All dog owners know (or at least should know), that part of being a good dog owner is ensuring your dog gets enough exercise and mental stimulation to prevent any ill health or boredom. But many have no idea what this is beyond a walk, trip to the dog run, and playing fetch or tug.
We live busy lives and as a result many of us end up away from home for long periods of time. If you were left in a house alone without much entertainment or tasks to keep you busy, you’d get bored very quickly. Our dogs are no different. Boredom can lead to destructive behaviour and in some cases, separation anxiety.
Luckily we are quickly gaining more and more knowledge on how to keep our dogs enriched both while we are with them and when they are left alone. This is primarily thanks to the increased studies in behavioural science. So, what can you do as a good dog owner to improve enrichment?
Enrichment can be split into 5 different categories: social, cognitive, physical, sensory, feeding enrichment.
Dogs are sociable animals, as such it is important that we give our dogs the opportunity to take part in social enrichment. This gives your dog the chance to interact with new people, animals, dogs and environments. These activities are designed to provide your dog with an environment with lots of new smells, people and potentially other dogs. This doesn’t need to be every day, but a few times a week will give your dog something to look forward to.
Some examples of this are:
Trips and walks to different places. Like us, dogs don’t just want to do the same thing every day. They want to see more of the world and explore. Taking your dog out to nature trails, different parks or the beach is a great way of changing the monotony of any dog’s life.
Dog play dates or doggy day care. My three dogs have a small group of other dogs that live in our area. They love to play with them. We regularly get together in the park to provide the doggy play date. There are many companies providing doggy day care. These can be a great way to enrich your dog. However, I would urge caution. Ensure that the company and staff are well trained in caring for dogs and understand dog behaviour.
Running errands with you. If you have to go to the ATM, a pet friendly shop or meeting someone in a pet friendly café or bar, if you don’t plan on being out for many hours at a time, consider bringing your dog along.
Problem solving exercises are great fun for dogs. Mental enrichment of your dog is paramount for a long and healthy life. Cognitive exercises and toys are a great way of doing this.
Some examples of this are:
Puzzle toys are an easy way to keep your dog entertained. And since they’re interactive, they’ll keep your dog focused on a specific task, giving them plenty of mental stimulation. It is worth noting that these can build confidence in your dog and reduce the chance of many behavioural problems. There are many puzzle toys on the market and like us, different dogs like different games.
Hide and seek. Ask your dog to stay (or have someone hold them if you haven’t mastered the stay), and then run and hide before calling them. This game also builds a stronger recall. Reward generously when your dog finds you.
Nose work games are another fantastic cognitive exercise which doubles as a sensory enrichment exercise. A good game to start with is called, “which hand”. Grab a couple of treats and have your dog sit in front of you. Let them watch you as you place one treat in one of your hands. Extend both of your hands out with closed fists and ask them, “where is the treat?” If your dog gets it right away and signals to the correct hand, open up your fist and let them have the treat. If they choose the wrong hand, open up your fist to show them the treat isn’t there and ask them “which hand” again. From this, you can change where you hide the treat till you are able to play it throughout the house.
The objective of physical enrichment is to alter or add to your dog’s environment so it become more complex and interesting.
Some examples of this are:
A designated dig area. Digging is a natural behaviour that dogs enjoy, yet it’s one we don’t often encourage because we don’t want them to dig up our entire garden or planters. So, give your dog a designated place to dig. A designated digging area will allow your dog to dig in a controlled environment. You can use a certain area of your garden, a sandpit, or even a kids paddling pool filled with sand. Encourage your dog to use it by burying one of their toys, or by digging yourself to show them how it’s done. Reward when they use their designated digging area, and pair it with a phrase such as “go dig.” After a few sessions your dog will know exactly what “go dig” means, and where they’re expected to do it.
Tents or blanket forts. Putting together and using a tent or blanket fort is a great way to engage your dogs, plus it is great fun for kids (and big kids). The change of the environment is something that will entertain and have your dog exploring all over.
Pop up tunnels. You may have seen these being used during dog agility runs. Well you can also use these at home as enrichment. These can be purchased online and are easy to store and use.
Anything out with the norm which stimulates your dog’s senses through smell, sight, sound, feel or taste can be classed as sensory enrichment. The nose work described in the cognitive enrichment section of this article is a great example of this.
Some other examples of this are:
Dog safe bubbles. This may seem kind of strange, but think of how children are when playing with bubbles. Many dogs loves how they move. They try to catch them and get the sight, smell and feel of the bubbles. You can even get bacon flavoured bubbles to trigger the taste senses as well.
Dog safe herbs and spices. Mint and cinnamon are not toxic and can be added to pet toys to encourage sniffing. You can add these to ‘snuffle mats’ to keep your dog sniffing and busy.
Other animal smells. Swap a toy or old mat with a friend with dogs or cats. This will give your dog something to smell for a while.
Noisy toys. Although these can become bothersome to some owners, squeak toys or electronic dog toys are great to engage your dog.
Media for dogs. Dogs can benefit hugely from listening to specifically composed music (psycho-acoustic canine music).Canine music is usually aimed at reducing anxiety, but can also provide appropriate stimulation at certain times. Some dogs also enjoy watching TV. Although not designed specifically for dogs, the visual and sound aspects of the TV are attractive to many dogs.
The goal of feeding enrichment is simple, make eating more of a challenge for your dog. This works tremendously for food driven dogs. A snuffle mat is a good toy for this as you can sprinkle the food inside it.
Some other examples of this are:
Scatter feeding. This is as easy as it sounds. Instead of giving your dog their food in the bowl, simply scatter it on the floor. This will engage many more senses and slow down your dog’s eating as well.
Hide it in a towel. Homemade feeding enrichments are easy to do and are very effective. Simply start by putting some kibble or treats under a towel. Your dog will then have to find them. You can progress to having treats or kibble in a rolled up towel to make it more challenging.
Ice treats. For this you will need giant ice cubes or a container that can be frozen. Mix food, treats or even small toys with either water or broth, and freeze it. Then give it to your dog to get it out. (It is worth noting that this would be done somewhere that is easy to clean)
Puzzle Feeders. These tend to be advertised to slow your dogs eating, but they are also a great form of enrichment even if your dog doesn’t eat too fast.
Hand Feeding. Instead of feeding your dog with a bowl, give your dog each bite with your hand. This is a great way to increase your bond with your dog and will keep both of you engaged for a while.
Enrichment for your dog does a lot more than just alleviate boredom. It reduces stress and encourages them to learn, increasing their problem solving ability and increasing their confidence. This builds a more trainable and emotionally balanced dog. Shelters have found that providing their dogs with enrichment actually makes them less fearful, decreases the potential of aggression and thus more adoptable.
Enrichment doesn’t take a lot of money or time and many of what has been described above are low maintenance and only take minutes. So in the knowledge that enriching your dog increases your bond with them as well as helping them live a longer and happier life, try some of these. Find which your dog likes and bring them in as part of your routine with your dog.