enrichment to be effective, it must be done in a way that doesn’t cause any stress or anxiety.
Why Do Dogs Need Enrichment?
Dogs need enrichment to reduce stress, give them some control over their environment, and keep them occupied in constructive, non-destructive ways. When you encourage species- and breed-specific behaviors with dog enrichment toys or other activities, your dog can satisfy their need for mental and physical stimulation in appropriate ways that will promote good health and well-being. Enrichment activities can also help to promote the human-canine bond and make them a more congenial companion and housemate.
How Do You Mentally Stimulate a Dog?
Enrichment techniques fall into the general categories of nutritional, sensory, social, physical and occupational:
Nutritional (Food-Based) Stimulation
This is an easy-to-implement enrichment technique, and can be used by itself or in conjunction with the other categories. Most dogs love their grub, and you can use items such as stuffed Kongs or food puzzles to keep them occupied. Instead of feeding your dog his entire kibble allotment in one dish, you can toss or hide the pieces around the house, which will encourage them to more actively forage for food.
Depending on the breed/mix, your dog may respond best to specific types of sensory stimulation. For example, Beagles may enjoy scent work like playing “find the kibble,” whereas sighthounds like Whippets would be more engaged with Frisbee competitions. Take your dog on regular walks where they get to sniff around and investigate their environment at leisure is a great, inexpensive way to stimulate all of their senses.
Note that not all dogs will enjoy breed-stereotypical activities, or be physically fit enough to participate without injury. Keep your pet’s personality, age and infirmities in mind when deciding on enrichment activities. Older dogs may enjoy a cozy bed by a window where they can keep themselves entertained by watching the world go by; if you don’t have a window with a good view, try dog-specific subscription programming, YouTube videos or even classical music.
Another easy way to keep your dog’s senses engaged is to rotate toys. Keep only a few toys “active” for a given period of time, then exchange them for toys that have been in storage for a while. DIY dog toys are also a good way to keep things fresh.
This category can be a bit tricky, as it depends on both your dog’s temperament and the type of socialization available. Not all dogs enjoy the company of other dogs, and not all dogs enjoy the company of people other than their immediate family. If you do have a dog that isn’t leash reactive, long walks where they can interact with new people and/or other dogs is a great way to exercise both body and mind.
Doggy daycare is also an option, but do your research on the venue to make sure they have size and activity groups suitable for your dog, and be realistic about how your dog is likely to handle playgroups and daycare.
Some dogs need more physical activity than others to keep them mentally well-balanced. The need for physical activity isn’t necessarily breed-specific, though some breeds have naturally higher exercise needs. Puppies of all breeds are also very active, part of it is their natural youthful energy, and part of it is them figuring how to use their bodies and learn about their surroundings.
If you’d like to keep your dogs physically active as part of their overall enrichment, factor in build, age and any medical issues before choosing an activity. Some dogs thrive on agility courses, while others live for dock diving or extended sessions of fetch. Start out with things that you know your dog likes to do, and branch out into other activities as time and budget allows.
Closely tied to physical activity is occupational enrichment. Working dogs such as Kelpies, Border Collies, or shepherds can be great companions, but they’re generally much happier when they’re actively employed doing what they are bred to do. If you can’t provide a herd of sheep for your Border Collie to round up, you can still teach him to respond to whistles or other cues. Terriers, like Jack Russells, are known for their keen hunting ability, so try something like organized barn hunting. You can also set up something similar in your own home or yard (use scented items in aerated containers to approximate the experience).
DIY Dog Enrichment Toys
Canine enrichment doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of ways to provide enrichment using common household items such as boxes (good for hiding treats), repurposed food containers (to hold scented items for hide-and-seek), chairs and ottomans (for impromptu agility courses), and even blocks of ice with toys or treats frozen inside (to keep your dog cool and occupied in hot weather). You’ll want to make sure that all of your enrichment equipment is non-toxic and not likely to be accidentally ingested.
Be aware of any resource guarding issues as well. If, for example, your dog views an old Kong as a high-value resource, you may run into an increased bite risk situation if he has been overstimulated by a game and you try to take the Kong away from him. It’s a good idea to teach your dog a solid “drop it” cue or how to exchange one item for another of higher value. Always pay attention to your dog’s body language when playing games, and stop the activity if he’s getting too rambunctious.
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A graduate of The University of Chicago, Melanie worked in academia and finance for many years before joining the companion animal community. She believes that a good education fosters compassion, informed advocacy, and a deeper understanding of animals as they really are. She is passionate about effective communication, and in addition to her freelance writing and editing gigs she has a burgeoning career as an instructional designer. Melanie lives in Chicago with her overlords—a flock of super-smart companion parrots and a Chi-Puggle mix named Hattie.