Enrichment for Dogs – Part One: Helping Canines Live in Our Human World 

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One of the most pervasive and serious welfare issues for dogs is under-stimulation. Unfortunately, dogs who might be experiencing boredom at home, often find other ways to expend excess physical and mental energy, such as destroying prized objects, barking, digging, and so on. 

Environmental, or behavioral, enrichment in the form of hunting/seeking games, interactive food toys, playing with other dogs, dog-specific sports activities, and training, harness that energy in productive ways. Plus, it’s just lots of fun to provide and enjoy enrichment activities with your canine bestie! 

Inquisitive Canine Doodle

In this four-part series, we will explore enrichment for dogs, beginning here with getting inquisitive about our canines and looking into fun ways to improve their lives with us. Part Two will offer specific examples and merits of training games and interactive toys. Part Three will examine how enrichment activities can help us work with our dogs and their fundamental needs for digging, chewing, sniffing, and choice. And Part Four will revisit the following list of enrichment essentials and what they mean for you and your inquisitive canine. So, let’s dive in and begin with the fundamentals.

Environmental/behavioral enrichment:

  • Can help manage behaviors. 
  • Can help reduce behavior problems. 
  • Improves dogs’ quality of life.
  • Can strengthen the human-canine bond.
  • Fits into any pet care budget.
    Is a necessary part of a pet’s mental health.
  • Is not something “extra” we provide for our dogs. Enrichment isn’t a luxury as much as it is a necessity. 

Now, with an understanding of what enrichment is (and isn’t) and why it’s important, let’s review some important facts about our inquisitive canines.

Dogs Are Hunters and Scavengers.

Nature. Dog brains evolved to handle the juggling act of:

1) hunting and scavenging for a living and 

2) dealing with the social complexities of running into dogs (and other animals) while hunting and scavenging. 

A lot of domestic life for companion dogs, safe and secure as it is, flies in the face of this genetic evolution. Many dogs have little opportunity to exercise their hunting and scavenging propensities (humans feed them out of bowls) – and are sometimes punished if they try. 

Nurture. Providing enrichment toys can promote confidence and independence. Specifically, plush toys and tug toys allow dogs the chance to engage in the behaviors of chasing, catching and dissecting prey. Though many people find this distasteful, this “software” is already installed in many dogs. And, scavenger hunts, the “shell game,” and interactive food toys like a snuffle mat can provide enrichment activities that focus on the dog’s hunting skills. 

Giving your inquisitive canine a ‘legal’ outlet to release these behaviors increases behavioral wellness, helps your dog feel less anxious, and burns energy. Plus, rules for tug games can be easily established, and even give us the opportunity to build in some impulse control at the same time!

Dogs need both physical AND mental enrichment. Providing activities to keep your inquisitive canine’s brain busy is an important part of letting your dog be a dog. 

Inquisitive Canine - GSP Puppy

Dogs Are Problem-Solvers. 

  • Puzzle toys. Remember, besides scavengers and predators, dogs are problem-solvers. If we don’t give inquisitive canines “problems” to solve, they’ll find their own, whether we like these choices or not. Help direct their problem-solving energy to something productive. For instance, puzzle toys are problem-solving enrichment activities that also help build confidence.
  • Teachable moments. Give dogs the chance to grow and thrive. Another environmental enrichment strategy for dogs is to give inquisitive canines the opportunity to solve problems on their own sometimes. Here’s an example: Let’s say a toy is under a piece of furniture just out of reach. But you can see that if Fido attempts at a different angle or uses his body in a different way, he could reach it. Trust your dog and let him figure it out. Be a cheerleader…from the sideline! (Of course, if your dog isn’t physically able to access something, you’re encouraged to help them out!) 

Constantly hovering, fixing things for our dogs, “doing their homework” for them, and being a “helicopter dog parent” interferes with their own thought processes and problem-solving skills and outlets. Telling dogs what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and then doing it for them doesn’t do either party any good. Yes, being there for them to guide and cheer them on is beneficial. Think, “support system.”

Dogs Are Social Animals.

Our dogs are companion animals, because they’ve been bred to be, which means being around others; they likely prefer the company of people to solitude. Yet some dogs might endure lives of relative solitude from both their human families and from the company of other dogs.

Socialization.

Socialize dogs so they learn to trust people and other dogs — different animals too. This way, they’re not always relying on you for everything fun, interesting, stimulating, and enriching. Teach Fido life skills to help him adapt to our human way of life by practicing social skills with other people and pets. 

It’s important that these social interactions are positive and not scary. We should respect our dogs’ wishes. Do they want to meet and greet and be pet by everyone? Or do they prefer to take things slow and get to know and trust someone before engaging in being pet? Learn to read your dog’s body language and allow them to greet someone at their own pace. (Providing yummy treats can often help with building trust.) 

Pro Tip: A well-socialized dog often has a much more enriched life, being able to do more things and go more places. So, please consult with your force-free trainer if you have any questions about safe socialization or interactions.

Burpees with your bestie.

There’s no substitute for unleashing adventure and harnessing fun with your inquisitive canine. So, if you’re looking to amp up your own workout routine, why not get fit with Fido? Pair up with your dog and become workout buddies. Have your dog do one behavior while you do another. For instance, you do sit-ups, push-ups, or squats while your dog does a sit-stay, down-stay, or puppy-push-up (sit to down to sit to down). Just make sure you both are cleared by your respective medical professionals for your individual exercise programs.

When you can’t be there for your pup.

With guidance, you can condition inquisitive canines to appreciate a little “me time” occasionally. This time might involve happily being on their own with interactive food toys and games, taking a nap or pondering life -awake but lying down, looking out into the world- or exploring in their own backyards, provided it is safe for them to be on their own in the yard. (Much more on interactive toys, games and creating an enriching, safe dog-friendly area outdoors in Parts Two and Three of this series.)

Separation Related Behaviors.

Another note on dogs as social animals. Especially during times of year like end of summer, or beginning of the new year, with transitions such as back- to -school or heading back into the office after working from home, some pet parents are concerned that their pets might experience separation anxiety. Fortunately, not every pup that struggles to see the value of “me time” is truly, clinically suffering from separation anxiety. For those who are, the safest, best approach is to consult with someone who specializes in this area of dog behavior, including a certified separation anxiety trainer. 

But any pup can get a bit stressed at times if no one’s home or no one’s paying attention to his needs. The good news is that management, including some thoughtful environmental enrichment, can help shape confident, independent puppies and dogs. For instance, if your dog gets bored and doesn’t like being left alone at bedtime, providing an enriching (but not overstimulating for nighttime) environment for him can help. Also, working on enjoying enrichment activities while alone for brief periods during the day, should help being alone at night get a little easier too. 

Sleeping golden retriever puppy outdoors

Dogs Are Individuals.

Although there are certain species-specific tendencies to consider when thinking about canine enrichment, it’s equally important to remember that every dog is different. Treat your dog as a unique individual, providing for their likes and understanding their dislikes. Yes – just like humans, they have their preferences too! 

So, when it comes to energy outlets and enrichment, work with your pup’s age, breed tendencies, and personal preferences. Adolescent dogs, for example, typically have a lot of energy! Encouraging them to entertain themselves when and where it is safe, increasing free dog interaction (playing with other dogs as long as all parties involved have adequate social and play skills), and practicing safe, positive interactions with other people can help teach them to rely on their own ability to make good choices.

To sum up, as inquisitive pet guardians, when we dig deeper and look for the underlying need beneath a dog’s behavior, we can usually find solutions that are mutually beneficial to us and to our canine pals, often in the form of enrichment activities. Mental stimulation can help build self-confidence and redirect hunting and problem-solving energy in a way that is safe for inquisitive canines and your possessions!

Coming up in Part Two…

We will continue to explore how enrichment activities can focus your dog’s energy in productive ways, with a special focus on training games, and discover how to encourage inquisitive canines to entertain themselves with interactive food toys.

Until then, here’s to pawsitively enriching adventures with your inquisitive canine!