Enrichment-on beyond kong

Beyond Kong-What is Canine Enrichment?

Canine enrichment. When I created my first enrichment program for dogs 14 years ago, it was very difficult to explain to people what we did there. 

THEM: “So you are a dog daycare?” ME: “No, we are not a doggie daycare.”

THEM: “So you train dogs?”  ME: “No, we are not a training facility. We are a dog school where dogs spend their day with us building life skills such as problem solving and impulse control, and they also have fun doing things dogs like to do.” 

THEM: “Why does my dog need to solve problems?”

Ugh. Enrichment was a very nebulous concept. 

Today, canine enrichment has almost become a buzzword. There are countless Facebook groups dedicated to ‘canine enrichment’, there are books, seminars, daycares touting ‘enrichment based daycare’ and more. Every Sunday night on Instagram dedicated dog moms share creative concoctions to stuffing in their dogs’ Kongs to get ready for the week. But what IS enrichment?

young dogs benefit from nose work
Nosework games are fun for all dogs!

Enrichment is defined as enhancement. Something that improves quality of life. Animal enrichment is the process of providing captive animals with some type of stimulation in order to encourage natural, species-typical behaviors with the intent to improve or maintain their mental and physical health. In its simplest sense, it is giving animals something to do that makes them happy and keeps them healthy. It involves having choice and freedom. What is enriching for one dog may not be enriching for another. Your obligation to your dog is to discover what it is that makes them happy and DO MORE OF THAT STUFF. 

It may be hard to wrap your head around this, but our beloved dogs are captive animals. Domesticated, captive animals. They may have designer beds, expensive shampoos, the best foods but are they happy? Are their needs being met? Do our pet dogs have the ability to make choices, explore freely, sniff or do “dog stuff” (encouraging those natural behaviors)? Do they have enough time in their “wild”? 

Dogs in the wild forage for food, they hunt, stalk, chase, dissect. They tunnel, dig, and swim. Their days are filled with choice, freedom and learning what works and what does not work. When we started to selectively breed dogs, we kept many of these skills, fine tuned them, and developed dogs that helped us, and worked alongside us, performing very specific jobs to make our lives easier. They protected our homes, our livestock, killed vermin, and delivered medicine to outlying towns. They helped us find food and kept us warm. 

Dogs help improve our quality of life.
Sled dogs are working dogs and need active, engaging lives in order to be happy.

Modern day pet dogs’ lives can be pretty sterile. Many do not have opportunities to make decisions or problem solve. They do not have a lot of autonomy and most do not have a job to do. Many do not have opportunities to engage in natural behaviors or are even punished for doing so (digging, barking, chasing cats, herding children, etc), which must be confusing, frustrating and stressful. As a result, we are seeing more dogs with “behavior problems” including anxiety, destructive behavior, excessive barking, and even aggression. A great majority of these problems stem from lack of enrichment in these dogs’ lives. Lack of stimulation, boredom, no sense of purpose…. Maladaptive behaviors often come from unmet needs. 

So can we do more for our dogs? Should we do more? Unequivocally the answer is YES. Dogs that are given the opportunity to think, be creative, make choices, and have freedom are physically and mentally happier and healthier. They learn to be confident and develop skills to deal with the world. This does not mean you should let your dog do anything they wish. They need and want structure, predictability. They do need us to help guide them and set them up for success in this world. But within the confines of our human-centric world we need to find ways to let them make choices and find ways to let them be creative. This means WE need to be creative and provide appropriate outlets for their drives and instincts. The instincts that we bred them for. This is enrichment. What does your dog like to do? Do more of THAT.

Dog parents are starting to understand the importance of enrichment and providing outlets for dogs’ needs. There are food puzzles, snufflemats, sniff spots and thousands of recipes for frozen kongs. This a step in the right direction but what is largely overlooked is arguably the most important type of enrichment-social enrichment through play and interacting with their humans. Not just handing them a licki mat to keep them busy so you can work, but sitting on the floor working with your dog on fun stuff. Games and activities where your dog can think and choose while you encourage and cheer them on. You can learn from each other, be mindful of each other, and create stronger bonds together. 

Redford using problem solving skills.
Redford has fun with the challenging Impossi-ball activity!

It can be as simple as playing Hide and Seek. Or setting up a treasure hunt so your dog can sniff out hidden treats around the house or yard. Dance together. Pull out a towel, sprinkle some kibble in it, twist it up and let your dog forage and seek out their reward. 15 minutes of focused mental activity is equivalent to one hour of physical activity. Don’t believe it? Try a few treasure hunts or scatter feeds (tossing yummy stuff into your grass for fun foraging) and see if your dog is a little tuckered out afterwards. Happily, purposefully, tired.

We bring dogs into our homes, into our lives, into our hearts. They are forced to share space with us, adapt to our schedules, our lives and tolerate us when we force them to do things they must think are absolutely ridiculous. The very least we can do is provide enriching opportunities to allow them to be who they are. Even better? Opportunities to teach us about who they are and how we can enrich each other.