If you have a dog in your life chances are you have heard the phrase “canine enrichment” at some point over the last few months. Maybe enrichment is already a part of your routine or maybe you are interested in finding out more. You may have a new puppy or rescue dog, a teenaged hooligan or an older dog who would benefit from some new tricks; so what is the buzz all about?
There are a few different definitions of the word enrichment but perhaps my favourite is “the act or process of improving the quality or power of something by adding something else”. In terms of our dogs enrichment is purely and simply about making their lives more interesting. For different dogs that will mean different things as just like us humans, dogs have their own preferences. Enrichment broadly fits into a few different categories; feeding, sensory, social and environmental.
The benefits of using enrichment are huge; not only will you get to spend hours being entertained by your dog’s antics your dog will be happier and they are also likely to be calmer in all areas of their lives. A happy, tired dog after enrichment is much less likely to get into trouble or be reactive to the environment. Introducing enrichment activities is a great way to increase confidence in nervous dogs and helps to build an even stronger partnership between human and canine. Dogs that frequently experience enrichment have been observed to be faster learners, more resilient and in older dogs enrichment is thought to slow cognitive decline. Enrichment is fantastic for dogs on reduced exercise such as after surgery or arthritic dogs as it provides an outlet for the energy they may not be burning off on their more limited walks.
Feeding enrichment is all about presenting your dog’s normal food in different ways. The simplest thing you could start with is scatter feeding where you spread your dog’s food over the floor, in the garden or a snuffle mat; this allows your dog to use their powerful sense of smell to locate the food and is highly rewarding; one study even shows that allowing dogs to forage for their food makes them more optimistic. There are many food puzzles with both DIY and shop bought options that you can use to provide food based enrichment. Stuffable toys such as kongs are a firm favourite with many dogs.
Sensory enrichment is about stimulating your dog’s senses. Can you provide a tasting plate of small samples of different foods, bring home items for your dog to smell such as leaves in autumn (or my dogs particularly enjoyed the day I came home after a meerkat encounter), play music or sing to your dog, provide new objects for them to investigate different textures and sights. Most important in this category though is the sniffari. How many times have you had to stand still as your dog insists on spending what feels like hours sniffing one blade of grass? Dogs really do experience the world through their noses and the sniffari allows them to do this. Take your dog out but instead of taking your normal route allow them to choose their direction and give them the opportunity to sniff for as long as they like. You might not cover as much distance but you will be astounded by how much your dog will enjoy the sniffari and how deeply they will sleep after.
Social enrichment is about providing opportunities for your dog to interact with other individuals. This could be going out for a play date with a doggie friend, visiting human family or friends or interacting with you without the distraction of the TV or phones. I would also place training or dog sports activities such as agility, hoopers, canicross etc in this category.
Environmental enrichment encompasses anything you can add to make your dog’s environment more interesting. Many dogs love to dig and providing a specific digging area in your garden such as a sand pit allows your dog to experience the joy of being allowed to do one of their favourite things without your lawn suffering. My own dogs really enjoy visiting new places for walks and over the last 22 months we have walked in over 140 different locations. On a normal walk interacting differently with the environment by encouraging climbing on, going round or under objects can stimulate new interest. You might have a water baby in which case a paddling pool, a fun and fitness hydrotherapy session or a trip to the beach may be particularly appreciated. Hiding food/toys/scented items in the environment and allowing your dog to search them out is a fantastic enrichment activity.
The key with whatever enrichment you provide for your dog is to introduce it in a way that lets your dog win right from the start – don’t be tempted to make things too difficult too quickly and always be there to supervise and give help if needed. If one activity doesn’t appeal to your dog move on and try something they do like.
Enrichment isn’t about feeding more food, walking longer durations, buying loads of new toys or spending hours on coming up with new ideas each day. Enrichment doesn’t have to be lengthy in duration and doesn’t need to be difficult or challenge the dog. Enrichment is about using their normal food in more interesting ways, letting them use their natural abilities, providing opportunities to explore and spending quality time together. Most importantly we need to remember that the dog is the one who decides what is and what isn’t enriching for them.
There is a wealth of information about enrichment available; if you are interested in finding out more a great starting point is our friendly free dog training community group where Fun Filled Friday brings you a new idea each week and the Canine Enrichment group run by Shay Kelly.