You’ve likely been hearing that you should be providing “enrichment” for your dog. But if you’re just a little suspicious of all of the pricey things suddenly being marketed as dog enrichment toys and activities… you’re onto something!
True dog enrichment is indeed critical, but you can’t just whip out your credit card and cross “enrichment” off your to-do list. Even if your neighbor raves about a certain enrichment food puzzle or agility class, it may not provide any enrichment at all for your particular dog.
Here’s why: Canine enrichment is in the eye of the beholder, and not all dogs are the same. A little observation of your own furry friend will go a long way in helping you figure out great (and often free!) ways to provide effective enrichment.
Unmet Needs Create Behavior Problems in Dogs
Coming up with an enrichment plan for your dog starts with simple observation. That means that you should watch your dog first, then come up with a specific plan for enrichment activities. Is your dog digging in the yard? Chewing the furniture? Pulling on lead with his nose to the ground? Your dog’s behaviors can be the observational breadcrumbs that will lead you to effective enrichment – and a much happier dog.
Note what your dog tends to do, then experiment with objects, activities, or ways to rearrange the environment that might “scratch that itch.” Certain behaviors might suggest specific types of enrichment:
Enrichment for dogs who pull on leash
If your dog often pulls with her nose to the ground, she could have an unmet need for scenting. Experiment with enrichment activities such as:
- Adding more “sniffari” walks where you go at the dog’s pace, perhaps using a long lead, and deliberately seek out places that will be gloriously full of things to sniff: wildlife, other dogs, city life. (Some of the best options are free, like this one!)
- Signing up for a scent work class.
- Creating your own scent work adventures at home. (I saw a demonstration of this at a wolf sanctuary this summer, where they put a tiny bit of pickle juice in the grass and the wolves spent 15 minutes finding it, sniffing it, rolling in it.)
Obviously, you also want to work toward more pleasant leash walks by finding the right harness and working on engagement – but if an unmet need for scenting has been a factor in the pulling, those efforts will be more successful after this targeted enrichment.
Enrichment ideas for dogs who counter-surf
If your dog is counter-surfing, he could have an unmet need for foraging. You could experiment with these enrichment activities:
- Playing “find it” on walks, or while you’re watching TV.
- Using different food puzzles. Emphasis on “different” – because it doesn’t feel like foraging if it’s exactly the same each time! Get creative. Hide that stuffed Toppl under the couch, then in the bathroom.
- Using scatter feeding (both indoor and out) instead of bowls.
To address counter-surfing, it is also important to stop leaving delicious things unsupervised on the counter! But for a dog who’s craving foraging, providing “legal” outlets can make him much less obnoxious around food in general.
Enrichment ideas for dogs who dig
If your dog is digging, there are different unmet needs it could signify: maybe she’s a terrier who needs to tunnel for rodents; maybe she’s a Beagle who needs to follow any scent to the game; maybe she’s a thick-coated Husky who’s just trying to reach cool dirt. You can experiment with these enrichment activities:
- Providing a sandbox in a shady part of the yard, and hide toys in and under the sand.
- Making sure there’s a cool surface in a non-sunny nap spot. Some dogs prefer tile, a raised cot with breathable fabric, or a bare crate floor to a cozy bed!
Dog Enrichment as an Interesting Puzzle
The final part of the experiment is assessment: Is it really enrichment? You can only tell by watching your dog. Does he love it? Is he super engaged? Has it decreased the problem behavior that led you to try this? If the answers are yes, yes, and yes – that’s enrichment. But if he leaves that Kong half filled, or hides under your legs during that agility class, it’s not functioning as enrichment. Back to the drawing board!
Allie Bender, CDBC, CPDT-KA, SBA, and Emily Strong, CDBC, SBA, are co-authors of Canine Enrichment for the Real World: Making It Part of Your Dog’s Daily Life. They encourage owners to think of this process – discovering what natural canine needs are going unmet in your dog’s life – as a rewarding puzzle. Not only does meeting those needs make him happier and easier to live with, but also, as Bender says, “It’s way more fun to address these behavioral issues using enrichment rather than trying through training alone.”
Strong adds, “Thinking about enrichment flips the traditional mindset around dog behavior. Instead of thinking ‘What do I want the dog to do?’ we think ‘What does this dog need to do?’ Oddly, when you do that, you often end up solving the first question.”