When we decided to adopt Dory, we understood that training and exercise were going to be part of our daily routine. What we couldn’t have possibly predicted before we were puppy parents was that she would literally (literally!) never get tired. Her energy level was through the roof, and without the right outlets, she was getting herself into more and more trouble.
We knew we were solely responsible for the health and happiness of this creature—and we didn’t have the faintest clue where to start. We never knew tiny teeth could do that much damage, either!
That’s when, with bleary-eyed love and determination, we reached out to a behaviorist and heard a phrase that started us down a brand new path: enrichment. It was like a whole new world was opened for us.
In the book Beyond Squeaky Toys, the authors explain, “the goal of enrichment is to encourage your dog to interact with their environment and to develop and use their natural skills and breed-specific behaviors. Presenting pets with challenges, items to explore and opportunities to solve problems, keeps their lives interesting and enriched.”
We quickly realized something obvious about our wild puppy.
Of course she needs different kinds of stimulus!
Of course she needs the right toys to play with!
Of course she needs to think and learn and problem solve!
It seems like common sense, but we just hadn’t thought of it. And as we later learned, mental challenges will tire a dog more quickly than physical exertion.
Nick White, owner of Off Leash K9 Training, explains this mental/physical connection:
“Again, comparing dogs to people, what tires you more, walking one or two miles or doing complex math problems for one to two hours straight? With the math problems, your head hurts, you feel drained, you just want to put down the books and shut your eyes. That’s how mental stimulation works with dogs, as well. Constant thinking creates a lot of mental stimulation, which tires the entire body.”
When introducing enrichment, there are six defined categories to choose from. Your goal as a pet parent is to find ones that peak your pup’s interest, and then rotate the activities or toys to keep them consistently new and challenging.
How to provide enrichment for your dog
Sensory Enrichment includes anything and everything that stimulates your dog’s senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Think of them playing in the grass, rolling in the dirt, and splashing in water; ultimately, tapping into some of their more basic instincts as dogs.
Swimming pools filled with dirt or leaves for digging, water for splashing and balls for playing, can give your dog a variety of sensory experiences as the seasons pass. This concept also gives you a way to focus your dog’s energy if they are prone to digging in your yard. You can also focus on nose work activities: hiding treats around the house or tossing kibble into your backyard to engage your dog’s sense of smell.
The main goal of enrichment feeding is to make this time challenging, engaging and fun. It’s about putting hunting and foraging skills to use, employing the power of their nose and their brains to get to the good stuff.
You want to increase the time it takes for your pup to eat his food, while encouraging mental stimulation and in many cases, physical activity. Companies now offer activity toys and food puzzles designed specifically to encourage the primal instincts our dogs have — foraging, hunting, and ultimately working for the food they’re receiving.
The great part about feeding enrichment is you can accomplish it without purchasing anything. You can simply walk outside with your dog’s kibble and toss it into the grass – now they’re enjoying the hunt for their food. You can also take that kibble and put it into a closed box (maybe an old cereal box), and now you have a food puzzle for them to solve.
Another good option is taking a muffin tin, turning it upside down and spreading the kibble between the bumps — now your pup will have to nudge the tin around from all different angles to get the food out.
3. Toys and Puzzles
These products, whether purchased or DIY, encourage your dog to chew, nudge, paw, pull or play with them to get a desired result — be it treats, food, a squeak or just the thrill of sinking their teeth into something soft. No matter what type of toy or puzzle your dog has, rest assured that while playing, he is keeping his mind active, stimulated and happy.
Dog toys and puzzles come in all shapes and sizes with different smells, textures, tastes, motions and sounds. No matter what toys appeal most to your pup, the key to using them as enrichment tools is to be sure you rotate them regularly, so he doesn’t get bored of the toy or puzzle.
Adding something new to your dog’s environment can peak curiosity and sometimes increase physical activity. Environmental enrichment can help reduce stress and promote overall health over time. It will also help with behavioral issues they may have, by helping them channel any extra energy or anxieties into exploring their surroundings and satisfying their physical and psychological needs.
Making your pup’s surroundings more interesting really isn’t that hard. It can be something as simple as placing a mirror in the living room or taking them to play on a playground. If you want, you can create a backyard of enrichment by building a ramp in the yard, dabbing some scents (you can do cinnamon, lavender, or other interesting scents) in a few spots, or hiding a few toys in special spots. This will keep them engaged and exploring the yard.
Dogs are social animals who need to spend time interacting with other animals and people. Whether you’re taking them to the dog park, the pet store or just a play date in the back yard, this sort of social enrichment will keep them happier and healthier.
The goal is to provide time regularly for your dog to interact with other dogs, both ones they know and new ones, and other people. (However, some of you pet parents may have shy, nervous, fearful or aggressive dogs, who aren’t so ready for these types of interactions. Always keep in mind your dog’s personal boundaries when introducing any type of enrichment, including social.)
But, for the pups who love meeting new people, and shine bright under the attention of anyone and everyone, there is tons of fun to be had.
Training is an incredible time to bond with your dog, building trust, rapport and some much needed listening skills. Whether you are training the basics or have moved on to trick training, the time spent doing this has great benefits for your dog and your relationship.
There is no limit to what you can teach your dog. All it takes is just a few minutes a day to give them needed mental stimulation and work on their latest skill or trick.
Whether you’re just starting out with basics or you’re working on more advanced tricks, your pup will love the time with you and appreciate the opportunity to use her brain.
With six categories of enrichment you can pick one or pick a few, see what your dog likes and what his temperament can handle. And always remember, your dog wants to think and work and play—give him as many opportunities to do this as possible every day.
About the Author
Dennis O’Donnell is the co-founder of PAW5, a company dedicated to changing the way dogs eat for good with enriching feeders and food puzzles.