Behavioral work has come along way in its application, philosophy and implementation. But I do not think we have addressed a dog's behavioral imbalances completely and holistically until we have included an enrichment plan into our behavioral work with our dogs. Any plan that does not include helping a dog release their drives in constructive ways is missing a key ingredient in addressing the root of the behavioral issue itself. One of the very cool elements of canine enrichment is even if your dog does not have a "behavioral issue" the healthy benefits are just as valid! So let us dive a little deeper into what canine enrichment is, why we use it and how science shows us ample effectiveness.
Canine enrichment is an experience that allows a dog to use its cognitive faculties including problem solving skills to release energy in an intrinsically rewarding way. Enrichment can be broken down to food enrichment, cognitive enrichment, visual enrichment, structural enrichment, auditory enrichment, olfactory enrichment and social enrichment. Generally speaking this all falls under the umbrella of behavioral enrichment because each type of enrichment is rewarding behaviorally in that we aim to add stimuli that is psychologically and physiologically enhancing to our dog's lives.
Why would we add increased quality, joy and innately positive experiences to our dog's days? That is probably the easiest question to answer. Because it is humane. It is kind. It is necessary. It is healthy. And it is a species appropriate way to fulfill their instincts. Upon domestication, we have inadvertently removed many of our dogs inherent physical and physiological mechanisms. Dogs are animals after all and they were evolutionarily and genetically designed to hunt, run, jump, dig, tear, shred, smell, forage, find, think, roam, move and work. When we place dogs in smaller spaces such as our homes, with several other animals, some even prey like animals, we are asking them to not do the behaviors that they were born to do and from such suppression can emerge frustrations and behavioral imbalances. We tell them, "No!" No, don't jump, no don't dig, no don't play too rambunctiously, no don't chase the cat, no don't chew on the furniture, shoes or cords, and no do not get too excited in the house. All of these "no's" could be replaced with enrichment opportunities.
The Bored Dog: If you have a dog that is digging up the backyard, you have a bored dog. A bored dog can turn into an enriched dog if we provide the right choices. A sandbox with treats, toys or bones hidden is a great enrichment alternative to allow your dog to dig but dig in a way that is a compromise. We also have to consider that a dog that is digging for example could have other enrichment opportunities so that digging isn't as motivating. A decompression walk with lots of sniffing, followed by crate time with a rawhide free bone, then play-training session, after a nose work session inside and outside, with another crate session with a food puzzle or alternatively a Kong wobbler food activity, followed by zen-den time, a connected training walk and a positive reinforcement training session; this is a dog that is not going to have the energy to then go dig because his enrichment cup has been filled. We often have to be the ones to provide proper channels of energy for our dogs. Enrichment accomplishes this goal!
The Reactive Dog: Enrichment is one of my favorite tools for addressing reactivity. A reactive dog just by psyhological priniciples is a stressed dog and a dog that has an energy explosion. So let's work them! Before they are put in any situation that is conducive to reactivity, bring their energy level down through enrichment, therefore when they enter situations they are not primed for reactivity at a level 100 but are at a more manageable level 50 for instance. A reactive dog's day can be brain work through return and loose leash walking skills inside and in the backyard for 40 minutes, then DIY puzzle box time, followed by place work while you do the dishes or work, after that a seesion on looks and leave it's inside, in the back and the front yard, then play session with brain and body included (drop, come, tug and release), long lead work to catch check-ins and develop recall, then nosework game of find it and finally a walk in an area that is less traveled with high value treats for capturing and redirection (check out our Reactive Dog, Park Review Guides on Facebook and Instagram).
The Fearful Dog: Fearful dogs typically lack confidence and are not able to cope with novelty well. Enrichments are ideal for this group of dogs as well. A dog that holds a lot of anxiety can have their food bowl ditched and learn to work for their food. Why is this so crucial? Because scared dogs can literally get stuck in that part of their brain that releases cortisol and the biofeedback loop is engaged. We want to activate other parts of their brain so they are literally not stuck practicing being scared. Food enrichment can help a dog learn that different shapes and textures of food dispensing items that move and wobble can be predicrtive of positivity. Another great therapeutic benefit of enrichments for fearful dogs is they are given opportunities all throughout the day for more positive associations. A dog that has experienced chewing, shredding and licking their bone, stuffed treat ball and lick mat has had many experiences where good things were happening by their involvement. The fact that the fearful dog can exert a sense of control in their environemnt to elicit safe experiences through novel objects and action oriented tasks is a dog that will become more secure in their surroundings and their self!
I love to include science in our work with our canine counterparts. It is validating to our methods and shows that there is real evidence of enrichment effectiveness.
Sniffing enrichments- just consider for a moment that our dogs noses can detect substances at concentrations of one part per trillion, which is equivalent to a single drop in 20 Olympic size swimming pools (The Science of The Sniff, 2018). Dog's even have a special scent organ, The Jacobson's Organ that has specialized receptors that focus on detecting pheromones. These extra scent receptors are even tied to a dog's brain: the smelling section of a dog's brain is 40 times larger than ours. Read that again. A dog's olfactory cortex is 40 times larger than our human brain. They are made to smell. Their noses are taking in and processing information much like our eyes do. The mental enrichment a dog gets from sniffing can not only give them information to process, it is a destressing mechanism, can communicate to other dogs an appeasement and allow for choice in a dog's world. Treat trails, snuffle mats, nose work classes, hiding treats around the house and in different objects, scavenger hunts and sniffaris where you toss kibble or treats in the grass are all excellent ideas for sniffing enrichments and above all let them sniff on their walks!
Cognitive enrichments- To recap, cognitive enrichments work by creating experiences for your dog to think, help reduce anxiety, lead to increased cognitive function, reduce stress, promote human-canine bonds, increase activity levels and permit them to have more control over their environment. Science shows us that insufficient stimulus can cause hyperactivity, destructive chewing, acral lick dermatitis, attention seeking behaviors, compulsive behaviors, separation anxiety, aggression, boredom and dying brain cells (Vin.com). It is clear that through enrichment we are not only mentally giving our dogs the best of their short life but we are also physically giving them mini jobs to do in the way of canine enrichment. Physical benefits of enrichment can assist in mobility and offer some defense against worsening cognition as well as motor learning may increase synapse formation in the cerebellar cortex (Canine Enrichment, 2007).
Overall, I hope this blog has helped any dog lover or pet parent to realize that enrichment isn't something extra for our dogs to enjoy but a biological necessity for humane domestication of dogs. We have the ability to add social, occupational, physical, sensory, nutritional and environmental enrichments for our dogs mental and physical well being. Knowing that our dogs can live happier lives through our ability to give their instincts a job to do is empowering! Don't feel overwhelmed by meeting your dog's needs, just start with enrichment and see the results for yourself! A healthy dog is an enriched dog!