Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.

The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.

As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.

The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.

So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!

7 responses to “Enrichment

  1. My two 9 year old goldens are like chalk and cheese. One is satisfied with two x half to one hour walk come smithatons a day and chasings when we return home. After breakfast one is content to settle for a few hours nap whilst we work in the paddock, however, the other is very lazy and food orientated. Not really wanting to go and walk anyway, she lives for food which comes after the morning walk. Having had 3 cruciat ligament ops, I have to watch her weight and bulk up meals with things like grated carrot. However, most days by the time we return to the house, say 3-4 hours later, she has usually nibbled or dug her way somewhere. Half a work boot plus innersole were eaten once in 15 mins. Forget kongs with peanut butter, she just eats the kong whoie. Lately she has taken to devouring the rubber mats I have pegged into the ground to stop her digging around the fence line. Toys have no interest for her, apart from the eating thereof. This comment is not so much telling you what we do to keep our dogs amused, as to how at least one of them amuses herself. Joy

  2. Any suggestions about providing me with scavenging opportunities would be VERY much appreciated!

    • We often set up ‘treasure’ hunts with our Labs lunchtime dry food. Just take the usual meal portion, divide it between holders (kongs, milk cartons or juice bottles) and hide them around the house or yard. Tell your dog to ‘find it!’ You’ll need to start with easy hunts where the food is easy to find, but once your dog gets the idea and starts to use his nose you can be very creative with hiding places. They love it :-))

  3. Pingback: Enrichment für Hunde | Chakanyuka

  4. Great post. Love the emphasis on being aware of what the dog loves, not what we might find enjoyable. I like stuffing anything cardboard with food and hiding it: pizza boxes, tissue boxes, toilet rolls, packing boxes, paper rolls https://www.facebook.com/DogCharming/photos/a.443219219057228.97573.186727958039690/769632386415908/?type=3&theater

  5. Reblogged this on Train Positive Dog! and commented:
    Love this entry about making life even better for our dogs.

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