In recent years, enrichment has become the ‘hot topic’ of the animal training world. Toys, treats, chews, even beds are now being marketed as enriching for pets. I’m an enrichment fanatic and could spend hours waxing lyrical about the benefits it brings to our animals, but before doing that lets break it down - what exactly is enrichment?
What is it?
Put simply, enrichment is something that allows dogs to carry out natural behaviour in an appropriate way. Sounds very basic, but I can’t stress the importance of giving dogs the opportunity to be exactly what they are - dogs. A good portion of the ‘problem behaviours’ I work with as a behaviourist are actually completely normal, natural behaviours, designed to satisfy an innate need or desire. They’re things that most dogs do to some extent, and the very nature of the innate need that these behaviours satisfy means that whether we like it or not, dogs are going to keep on doing them! Barking, chewing, digging, destruction, sniffing, licking, chasing, shredding. Totally normal behaviour but sounds like the stuff of nightmares and unless properly channelled, is the stuff of nightmares! Here’s where enrichment comes in.
Enrichment will also help to increase confidence, provide mental and physical stimulation, and will cause lots of ‘feel good’ dopamine to be released in the brain. Dopamine helps to elevate mood, increase optimism, and plays an important role in memory - never a bad thing for dogs!
Chuck your destructive dog a chew toy and jobs a goodun, right? If only it was so simple! Rather than tearing your hair out over your gnawed kitchen cabinets and newly open-toed shoes, look at the reason behind why your dog is chewing.
Dogs chew for many reasons - over stimulation, stress, play, hunger, pain, fear, boredom, exploration, over tired… the list goes on! Some dogs are more ‘chewy’ than others, but virtually every dog in existence will want to chew something at some point! Providing your dog with a variety of suitable things to chew will reduce their need to chew inappropriate things. Aim for a selection of different materials, textures, colours, shapes, and sizes, and always bear in mind that dogs are going to chew. Accept that while your dog is still learning what is and isn’t appropriate to chew, in their eyes it’s all appropriate. How are they supposed to know that their nylabone is for chewing but your handbag isn’t? If you don’t want it chewing, don’t have it around your dog until you’re certain their gnawing landshark days are behind them (and even then, it’s a good idea to keep temptation out of the way!) Confining dogs to a ‘safe dog zone’ when you can’t supervise them is an excellent way to keep them out of chewy trouble. Once you’ve removed or blocked off ‘illegal’ chewing items, you need to provide appropriate alternatives to ensure the natural need to chew is still met
NB: If your dog has a tendency to consume when they chew, they should be supervised whilst engaging with enrichment.
Fill a cardboard box with screwed up newspaper and put kibble and a couple of
treats inside. Seal the top of the box and give it to your dog to chew through and ‘dissect’ in search of the food and treats. They may not understand what to do with the box at first, in which case you can leave the top open and show them what is inside. Speak to them in a happy, encouraging voice while they investigate the box.
Once they have gotten the hang of searching through the box in search of their food you can begin to seal the top so they have to rip the box apart to get to the food. Some dogs find this easier than others, so if yours finds this too easy and only takes a few moments to tear apart the box you can make it more difficult by adding additional box layers and scrunching the food up inside the newspaper instead of
leaving it loose in the box. This game can promote confidence and optimism by
encouraging your dog to interact with new things. Try not to make things too difficult
for them at first - better to make things easy and let them have an ‘easy win’ rather than too difficult and have them give up. Added bonus of it being far easier to fit shredded cardboard in the recycling bin. Finally, a use for all those Amazon Prime boxes! You’re welcome.
Toilet roll tubes:
Again, another very quick and easy game, this time providing a destructive outlet. Place some kibble and a few treats inside an empty toilet roll or kitchen roll tube and fold the ends over so the food doesn’t fall out. Give them to your dog to toss around and chew apart.
Stuffables (Kongs etc):
I prefer Kongs for their durability (black ones for extreme chewers), but WestPaw also do a very good range, and their ‘Topl’ has a larger opening which would be more appropriate if
your dog shows a tendency to give up easily or become frustrated. Half fill the dispenser with kibble or something like chopped carrots (if your dog likes them), then fill the rest of the way with wet food. You can become very inventive with these and put pretty much anything that is ‘dog safe’ in them. Dog food, mashed blueberries, baby food, natural yoghurt, mashed sweet potatoes, peanut butter (xylitol free), and tinned fish are usually popular ideas, but the possibilities really are almost limitless! Make these simple for your dog by initially by filling them loosely, but once they have the hang of them you can make them last longer by packing them tightly and even freezing them. If you freeze them, make sure to run them under the tap for a few
moments before giving them to your dog to avoid frost burn.
Literally, just hand your dog a lettuce and let the fun commence. This is an excellent chewing activity for those of you with dogs who like to hoover up their chewed items! A lot of dogs don’t actually eat the lettuce after shredding it, but it still satisfies their need to chew, and if they do eat it it’s not going to do any damage.
There are literally millions of chew toys on the market (a good 90% are boxed up in my spare bedroom). They range from cheap as chips squeaky toys to extortionately priced high end toys. Offer your dog a variety of different shapes, textures, materials, sizes and colours to satisfy their desire to both chew and explore new things. If toys last 5 minutes before being destroyed by your dog, stick to materials that are harder to tear apart. If your dog is a fan of dissecting toys and the sight of a stuffed toy explosion is a familiar one, there will be something for you further down!
This list could really be endless. Edible chews are a great investment and most dogs adore them! They're also handy for sticking in your bag to keep dogs occupied when out and about, and for helping to soothe sore mouths while teething. The suitability of hard chews is a source of contention in the community at the moment, but a generally good rule of thumb is to not give ‘hard chewers’ a chew that isn’t soft enough for you to dent with your fingernail. Less powerful chewers are of less concern, but care should still be taken and you should exercise your own judgement when it comes to the hardness of chews you offer them, and remove chews if you are concerned your dog will harm their teeth. Natural treat box subscriptions via the post are very popular and most pet shops stock a great range of natural chews these days, so stock up on a selection to see what your dog prefers.
Long lasting chews:
Bones (non weight bearing)
Olive/coffe wood sticks and roots
Dried apple/sweet potato
There’s a big difference between a dog who likes to chew, and a dog who likes to dissect! If your dog loves nothing more than destuffing their brand new toys or tearing things apart, then they’re simulating dissection rather than just chewing. It’s one of the most natural behaviours - dissecting food is something dogs would have relied very heavily upon in the past. Although most dogs no longer have to dissect their own food, it’s a behaviour that still lingers in many. Dogs like this would doubtless benefit from enrichment tailored towards chewing, but there are a few specific outlets that will satisfy their desire to dissect.
Hollee Roller balls (available online and in most pet shops) are soft rubber football shaped toys without anything inside them. This makes them perfect for stuffing! You can use fabric scraps (a great use for those de-stuffed teddies!), or newspaper strips. Stuff the hollee roller ball with your scraps and wedge a few treats inside to make it extra enticing. Give the ball to your dog and let them ‘dissect’ it by pulling the fabric out. Repeat!
Very similar to the hollee roller activity. Take a toy that has already been de-stuffed, and fill it with other de-stuffed toys or fabric scraps. Let your dog enjoy pulling the scraps out, then refill for your next dissection session. You can also buy toys that fit inside eachother which are designed to be pulled apart, but without careful supervision there's a strong chance your dissector may de-stuff them!
Fulfilling a desire to dissect is actually very easy because we can provide an outlet that perfectly fits the original purpose of the behaviour. Provide your dissector with things such as raw chicken carcasses, deer legs, and meaty bones. They’ll have a whale of a time stripping the meat and fur from the bone, and will be far less likely to shred their toys!
The Stuffables and Destruction boxes described in the ‘Chewing’ section are also excellent outlets for dissectors.
Got a dog? Wave goodbye to your flower beds.
Only kidding. Sort of. Digging is a behaviour that many dogs enjoy, and the obvious place for them to choose to dig is in your garden! If you don’t mind having a dogscaped garden then there’s no problem, but for those of you who would prefer to keep at least some of your lawn intact, providing something that your dog can dig in is essential.
Creating a designated digging area can be as easy or as fancy as you like. The easiest option is to sacrifice an area of your garden, such as an unused flower bed. Fence off areas your dog has already been digging in and show them their own digging spot. You can encourage them to dig around in the new area by scattering some food or partially burying one of their toys. If your dog tries to dig somewhere else (they absolutely will at first - they don’t know that their personal digging area is better yet!) just redirect them over to their own digging area and praise them like a lunatic when they dig in the right place.
If you don’t have a designated area of the garden your dog can dig in, you can make one using a childrens sandpit and fill it with either sand or soil. You will likely have to spend some time sweeping up whatever they’ve enthusiastically kicked out of the sandpit though! Remember to cover the sandpit when not in use to stop the neighbourhood cats from using it as a giant litter tray.
An indoor version can be made using a childs sandpit or a large, flat plastic storage box, and
lots of small plastic ball pit balls. You could use a fabric ball pit for easier storage, but this may not last very long with your dog’s claws! Fill the sandpit or box with balls (or sand if you try the outdoor version) and bury kibble and treats in it. Allow your dog to dig around to locate the food, and praise them lots when they find it! You can also bury your dog’s favourite toys in the pit to encourage them to dig to find them.
Digging at bedding is something a lot of dogs do to simply make themselves comfortable. If they’re digging at your sofa before they lie down, try tossing a throw over the spot they sleep in so they can rearrange that instead of scrabbling at the sofa cushions.
Dogs LOVE to use their nose.
They have around 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our tiny 6 million - it’s no wonder most dogs have their nose to the ground 24/7! Dogs see the world through their noses and use sniffing as a means to take in information about people, dogs, and the environment. As well as being a wonderful natural behaviour, sniffing is also enormously relaxing for dogs and provides them with a great mental workout.
You can buy them online or make them yourself very easily, or make a DIY version if you have an old textured bath mat. They are flat mats with fleece ruffles tied to them. Food and treats can be buried in them, and your dog encouraged to sniff the food out. As with everything, make it fairly easy at first and just sprinkle the food on the top of the mat so they can see where it is. Once they are happy eating from the top of the mat you can begin to really bury the food in the mat so they have to use their nose to locate it. Remember to pick up your snuffle mat after your dog has finished with it - the loose tassels can look very appealing to chewy dogs once the food is finished!
The easiest enrichment, and incredibly beneficial to dogs! Scatter feeding involves simply throwing your dog’s food on the floor and allowing them to sniff each piece out. You can do this inside or outside. Make it relatively easy at first and tip the food into a few very obvious piles so they don’t have to work too hard to find it. Once your dog has the hang of it you can sprinkle the food all around the house and garden and leave them to find it - often this can occupy dogs for absolutely ages! If your dog is a pro at sniffing out easy to find food, try growing a patch of long grass to make it a little harder.
This one is great fun and can be done using materials you’ll already have lying around the house. Hide some food underneath an assortment of things such as plant pots, sports cones, bowls, and let your dog sniff out the goodies and work out how to get them! Once your dog has worked it out you can make it harder by adding some empty cones - see how much attention your dog gives the empty cones compared to the ones with food!
If your dog has a strong sit/down stay, you can cue them to stay, walk a few steps away, and hide a treat behind something before returning to them and cueing them to ‘find it!’. Make things harder by pretending to put a treat down in a few spots before actually putting one down - this begins to teach your dog to find things by using their powerful nose rather than their eyes! For toy motivated dogs, these games can be done using a toy instead of a treat.
A quick and easy game. Simply lay out a towel or small blanket, sprinkle some of your dog’s food over it, and roll it into a long sausage shape. If they aren’t quite sure what to do with it,
unroll one end slightly so that they can see the food. Ideally, they will unroll the towel with their nose whilst sniffing out the rest of the food, but don’t worry if your dog just picks it up and shakes the food out. It’s still enriching! The difficulty of these can be increased by knotting the towel, but this may lead to your dog chewing through the towel to get to the food so don’t try it unless you don’t want to reuse it!
How often do you walk your dog and just allow them to sniff for as long as they like? For a dog, sniffing a lamppost is similar to us checking our Facebook feed several times a day! On your next walk, why not just wander down the street or through a field and let your dog lead the way. You might only get to the end of the road - sniffing every single blade of grass as you go - but it'll mentally tire your dog more than spending twice that time running around!
Plait three strands of fabric, such as a cut up towel or fleece blanket, into a long,
thick plait. Tuck pieces of kibble and treats into the plait and give it to your dog to
sniff the food out and manipulate the plait to get it out. You can make this more
difficult by making three plaits, then plaiting those three into one big plait. You can also buy various ‘novelty’ scent toys with holes to push treats in which achieve the same goal.
A lot of the same plants we enjoy can also be beneficial to dogs. Mint, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, and bamboo are all dog safe and snuffling around in these plants is a great calming activity for many dogs. Try planting a few in pots or old tyres and let your dog explore their very own sensory garden!
One of the main reasons dogs were domesticated in the first place is because they were extremely useful when it came to chasing prey! It stands to reason that the vast majority of pet dogs have a chase drive of some description. Chasing is an element of a predatory motor pattern; an extremely powerful innate behaviour chain, and it is something that most dogs will always want to do. Without an appropriate outlet, that behaviour is very likely to be directed towards any fast moving thing - wildlife, joggers, cyclists, cars, children running, cats etc. If you are struggling with chasing behaviour around any of these things, get in touch to see how I can help. In the meantime though, here are some enriching activities to satisfy the chase drive in your dog.
Flirt poles provide a great outlet for chasing, and can be used far more constructively than repetitively throwing a tennis ball. They are essentially large fishing rod style toys with a toy attached to a bungee cord. You can drag the toy end along the floor to encourage your dog to chase it, and eventually allow them to catch it. Your dog can then be cued to drop the toy, and taught to sit, lie down, or just to stand calmly to restart the game. These frequent drop and calmly wait breaks are extremely important, as they keep the arousal (excitement) element of the game fairly calm, and also teach your dog excellent self control, ensuring the game doesn’t tip into too much over stimulation and excitement.
These can also be used to practice recall inside the home. Call your dog over to you and reward them by tossing a treat or a piece of kibble a few feet away. Make your throw quite slow and deliberate at first so that your dog can see where the food has gone. Once they run to eat the food, call them back to you and reward by throwing the food in the opposite direction. This provides a double whammy reward for recall, as they have the fun of chasing the food in addition to the food itself.
Finally, a use for those extendable leads we all have languishing in a cupboard! Attach a toy to the end of the extendable lead, reel out the full length of the lead, and lock it. Put the lead on the ground, unlock it, and let your dog chase the toy while the lead retracts.
An excellent source of enrichment for many dogs, particularly those predisposed to chasing. Good gundog training will not only fulfil your dogs desire to chase, it will also increase impulse control and teach your dog when to chase, and when to stop. Don’t worry if you don’t want to go the whole hog and partake in formal shoots - recreational gundog training with dummies is becoming increasingly popular. Unfortunately, gundog training is a sector that is notorious for being stuck in the dark ages as far as ethical training goes. Make sure you thoroughly research a trainer and ask them plenty of questions about their style of training before committing to lessons.
A fantastic outlet for chasing and herding behaviour, and not just for collies! Many dogs love the physical and mental challenge that comes with agility and it can also be great for increasing your relationship with your dog. The jumps and turns involved in agility can be too physically taxing for younger dogs, but most agility clubs now also offer puppy agility to teach the age appropriate basics.
These are great for providing an outlet for licking, and are a nice, calming activity. You can buy commercial Lickimats or make your own using something like a silicone mat, or pretty much any wipe-clean textured surface. Simply smear something wet, such as dog meat, peanut butter, soaked kibble, yoghurt etc. onto the mat and let your dog lick it clean! These can be frozen to make them last longer, just make sure you run water over them before giving them to your dog to avoid frost burn.
Great for a hot day! Pour a dog safe broth into a mould, add a couple of treats or toys, and freeze it. Pop the frozen pupsicle out of the mould, run it under the tap to prevent frost burn, and watch your dog enjoy licking it and discovering the frozen surprises buried inside.
Exploring is so important for dogs - it builds confidence in the environment and increases body awareness. Making yourself part of the explorative entertainment also builds engagement with you and teaches your dogs that you are the source of some serious fun!
Encouraging your dog to jump on things, crawl under them, weave between things, and generally use the environment as their playground builds fantastic body awareness. Fallen tree log? Put your paws on it! Fence posts? Weave around them! Low wall? Hop up and walk along it! The possibilities are endless. You may need to lure your dog into positions using treats at first but before long they'll be doing it just for the sheer fun of it! Be mindful of your dogs age and fitness levels with parkour and make sure your activities are appropriate for them - strenuous activity isn't advised for pups or older dogs.
Some dogs love water, some absolutely hate it. See how your dog feels about it by letting them approach water in their own time. You can encourage them to splash around by tossing a toy in, or by going in for a paddle yourself! A paddling pool is also a great way to keep dogs cool on a hot day.
You can buy commercial treat balls or make one yourself by stuffing a plastic bottle with food and treats and leaving the cap off. There are a variety available on the market but most work in a similar way - you simply put some food in them and let your dog whack them around to knock the food out! Treat balls are great fun and encourage dogs to use their bodies to interact with novel things. They involve some simple problem solving - 'I know there's food in here... how do I get it?' and it's fascinating to watch individual dogs work out their preferred method of extraction. They can also be rather noisy whilst they're rolling around, which can help puppies become accustomed to loud random noises!
Showing your dogs weird and wonderful things and letting them explore and process what they're experiencing can enormously boost confidence. Different textures, sounds, smells, and sights can be incorporated into games. You can really use your imagination with this one. Why not collect a few leaves or sticks next time you're out without your dog and present them to your dog when you get home. See how interested they are in the strange smell! Put some bubble wrap on the floor or get a scoop of bark chips and encourage your dog to confidently walk over them. Try blowing bubbles or putting 'Dog TV' on YouTube. The world is your oyster when it comes to novel experiences! Make sure your dog is comfortable with the novel things, and stop if your dog shows signs of anxiety or fear. If your dog is struggling with novel things and you're concerned about their confidence, get in touch to see how I can help.
Enrichment isn't just about chucking a kong to your dog every evening. It's about providing them with outlets for their natural behaviours. We tend to expect an unrealistic amount from our dogs whilst often not thinking about their needs on a deeper level. It's not particularly fair when you think about it - how can we expect our dogs to be perfectly behaved pooches when they aren't getting their instinctive canine needs fulfilled. Providing thoughtful enrichment isn't just providing fun for our dogs, it's helping them to become confident, outgoing and well adjusted dogs who are able to thrive in our extremely human world. The stuff of dreams!
As you can see, the options for providing enrichment are pretty much endless. There's no need to do absolutely everything listed above, but have a think about your dog's behaviour and preferences and pick a couple of things to try. Your dog will thank you for it! Send me some photos of your dog's favourite enrichment - I never get bored of seeing dogs being dogs!