When you consider a dog’s needs, their basic requirements, such as food, water, shelter, and safety, probably come to mind. While these are vitally important, the team at University Veterinary Hospital believes dogs should not simply survive, but thrive. To do so, your dog’s mental and emotional needs must be addressed, in addition to their physical requirements. Canine enrichment is a safe, fun, and easy way to improve your dog’s quality of life, reduce unwanted behaviors, and build a stronger bond.
Why your dog needs enrichment
Enrichment provides a healthy, safe way for your dog to express natural behaviors, resulting in their improved mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Strategic enrichment was originally used in zoos and sanctuaries, to improve the lives of captive animals who experienced significant stress from their artificial and controlled environment.
For domesticated dogs, enrichment relieves boredom, reduces anxiety, fosters critical thinking, and decreases inappropriate behavior.
Guidelines for successful dog enrichment
Enrichment does not need to be elaborate, complicated, or costly. In fact, the most popular dog enrichment activities are simple, inexpensive, or free. However, you should follow a few simple guidelines, to ensure satisfying and safe fun for your dog:
- Prioritize safety — Ensure that enrichment is never dangerous or frightening:
- Physical activity should be appropriate for your dog’s age, size, and health. Have your dog evaluated at University Veterinary Hospital before starting a new activity.
- All ingredients used in food games should be pet-safe.
- Always supervise your pet, to ensure proper play, and prevent them from chewing or consuming small toy pieces.
- Obey all local leash laws when playing outdoor games. Use a regular six-foot non-retractable leash to prevent injury.
- Protect your dog’s confidence — Don’t make the game too difficult, or your dog may become frustrated, and quit because of a lack of rewards.
- Play to their strengths— Your dog may prefer sniffing to eating, or using their paw to manipulate objects rather than their nose. Embrace their preferences.
- Introduce one thing at a time — Too much novelty can be overwhelming, so limit your dog to one enrichment activity at a time.
Easy enrichment games for your dog
Canine enrichment activities can be roughly divided by the senses involved, but a great deal of overlap exists. When you are evaluating your dog’s current routine, or a potential enrichment activity, ask yourself what, if any, categories are being met, and if more can be added.
- Scent — The canine nose is 44 to 100 times stronger than ours, which is clearly evident when your dog can decipher a tiny leftover treat in your pocket. Dogs rely on their scent ability to understand the world, forage for food, and decipher other dogs’ messages. Scent games are immensely satisfying for dogs, and typically end in a hearty nap:
- Sniff walk — Visit a new environment, and let your dog’s nose direct your steps. Let your dog sniff, track odors, circle, and double back on their path.
- Foraging games — Foraging encourages your dog to seek out food or treats with their nose rather than their eyes. Ditch the boring dog bowl, and hide your dog’s kibble under a towel or in a snuffle mat, or scatter the food in untreated grass for a long-lasting hunt.
- Taste — Culinary canines will appreciate new flavors, presentations, and textures. Ask your dog’s veterinarian before trying new foods, especially if your dog has dietary restrictions or food intolerance.
- Sample plate — Include an occasional surprise in your dog’s normal meal, such as a dollop of plain yogurt, canned pumpkin, unsweetened applesauce, blueberries, banana, or shredded cheese.
- Work for food — Replace your dog’s meal with a filled Kong, Toppl, or similar hollow toy, or lickable mat. Many safe recipes are available online—use fresh, preservative free ingredients whenever possible.
- Social interaction — Play and interact with your dog! Social engagement seems commonplace, but can get overlooked during busy times. Spend dedicated time with your dog every day, performing simple actions, such as:
- Playing with special toys
- Snuggling on the couch
- Grooming or massage
- Exploration and physical exercise — Dogs enjoy investigating their territory, as well as new places. Modify your regular routine by encouraging your dog to safely interact with their environment by sniffing, putting their paws on an object (i.e., bench, tree stump, boulder), climbing, jumping, and running. When permitted, use a long line—not a retractable leash—to give your dog extra space.
If you and your dog cannot be active together, consider a dog treadmill, dog-walking service, or doggy day care, to fulfill your dog’s physical needs.
- Learning and critical thinking — Smart or bored dogs will satisfy their need for entertainment by chewing your furniture, or getting in the trash, and require a constructive outlet. Offer your little genius these options:
- Puzzle toys — These toys require your dog to manipulate them, and encourage problem-solving to access hidden food or treats. Puzzles may be purchased, or made at home from common household items.
- Clicker training (i.e., positive reinforcement training) — Clicker trained dogs actively participate in their learning by acting on their environment to earn positive rewards. Clicker training improves communication, and results in a motivated, engaged companion.
After you introduce enrichment to your dog’s daily routine, you will begin to learn and appreciate their natural behaviors, learning style, and personal preferences. You will quickly realize that canine enrichment is rewarding for you, too!