Being a professional dog trainer means that I work with many dogs with individual personalities and problems. Sure, there are similarities and names for common issues like separation anxiety, territorial aggression, and leash reactivity. There is a common protocol for addressing these issues, but it is always applied with some adjustment for personality, age, the dog’s connection to owner, and other variables.
There is one protocol that I apply to every dog that I work with, whether we’re focusing on preventative puppy training, aggression, reactivity, or sound sensitivity. Regardless of the problem, enrichment is always part of the solution.
Enrichment for dogs is the same as it is for animals in the zoo. The idea is to provide activities that allow the animal to engage in natural behaviors, thereby satisfying natural drives.
For most animals, these activities revolve around how their daily diet is delivered. Think about how most dogs are fed. They don’t have to look for it, work out any strategy to get it, chase it, kill it, or tear it apart. A bowl of dry kibble shows up on a regular schedule or you make it available whenever they feel hungry.
So, what do dogs do with their natural energy and drive for seeking (hunting), chasing, killing and tearing? Well, they may use it to forage through your purse or laundry basket, chase the cat, or “kill” and tear up your pillow. When punished for these things, they will be stuck between a rock and hard place as they are pushed by their natural drives, yet naturally want to avoid the unpleasantness of punishment.
With enrichment, dogs can avoid punishment and find an acceptable outlet for their natural drives. Likewise, it will relieve you of anger and frustration, help you maintain your personal property and result in a happier, better behaved dog.
It works like this. Instead of eating your favorite pillow, your dog spends his morning figuring out how to get his delicious breakfast out from the inside of a stuffed Kong toy. Instead of digging through the laundry hamper or trash can, your dog spends time searching for hidden food in your living room. Perhaps instead of chasing the cat, your dog plays a game of fetch coupled with practicing recall.
All of these things will lead to a satisfied dog who is too tired to get into trouble. He will have used his mind, body, and natural energy in appropriate ways, leaving little left over for inappropriate activity.
I instruct my clients to do some or all of the following to provide enrichment to their dogs. In fact, this is so important to training that I won’t give any other training advice until the dog has been offered these things for a minimum of one week. I do this because often times enrichment alone will take care of the problem.
Here’s a guide to a simple ball-and-muffin-tin game:
Here’s a plan for providing enrichment:
- Put food bowls away in a cupboard. All food is to be used as training treats, stuffed in a Kong, used for scent/searching games or put into some other interactive toy.
- Play at least one game with the dog per day.
- Provide a new place to sniff every day. If the dog is not reactive, a daily walk is mandatory and should include a new place or new scent each day. If a walk cannot be provided, new scents will be offered in the home.
What does this look like in practice? Well, a client measures out the dog’s breakfast. Ten pieces of kibble (or other food) are used to practice sits, downs, stands, stays, coming when called, name recognition or whatever else the owner wanted to work on. The rest of the food is either be used for a game or interactive treat toy or stuffed in a Kong. Some food can be saved back for training throughout the day. The dog’s dinner is measured out and first used during the dog’s evening walk to encourage loose leash walking and eye contact. Upon returning home, any leftover food is used in the same way as breakfast.
For Kong stuffing, I suggest owners soak food in water or chicken broth until it is the consistency of stuffing, pack it into the Kong and freeze it. If a dog is new to a Kong, the food can first be put in dry, then wet, then the dog can graduate to a frozen Kong. Personally, I like to layer kibble with my dinner leftovers so it’s different each day.
Speaking of being unable to do what you normally do for enjoyment, there is nowhere that enrichment is more important than in the shelter environment. Through pure necessity, shelters are unable to provide much of the naturally occurring enrichment that owned dogs receive. Dogs in homes, even if getting no other enrichment opportunities, usually have access to grassy areas full of new smells, the sights and sounds of walking through the neighborhood and play/training time with their beloved owner. In the shelter, there is often less scent-rich grass and more concrete. The noises and sights are often the same each day. Human contact, training and games are far more limited.
Because of this, much like the animals in the zoo that I mentioned before, enrichment becomes not only behavior changing, but life preserving. Dogs who are allowed to unstuff Kongs, play training games and tear apart appropriate items are given an outlet for pent up energy and stress. Their brains are flooded with much needed endorphins, which make them happier, healthier and more able to cope with the shelter environment. Even more important, this happier state can greatly reduce barking and jumping up, therefore improving their chances of being adopted.
If you’re not yet sold on enrichment, think about what your behavior would become if you were not able to work, talk to any friends, play any games you enjoy, participate in any hobbies, read any books or do anything else that you might do to entertain yourself. What is it that you like to do in your free time? How would it affect your behavior if those things were unavailable to you?
Here’s a useful video about how to entertain your dog:
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