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Enrichment for Dogs – Part Three: Digging, Chewing, Sniffing and Choice

A quick recap. In Enrichment for Dogs – Part One: Helping Canines Live in Our Human World, we examined why under-stimulation is a pervasive and serious welfare issue for dogs and how environmental enrichment can improve the well-being of our canine pals. Part Two: Training Games and Interactive Food Toys looks at force-free training as behavioral enrichment and describes how getting creative with puzzle-like toys can keep a pup occupied and stimulated doing what many dogs do very well, solving a problem to get food.

border terrier food toy

Based on that foundation, let’s take a closer look at some common doggy behaviors that many guardians find problematic: digging, chewing, and sniffing (i.e., every tree and hydrant for minutes on end while out for a walk.) By now, you might be starting to put it all together and think, “Maybe my dog isn’t misbehaving. Perhaps these activities are simply highly enriching, rewarding, and reinforcing. How can I redirect Fido to a behavior that’s more acceptable to us both?” In this post, we’ll answer that question, as well as look at one more enrichment strategy – giving dogs choices.

Inquisitive Canine Nelli Chew Bone

Chewing is Enriching!

Chewing is a very natural behavior for dogs. Luckily, there are now many chew toy options on the market, from synthetics like nylon bones to organics such as bully sticks, raw or smoked bones and antlers. Chew bones are great; just make sure that they are safe and don’t cause tooth problems. Speak to your veterinarian to find out which are safe for your dog, and then explore which textures, shapes and tastes your inquisitive canine most likes. 

Two products I love and refer clients to – and my own dog as well- are the Earth Animal No Hide chews and Sam’s Yams  (especially good for a lower in calorie option). 

Or you might choose to make your own sweet potato chews. It’s easy! All you need is an oven (set on dehydrate) or an actual dehydrator: Cut potato into wedges, lay on a cookie tray, bake on low/dehydrate setting until desired texture (approximately 14-16 hours, depending on oven strength and size of potato pieces). 

And while we’re on the topic of choosing…

Choice is Enriching!

Give dogs choices. As humans, we gain confidence through life experiences. We learn from them and grow. Being allowed to make decisions and have control over our own choices is what helps us to develop confidence. Even though dogs aren’t human, they are sentient beings, with emotions and a zest for life. Based on this, I would say that giving dogs opportunities to make decisions and have control over outcomes will help them. 

If you are constantly giving directions, telling your dog what to do, when to do it, how to do it, then they will always rely on you for instructions. Instead, help teach them to rely on their own ability to make good choices, rather than depending on you to do the thinking for them. 

Allow dogs to learn on their own. Unleash adventure! Encourage exploration (as long as it’s safe for them and others). Consider “hunting” games or sports that allow them to be dogs — meaning, the types of activities where humans aren’t telling them what to do all the time (see below). 

Ultimately, while it’s great when dogs “check in” with us, it’s also nice to see them being independent, showing us that they know how to make these life choices. 

Dogs Enjoy Digging

Digging is Enriching!

If your dog is a digger, to set everyone up for success, you can decide if you want to give Fluffy a legal outlet for this innate behavior, or completely redirect her to an alternate behavior. Here are some ideas for both of those scenarios:

  • Digging Pit. Provide your inquisitive canine access to “legal” digging areas if possible. Creating a distinct digging pit can help redirect your dog’s energy to specified, allowable areas. Trust me, if she has the urge to dig, providing the time and place for her to do it will make you all happy! Intentional digging pits provide enrichment and a place pups can bury their own treasures. Next thing you know, Fluffy will be too busy digging through her own treasure chest to care about digging in other areas! 
  • Redirect. If you suspect your inquisitive canine is bored and the digging adventures have more to do with a way of entertaining herself, then you will want to spend time teaching your dog what you want. If offering a legal outlet for digging isn’t possible, it’s up to us to teach our puppies and dogs what we would prefer them to do instead of tearing up the garden. Steps guardians can take to help redirect their dog’s digging energy include providing other types of mental and physical enrichment such as interactive food toys (see previous post in this series) and scent games (see below).  
  • Provide Acceptable Alternatives – Lots of ‘em. Take measures to create a positive association with the outdoor space so dogs learn to love it. Make your yard like their own private amusement park — scavenger hunts, puzzle toys, a digging pit in a safe area, shallow water features they can splash in without drowning themselves (be sure to check on them frequently!). Choosing these -acceptable to you- options will be fun and rewarding for your dog. And, since behaviors that are reinforced are repeated, you’ll soon be seeing more of the behavior you want and less of the behavior you don’t want. 
  • Go for a R-I-D-E. Consider taking your inquisitive canine to areas outside of your home where he or she would be allowed to dig. If your dog loves car rides, that’s two enrichment activities!
  • Dig Deeper. If destructive digging is a result of your inquisitive canine not being able to cope with being left alone, then that’s a completely different scenario. This isolation distress needs to be addressed first, as the digging is more of a symptom and a stress signal. If you’re concerned that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, contact us for additional evaluation and guidance regarding certified separation anxiety services. 

 

  • Scent Games. For dogs who like to watch ‘gopher TV’ and dig for critters, scent games and scavenger hunts are excellent options. Fun and simple scent training or nose work games that pet parents can try at home are particularly effective for dogs since they are so mentally engaging. Pups will be too busy playing their own games to care about digging! Read on for details.
K9 Nose Work Eskimo Dog

Sniffing is Enriching!

Have you ever stopped to notice just how enthusiastic dogs are when they are using their noses? In fact, the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than that part of a human’s brain!

Often the human world doesn’t allow dogs a chance to sniff for as long or as thoroughly as they might like. You can bump up your dog’s mental—and by extension, physical—health with some easy interventions, like the following:

  • Gamification options. Put your dog’s nose to work by “scatter feeding” him. Hide kibble and treats throughout the house, throw it in the grass in the yard, or put it under one of several boxes.

 

  • Sniffari. Don’t forget the value of simply letting your inquisitive canine sniff on walks. Dogs love going on “sniffari”- checking out the neighborhood with their noses. Bushes, lampposts, mailboxes and meeting other dogs are vital ways for dogs to enjoy their “dogness.” Allowing dogs the chance to explore the world with their powerful olfactory sense is one of the most enriching activities we can provide. Without overwhelming him, think about how you can increase the number of novel sights, sounds and smells Fido is exposed to every day.

 

  • K9 Nose Work®. If you are looking to integrate everything we’ve discussed in this enrichment series so far: working with your dog’s natural instincts, building confidence and independence, deepening your bond by enjoying fun activities together, letting dogs be dogs, allowing the freedom to problem-solve, encouraging dogs to utilize their powerful sense of smell, gamification, and giving dogs choices, then look no further than K9 Nose Work.

In K9 Nose Work classes, dogs learn how to search for a specific odor or odors and find the source. It is a sport that is based on your dog’s natural instinct to hunt and sniff out prey. This fun activity will benefit your dog by building his confidence while exercising his mind and body. You will enjoy watching your dog work and it will deepen the bond between you, even if you do not do it competitively. 

Pet parents whose dogs are wild with energy and have a hard time focusing, often note that these dogs tend to be more relaxed after the introduction of Nose Work to their routine. The self-directed nature of this activity requires them to focus on a single (extremely enjoyable) job, helping their brains get better at completing a task without their guardians’ instruction and management. Nose Work, herding, and tracking encourage dogs to use their doggy skills. We are there to give them a ride and make sure they don’t get injured (and marvel at how amazing dogs can be).

To get the maximum brain and bonding benefits of scent training in class, allow your dog to pull you to the start-line, as you want an enthusiastic dog who is going to utilize their skills. Once you give the cue to “search,” allow the dog to do their job. Give them the freedom to hunt and problem-solve. Avoid giving them directions and telling them what to do (after the initial cue is given). This is their environment. Again, we’re just there to keep them safe. 

Hopefully these tips and ideas provide some inspiration and a clear answer to the question posed at the beginning of the post, “How can I redirect Fido to a behavior that’s more acceptable to us both?” In short, the answer is fun and games!

Coming up in Part Four…

We will wrap up this blog series by reviewing how incorporating strategic enrichment into our dogs’ lives improves their welfare and can prevent some common problems pet parents face, thereby strengthening the human-canine relationship.

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