Enrichment - What is it, and why does it matter?
Debbie Thomas CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT
The newest buzz word in the dog training world is "enrichment", you hear about it everywhere these days. So what exactly is enrichment and why has it taken the dog world by storm.
Simply explained, enrichment (for any species) is the process of providing activities that mentally and physically stimulate animals using species appropriate behaviors. Enrichment allows animals to use their brains and bodies in ways that are natural for them and that are often lacking in the human world or are inappropriate, like scavenging the counters or through trash or digging holes in the couch. It gives animals a chance to do their normal animal things in positive ways within our homes and environment and helps them feel satisfied and tired.
When I ask dog parents about enrichment, they commonly show me the puzzles they have purchased and tell me that they used to use these, but the dogs can solve that puzzle in about a minute. So when I say, "Okay, why can’t you keep using it?" I get a puzzled look. Just because he is successful does not mean he does not like to play with it. Games and toys that are predictable and familiar can be very relaxing for a dog. Their success at winning the game builds confidence and a sense of optimism in dogs.
Enrichment is not just a dog doing a puzzle to keep them busy, it's about providing your dog with important outlets for their natural drives and desires. It’s also about sharing an enjoyable moment with your dog and building your bond.
Try placing several different enrichment items in a room and just let the dog choose what they want to interact with. Choice is an important part of enrichment because they get to decide what they find enjoyable and for animals that don't have a lot of choice in their daily lives, it's powerful to have that control. You can learn a lot about your dog this way by watching what they choose to do.
So how can you begin to create an enrichment plan for your pup? Start with making a list of what your dog likes to do: sniffing, tearing, digging, foraging? Then start experiment with activities that engage those behaviors. For example, for dogs who likes to sniff - take them for a sniffy walk, use a snuffle mat with food, try food scatters in the grass, or searching for hidden food treasures in your home. For dogs who like to tear and rip things up - hide treats in cereal boxes and tape them up, put treats in toilet paper rolls that you stuff with some paper towels, crumple some treats in a part of a paper towel and then put the little balls in egg cartons for them to rip apart. For dogs who like digging- make a big pile of crumpled towels and scatter treats among the layers or create a sandbox or dig area in the yard and hide toys/treats.
Enrichment should be a learning activity and not a frustrating exercise. We want the dog to think about solving the problem, not getting frustrated and destroy the activity (unless the exercise is to rip and shred). Your job is not to solve the problem for your dog but to guide them through the exercise if they need some help (and adjust for next time if you gave them something too hard).
Share with us what your dog likes to do best and the activities they choose to do!