What is enrichment?
Enrichment is the practice of improving or enhancing something. So in the case of dogs, enrichment activities improve a dog’s well-being and quality of life.
Why is it important?
It is important to incorporate enrichment in your dog’s daily routine. Enrichment reduces stress, expends energy, relieves boredom and improves cognitive function. It also gives you precious time to bond with your dog.
Different types of enrichment:
- Food based
- Exercise based
This form of enrichment stimulates the dog’s senses:
Sensory stimulating enrichment
Different smells could come from exploring a herb garden or sniffing different toys or treats. Dogs can also recognise our scent. So if you have to leave them for a short period of time, leaving a shirt you have worn in their bed can be reassuring for them.
Sight based enrichment can include playing with toys in hide and seek games, watching and playing with you or other dogs. Even just lying in the garden looking at birds flying around can provide some dogs with entertainment.
Did you know dogs enjoy listening to different sounds? They can tell by our tone of voice if we are happy, cross or sad. If you have to leave a dog at home for a little while, having the radio on for them can keep them company. Classical music can help a dog during times of anxiety, such as if fireworks are going off outside.
Dogs have so many touch points – their nose, tongue, paws and coat, for example. Different textures of toys or food can be very stimulating as a dog works out how to eat or chew it. Playing on different surfaces will give different experiences – long grass will feel very different underfoot to sand on a beach. Water play can be cooling whilst snuffling in the woods can be interesting, as there are lots of different textures on the ground. Don’t forget grooming or stroking. Giving your dog a good brush can be therapeutic for both of you.
Food based enrichment
Taste leads us nicely onto food based enrichment activities. Dogs like a variety of tastes just like us and are curious to try new things, even if they decide they don’t like it! You can incorporate suitable bones, vegetables, meat and treats to their diet and games. Some cognitive enrichment tasks can be rewarded with treats such as kongs, snuffle mats and puzzle bowls.
This is encompassed in most types of enrichment. Dogs like problem solving and like being rewarded for completing a task, be that food or praise. As well as what we touched on, teaching dogs tricks or obedience commands can be very cognitively stimulating. Furthermore, having an obedient dog will make your life easier!
Exercise is important for any dog. It helps with digestion, is mentally and physically stimulating and helps prevent dogs from gaining weight. Different dogs require different levels of exercise. For energetic dogs you could incorporate more running or even agility. Working breeds could benefit from exercise with cognitive elements, such as searching for toys. Hide and seek with toys or even yourself is another fun game which dogs enjoy. For smaller, older dogs, less exercise at a slower pace would be more appropriate.
Different environments can be very stimulating – they provide different textures, smells and sights. You’d get bored if you went on the same walk at the same time every day! Going to different places and doing different things will keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated. You could hide toys around the undergrowth in the woods or practise training commands such as recall on the beach.
Dogs are sociable animals and enjoy the company of humans and other dogs. They don’t like (and shouldn’t be) left alone for prolonged periods of time. If you are a single dog owner you could arrange to meet other dog owners for a pup date or take your dog to public places where they are likely to meet other dogs. Where possible, you could introduce your dog to other animals. Some dogs get on well with cats or are used to being around horses or farm animals. If your dog is allowed to accompany you to work, the new surroundings and people to meet will be very stimulating for them. Likewise, having them accompany you on dog friendly days out, eating out or even holidays will allow you both to make happy memories together.
It is important to remember that creating an enrichment programme for your dog need not be expensive. Many games can be created using recyclable materials such as old clothes, delivery boxes or plastic bottles. Furthermore, exploring your local area on walks is often free, unless you are paying for agility course hire or car parking for example. It also doesn’t need to take up much of your day. A 20 minute activity along with 1-2 walks a day is often enough.
Lastly, all dogs are different. What one dog enjoys or finds stimulating might not work for another. It is very age and breed dependent. The best way to create a fulfilling life for your dog is to try lots of different activities to see which works best – and have fun in the process.