5 steps to greater enrichment

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Mentally stimulating dog toys

Circling through these five themes of environmental enrichment can help keep your dog physically and mentally stimulated as well as happy, content and well-behaved.

As loving dog caregivers, we provide shelter, food, water, toys, exercise and vet care for our animals. But did you know that environmental enrichment should also be integrated into our dogs’ lives on a daily basis?

Environmental enrichment means just what it says. It goes beyond basic dog care to encompass mental stimulation, sense engagement, and toys or activities that satisfy instinctual needs. It helps provide dogs with optimally healthy and happy lives, improves the human/animal bond, and reduces the risk of unwanted behaviors.

1. Introduce new locales and situations

Slowly introducing a dog to novel locations and situations early in his development will help create a “bomb-proof” pet. Well-acclimated dogs are less stressed and greet change with glee. They don’t react with fear or anxiety whenever new and unprecedented situations occur.

For example, depending on how a dog was brought up, taking him on a walk in a new place or doing home renovations can either be enriching or stressful to him. If a dog is raised to greet change without getting stressed or agitated, you can make his walks a lot more flexible and interesting. Take new routes, visit new locations, walk with other dogs or people, or allow him to take you for a walk by letting him sniff out his favorite smells.

If you have an adult dog that reacts to new situations with stress, there are other, less “threatening” ways you can change up his routine, get him used to novelty, and thereby enrich his life and environment. One simple way is to rotate the toys he regularly plays with. Being exposed to the same toys all the time often generates boredom. The toys lose their appeal and the dog doesn’t bother with as them much. Putting his toys on a rotating schedule helps maintain their novelty. Placing toys inside other toys, or in boxes, can also increase the dog’s interest and stimulation.

2. Satisfy his hunting instinct

Hunting and foraging for food is a natural part of wild canine behavior. Hiding food, toys, or healthy low-cal treats throughout the house will stimulate this natural instinct. Some dogs may need to be taught through positive reinforcement how to search for their food or toys, but most learn quickly.

You can also satisfy a dog’s foraging and hunting instincts by hiding treats in cardboard boxes, or placing his food in several bowls around the house. Since animals in the wild devote so much time finding their food, I always place my pets’ food inside interactive puzzle toys.

Placing a few treats in an empty muffin tin with a ball over each hole will encourage your dog to sniff out and uncover the treats. To encourage more search-and-snack behavior, scatter premium kibble or treats around the yard. If you have multiple dogs, separate yards or access is important for those animals that are slower at foraging.

3. Improve his mind with training and games

One of the most rewarding forms of enrichment is training. There are many game-like training activities to choose from, including “100 things to do with a box”, originally written about by animal trainer Karen Pryor.

The main idea to this game is that the dog must interact with the box in a different and novel way each time. It requires careful observation on your part, and a handful of healthy treats. At first, the dog may paw at the box. The next time he will likely paw it again – but don’t give him a treat until he tries something different. He may then push the box, bite at it, sniff it or jump on it. As soon as he offers something new, say “good” and reward him with a treat.

Another good way to stimulate your dog’s brain is with agility. Growing up, I used broomsticks, mop handles, children’s tunnels and plastic crates to create an agility course for my family’s border collie. To encourage your dog to jump over the obstacles, reward him with toys, treats, praise, or affectionate rubdowns once he has made it through the course.

4. Teach him to “groom” himself

Our dogs’ wild counterparts spend a considerable amount of time grooming themselves and each other. Giving a dog access to a kiddie pool, sprinkler or dog beach encourages him to “bathe” himself while enjoying the excitement that water play provides.

Another thing you can try teaching your dog is to wipe his dirty feet on different surfaces before coming inside. As always, use positive, reward-based training methods. Use a piece of indoor-outdoor carpet, Astroturf, or a sisal doormat. It’s a fun training game, helps keep your house clean, and provides your dog with tactical enrichment.

5. Engage his senses

Think of ways you can stimulate all your dog’s senses. Here are a few ideas.

  • Let him experience some healing scents by placing a few drops of pure essential oil (diluted in a carrier oil such as almond oil or olive oil) inside a capped PVC pipe with a few small holes drilled in it, or a durable plastic container like a two-liter jug. Use essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or rose. Let him sniff and explore the container; the oils will stimulate his rich sense of smell and give him some relaxation at the same time. Don’t let him chew the plastic, however; once he has finished sniffing the container, put it away for another day.
  • Auditory stimulation can include dog-specific CDs or recall games. For new or shy dogs, softly playing audiobooks or gentle music may help acclimate them to their new surroundings.
  • A game of hide and seek in a new, safe area encourages the dog to use multiple senses as he explores the spot while looking for you. Having him “ping pong” between two family members while playing hide and seek is also fun and enriching for him. Once he finds you, be sure to reward him.