What is canine enrichment?
The short answer: Enrichment is any activity your dog finds innately satisfying.
The longer answer: 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.
Today, Drago and I went hiking in Busiek National Forest. On our hike, Drago encountered many different types of environments and terrain: soil – both dirt and mud; rocks – small and large enough to jump up on; grass – short as well as long and whispy; perforated, metal steps on a bridge; water – puddles as well as a running current in the river, etc. We met several other hikers with dogs – polite introductions and inspections were made by all dogs, providing each with a beavy of information about the other. And the smells, just imagine! Talk about a target rich environment for canine enrichment!
Why do our 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.
So let’s think of all the things our dogs love to do—playing, chasing, fetching, digging, sniffing, chewing, licking, just to name a few. All of these behaviors are so satisfying for dogs because they are natural to their species. Engaging in these behaviors on a regular basis is not only normal, but essential to our dogs’ physical and emotional wellbeing.
Unfortunately, modern living, and city living especially, doesn’t always allow our dogs to be dogs. So they often resort to choosing their own enrichment activities by dipping in to your shoe collection or appropriating the leg of your dining room table.
To help prevent problem behaviors and give our dogs healthy outlets for their needs, we have to think proactively about ways to enrich their environment and increase their mental stimulation. Whoever said “a tired dog is a good dog” forgot to mention that mental exercise is just as important as physical. A tired dog might be good dog, but a mentally stimulated dog is a happy dog!
How can you enrich your dog’s life, starting today?
LET THEM SNIFF
Dogs see the world and gather information with their noses. Sniffing is an immensely stimulating and calming activity, and can be especially helpful for fearful, reactive, or overexcited dogs. On your next walk, resist the urge to pull your dog along and instead take them on a nice sniff-fari! Even if you don’t get very far, your dog will get far more out of their walk by indulging in as much sniffing as they want.
DISCOVER NEW PLACES
Instead of the same old, same old walk around the block, take your dog somewhere new. New places = new scents and new scents = mental stimulation. Your dog will be twice as tired and happy when they get home, even if you just explored a new street in your neighborhood.
TAKE YOUR DOG ON A HIKE
Unstructured walks in nature where your dog is free to sniff and explore aren’t only stimulating, they are decompressing and stress relieving. Consider using a back clipping harness with a long leash if your dog doesn’t have a reliable recall. If you can’t find a trail, try a beach, or a park, or any green space near you!
LET THEM BE DOGS!
When we allow plenty of opportunities for our dogs to be dogs—to engage in behaviors natural and necessary for their species—we are providing them with life improving mental stimulation. Think of enrichment as something no less necessary for your dog than exercise, good nutrition, and medical care.
Keeping our dogs mentally stimulated helps prevent boredom and problem behaviors, decreases stress, and builds confidence. Most importantly, enriched dogs are happy dogs!