Dogs lead very different lives than the wolves that snuck close to our fires and fed off our scraps in prehistoric times. There are now more pampered pooches ruling the couch while we go out to work every day to keep kibble in their bowls than the working companions of old.
When discussing dogs, I hate the phrase “in the wild” because there has never been such a thing as a wild Bichon Frise. Still, I believe that some natural behaviours should be encouraged in our pets to add some fun and mental stimulation to their lives.
This is where “enrichment” comes in—it offers an outlet for your dog to do the kinds of things its genes and ancient ancestors would like it to do. Enrichment activities come in all shapes, sizes and levels of difficulty. This “Enrichment 101” series of posts aims to give you a comprehensive overview of the basics, top tips for starting, and why they’ll add a bit more engagement to your dog’s life. Best of all, if you are having any problems with your dog like problem chewing or separation anxiety, a bit of enrichment can go a long way towards solving them.
But what is enrichment?
Enrichment activities encourage dogs to mimic natural behaviours performed (ugh, here we go) in the wild. These include: digging, problem-solving, searching for food, snuffling new sniffs, hunting and interacting with their environments. A wild dog’s day is very industrious (when it’s not spending its necessary twelve hours asleep).
In contrast, Bing does not spend his remaining twelve hours doing the required activities for survival. The closest he comes to hunting for food is lurking around the kitchen. This can lead to boredom and problem behaviours—window-barking, resource guarding, chewing, separation anxiety and reactivity.
Enrichment aims to give our dogs the correct physical and mental stimulation levels to lead happy and fulfilling lives. It comes in many forms, and the deeper you dive into it, the more interesting it can get.
Yes, this is very basic but walking your dog appropriately is the most accessible form of enrichment you can give them.
With Bing and Gunther, we do a combination of “sniffy walks” where they can stroll along at their own pace and “structured walks” where we require more obedience from them. It never ceases to amaze me just how few dogs are walked daily. If you do walk your dog daily, consider bringing them on slightly different routes every day, the variety and new sniffs increase mental stimulation.
If you have a reactive, aggressive, or nervous dog, walks are probably really stressful for both of you. Try to get to a low-density environment at a low traffic time to give your dog some time to stretch their legs and engage with their surroundings. Also, working with a trainer can help redirect these reactive behaviours and make casual walks more of an option in the future.
Physical Enrichment is not limited to walks, though. Frisbee, fetch, agility, fastCAT, dock diving, and mantrailing all incorporate a considerable amount of learning, bonding and natural behaviours in our dogs—as well as a serious amount of running around.
I love dogs with jobs. They always look thrilled to be at work. A good example is Milo, a scent detection dog who just helped with one of the biggest drug busts in US history.
All dogs were bred for a purpose—yes, even lap dogs and toy breeds. When buying or adopting a pup, research the breed and their purpose, so you have an idea of what they will need to be “genetically fulfilled”. For example, huskies were bred to pull sleds and run far, so they are tricky to leash train and have the tenacity to keep running despite adversity. Gunther, a Malinois, is a multi-purpose farm dog bred to guard the farm and herd and defend livestock. He has strong protective instincts, a natural suspicion of strange things, a high prey drive and is highly intelligent and energetic. (We love him, but oh god, is he a lot.)
Occupational enrichment taps into that “working mode” that all of our dogs have and comes in the form of puzzle toys, feeders, and training. Basic obedience is a great start for all dogs. It isn’t something you do once in puppy class and then have for life; it has to be maintained to stay at a high standard.
If you have a highly intelligent breed, general obedience almost always becomes trick training. You’re not limited to shakes, downs, and stays. You can teach most dogs to spin, roll over, play dead and even jump through your arms like a hoop. This kind of training is a great way to keep kids and dogs entertained and is entirely free, with tons of resources on Youtube to get started.
Sensory enrichment encourages dogs to use their natural senses to discover the world around them. Smell is the big sense that we don’t ask our pets to use as much as they can despite how good their noses are.
Snuffle mats and playing “hide and seek” with treats around the house are two easy ways to encourage your dogs to use their nose. It works particularly well with spaniels and hound breeds, who were originally bred to, you guessed it, track things down by scent.
Bringing your dogs to a new environment on walks is another way to get more sensory enrichment into their lives. I also love the beach, as not only is it wide open with lots of space and minimal wildlife for Bing to chase, but it also has lots of novel smells, and it’s an opportunity for the dogs to dig if they want to. (Problem-digging in gardens is a tough behavioural problem to solve, but giving an appropriate outlet can help.)
Digging also relates to the sense of touch. Which you can also stimulate at home with lick mats or grooming. Licking releases endorphins—in the veterinary world, we often see obsessive licking in dogs with anxiety or that are in pain. By providing a textured surface with something yummy smeared on it, you can encourage your dog to get these endorphins without any discomfort Result? A very chilled-out puppy.
Grooming is something that some breeds require, some just enjoy, and some dogs hate it. Now that he’s maturing, Gunther has started to enjoy being brushed. On the other hand, Bing would rather I didn’t go near him with a brush of any description.
If you’ve never groomed your dog before, take it slow and desensitise them to the brush first. Grooming is also a lovely way to bond with your dog, which gives us another form of enrichment—social enrichment.
Some people may find this divisive but, and I’m serious:
Our pets all have personalities, and, like us, not all of them want to play with others. Social enrichment is about listening to your dog’s needs and fulfilling them as they require. For example, Gunther LOVES other dogs, but he gets overstimulated by them and doesn’t notice if they’re sick of playing with him. This is overwhelming for most pups, so we keep him away until he can be trusted to play politely. We have some dog friends, but every interaction is carried out in a controlled setting.
Bing, however, is ambivalent towards other dogs; he’ll say hi but doesn’t want to interact much. (Unless they’re a lovely leggy lady.)
Both of our dogs, though, THRIVE on human engagement.
Social enrichment is about your dog interacting with you, other dogs, if suitable and possibly other species. Bing loves to curl up with Fred the cat even though they don’t speak the same language.
Almost every enrichment activity we’ve talked about involves some level of engaging with your dog, so you can tick the social enrichment box by just incorporating some fun enrichment activities into your dog’s day.
Nutritional enrichment involves what you feed your dog and how you feed your dog. It’s the most straightforward starting point for enrichment newbies.
Feeding toys like Kongs slow down eating and require your dog to more than just hoover up their food out of a bowl. You can level up your nutritional enrichment game by adding new fruits and vegetables into your dog’s diet. Just make sure they aren’t poisonous. Check this list and let your dog experience new tastes, smells and textures.
If your dog has an overly sensitive tummy or gets a bit itchy after eating different foods, consult your vet before adding too much variety. Still, even softening their kibble with water and then freezing it will add some enrichment to an everyday meal. I’ll be doing more posts on nutritional enrichment both here and on our Instagram to give you an idea of the different things we offer the boys to try every day.
I know this is a long post to start the blog, but it covers the fundamentals of what we’re exploring with Enrichment 101. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, give it a share or refer friends who are looking for some extra fun activities to do with their dogs. We’ll be back next week with specifics on how to get started.
All the love and snoot-boops,
Hannah, Harry, Bing, Gunther and Fred
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