It’s hard to enter a dog shelter without feeling your heart compress just a little bit. It’s almost impossible not to see boredom and sadness in these pets looking for their fur-ever home, stuck in kennels with nothing to do but wait.
What you can’t see when you walk into that shelter is that dogs available for adoption are the lucky ones.
Many dog shelters don’t exist just to match adoptable pets to guardians; they also serve as a landing place for dogs stuck in legal limbo. Some dogs arrive for evaluation after a bite incident. Others are victims of tragic accidents, custody battles and cruelty. Legally, these dogs must be separated from humans by a barrier at all times.
The public and most shelter volunteers will never interact with them, and even staff is not allowed to walk with or snuggle them. They can only be provided with the bare minimum: food, clean kennels, toys and bedding.
For dogs, who live almost entirely in the present moment, these legal constraints amount to a form of torture. Can you imagine a world in which your dog couldn’t go outside or be pet?
When Mik Moeller left the San Francisco SPCA for his new position as Canine Welfare Specialist at the Arizona Humane Society, he was tasked with the Sisyphean goal of changing the lives of these canine prisoners, the shelter’s most vulnerable wards.
“I needed to come up with something for these kind of dogs that can’t get out,” Moeller says, describing one of many cases in which a recent group of dogs pulled from a hoarding situation spent six months at the Arizona Humane Society while their case was in court. The answer was enrichment – stimulation that he and other staff members could provide to the dogs without being in physical contact with them.
Enrichment is anything that engages a dog’s senses. It’s scent and taste, sound and activity. It challenges your dog’s brain, relieving stress and boredom. Training can be enrichment. So can walks and play. Even eating is enriching but, says Moeller, “it’s not enrichment if it’s the same thing every day.” Without variation, the dog becomes habituated to the activity. Things like walks are beneficial but because they happen daily, it is not challenging. Novelty is the key to enrichment.
Moeller found a new calling in creating enrichment for the dogs at the Arizona Humane Society. “Everything I look at now and I’m like ‘that could be enrichment,’” he says, and he means it. Plastic bottles, clothes pins, kleenex boxes, toilet paper rolls – the recycling bin is a regular treasure trove of enrichment materials.
Moeller’s motto? “Low cost enrichment with high end results.”
Some of the easiest enrichment involves challenging a dog to eat a meal or a snack. Tuck treats in to a toilet paper roll and fold the edges. Punch a dozen kibble-sized holes in a plastic bottle and fill it. Wrap a bullystick in tightly knotted rags.
Snuffle mats, says Moeller, are another good option. At the Arizona Humane Society they make their own, weaving rags in to sink mats with drainage holes to create a tiny cloth garden growing around kibble or treats sprinkled at the roots.
Freezing moist or mushy foods can also provide all kinds of unexpected fun. Freezing disks of wet dog food, pumpkin, chicken and rice (or anything else doggy friendly that freezes well) in a household object (frisbee, muffin tin, etc.) gives you hockey pucks of different sizes and shapes that slip and slide around when a dog tries to eat them.
Anything that hangs – from a single point or strung across a “laundry line” – are his favorites. Plastic bottles containing kibble or treats that the dog has to nose in order to flip around and drop pieces from the neck, for example, or frozen disks of pumpkin strung across a line like a candy necklace.
Some of Moeller’s most creative constructions require a bit more elbow grease and many of his colleagues have gotten in on the enrichment game. He describes a pulley system they are in the process of rigging that will fling a stuffed toy around the kennel for a dog to chase using levers outside the kennel.
This invention isn’t just for staff and volunteers; it could engage the public the public, allowing them to play with the shelter dogs without ever setting foot inside their kennels. No special training needed.
Another favorite comes straight from a kiddie playground: the ball jump. Moeller fills a kiddie pool with a mix of lightweight plastic balls and treats. The lucky dog must use their whole body to dig through the balls to find the delicious bits hidden within.
Food is the most versatile enrichment option far from the only one. If you’ve ever walked your dog in an unfamiliar location, you’ve noticed how much effort they’ve put into sniffing out their route. Scent is one of the most powerful senses a dog has and one that provides essential mental stimulation.
A number of companies bottle scent for a variety of indoor and outdoor purposes. Essential oils of lavender and chamomile may have a calming effect for some dogs if sprayed on their favorite sleeping spots and food scents like vanilla or cinnamon can peak a dog’s curiosity. At the Arizona Humane Society, the staff infuses toys for the shelter dogs with a different scent daily by shaking them up in a big plastic bag with spices or sprays.
Try pouring a scented bubble solution (purchased or homemade) into a small battery operated bubble machine to encourage physical along with mental stimulation. For a real treat, the internet offers wild animal scents like quail, pheasant, bear.
Sound and sights are also enriching but, remember, not if they’re the same ones your dog sees and hears every day. With sounds, consider sounds of the forest or sounds of the sea. Symphonic music, particularly piano, has been shown to have a calming effect on some dogs. For visuals, look into DVDs and digital media made just for dogs such as Dog TV, both a satellite TV channel and a YouTube channel.
Moeller is a superhero to the dogs at the Arizona Humane Society. His work returns the color to their otherwise gray lives (well, at least blue and yellow—the colors dogs can see). Dogs in loving homes don’t face the same challenges as those in the shelter but they, too, can benefit from enrichment.
“A lot of enrichment is for when a dog is home alone,” says Moeller. “A backyard is not enough. Dog’s don’t exercise themselves. It has to be something interactive and challenging. They love the challenge.”
It doesn’t take a lot of money or time to enhance your dog’s life. A little novelty goes a long way.
Hero image: Mik Moeller/Arizona Humane Society