CANINE ENRICHMENT: WHY YOUR DOG NEEDS IT & HOW TO DO IT BETTER
An important part of raising a well-behaved dog is keeping their brains busy. While teaching basic obedience cues such as sit, stay, and coming when called are important, mental enrichment is so much more than that. Working your dog’s brain can mean anything from teaching fun tricks to playing a few nose work games or giving them a treat dispensing toy, food puzzle, or edible chew such as a bully stick to work on.
The reason we need to make sure we’re using our dog’s brain as much as possible is two-fold. The first reason is because all dogs have some degree of working ability inherent to them. Obviously some breeds will have more than others, but even breeds you might not think of as being traditionally “smart” were bred to do a job. Take Chihuahuas for instance- did you know they were originally bred as ratting dogs? They would scurry around small spaces to dispatch rats, mice, and other small nuisance animals. When dogs aren’t given enough mental enrichment in their day, they have all this energy that’s not being put to use. Trust me when I tell you, it will come out somehow. When we don’t channel their brain through constructive outlets, it will come out in other ways: becoming destructive in the house, excessive barking, digging, and general rowdiness. The second reason mental enrichment is important is because it’s our ethical duty to provide our dogs with as full and rich a life as possible. I don’t believe in the idea that, “It’s just a dog.” Dogs are sentient beings capable of relatively complex thoughts. They are also social creatures that cannot thrive on their own. By providing enrichment to our dogs, we strengthen our bond with our four-legged family members and provide meaning and purpose to their lives.
Mental enrichment is NOT the same as physical exercise! Physical exercise can be mental enrichment, but not all physical exercise is mental enrichment. Fetch is a perfect example of this. Fetch can be mentally enriching, but it isn’t always, especially for dogs who love fetch. If your dog is a fetch fanatic, then they hardly have to think while playing the game. Their brain is basically on auto-pilot, but their body is running as fast as possible, pumping full of adrenaline. When the game stops, where does all that adrenaline go? ….. Exactly. Unless you’re following up a game of fetch with something mentally stimulating, all that excitement is going to come out in a way you’re probably not going to like. That is not to say physical exercise isn’t important, of course. It certainly is, but most dogs actually do better with more mental exercise and less physical exercise. The base I usually encourage clients to aim for is at least 50% physical exercise (going for a walk or run, a trip to the dog park, playing fetch, etc.) and 50% mental exercise per day. However, some dogs will need to adjust that ratio in order to be happy. Keeping an eye on the frequency of problem behaviors will give you an idea of if your dog is getting sufficient mental and physical stimulation or not.
My number one advice for providing mental enrichment? DITCH THE DOG BOWL! Instead of just plopping your dog’s food into a dog bowl for them to eat, get creative with it. Hide it around the house for them to find, invest in a few good treat dispensing toys or food puzzles, toss their meals out in the grass and shrubs in the yard for them to forage for, wrap it up in a sheet of tissue paper for them to shred… okay that one does make a bit of a mess, but the five minutes of cleanup is worth the enjoyment my little terriers get from tearing up paper to get to their food. If you have a larger dog, try placing their food in an empty box for them to tear up to get to the food. Sound familiar?
Zoos often provide similar enrichment items to their animals. Maybe you’ve seen them if you’ve been to a good zoo in the past. This photo is from Honolulu Zoo, where they’ve done exactly what I’ve described above for one of their tigers. Mental enrichment is paramount in keeping animals happy in zoos. Sometimes we forget- our dogs are animals too! One of my absolute favorite ways to provide mental enrichment is to utilize your dog’s most powerful asset: their nose! Here are a few ideas on getting your dog to use their nose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qhqEZwxGnk&t=2s
Tug is an awesome game and can help solve many problem behaviors in dogs. When played appropriately, tug will provide our dogs with mental and physical exercise, help them learn better impulse control, and teach them a proper release (“drop it”). Check out this video on how to play tug with your dog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh3L_2yr72c
Does your dog like to chase more than they like to tug? The same game can be played by simply chasing the toy or- if you want to give them a really intense workout- a flirt pole might be a great option! Flirt poles can be purchased online or easily made yourself. This video will show you one way to construct a flirt pole, but there are plenty of other DIY’s available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eG_qfpxipIs Here’s an example of the flirt pole in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0PgZwHRtEY
Make your dog’s walks more enriching by allowing them the freedom to sniff freely. Grab your favorite back-clip harness, a long line of at least 15 feet, and head out to a new park with your dog. Allow them to set the pace- follow your dog around as they follow their nose and track all the new odors around. I promise, your dog will be more tuckered out from a shorter walk where they’re allowed to sniff to their heart’s content than they would be from a longer, faster-paced walk. You can also take pauses to play some “find it!” with your dogs. Simply toss some treats into tall grass, shrubs, or place it into grooves in tree bark for your dog to find. This can be a good game to help dogs who tend to want to run run run to slooooooow down and investigate their environments more- psssst! this is also a great solution for pullers ;)
Teaching your dog fun tricks like shake a paw, roll over, or play dead are a great way to provide them with physical & mental enrichment in one activity! There are numerous benefits to trick training- from tiring out your dog to making YOU a better trainer- and you can learn more about trick training here.
EVEN MORE ENRICHMENT IDEAS
If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend joining the group Canine Enrichment. This group will provide you with unending ideas of how you can better enrich your dog’s life. Heck even if you’re not on Facebook, it’s worth creating an account just so you can join this group! Seriously, it’s that useful. Plus many of the ideas are DIY options using items you likely already have at home. Remember, enrichment is like a shoe. If it doesn’t fit the intended user, it’s going to be irritating. Not all shoes fit all users. Your dog may enjoy certain enrichment items more than others and that is a-okay. Find what works for you and your dog and go crazy! Enrichment is not only fun for your dog, but fun for us humans too.