Environmental Enrichment for Dogs
The lives of domestic and feral dogs are vastly different. At first glance, our pet dogs seem to have it made! They typically don’t have to worry about shelter, food or water, and their medical needs are usually met. Sounds like quite the life, right? But physically and behaviorally, our dogs were built for a different world, one more like their wild counterparts. A feral dog may spend as much as 70 percent of its day hunting and searching for food. This requires quite a bit of physical energy expenditure and use of problem-solving skills. For many of our canine companions, their day consists of eight or more hours just waiting for us to come home, and even when we are home, many of us cannot devote as much time to our dogs as we would like. This makes it difficult for dogs to meet their normal needs for movement and stimulation.
Animals that are under-stimulated are at an increased risk for behavioral problems, including destructive behavior, digging, escaping the house or yard, excessive movement, attention-seeking behaviors, excessive vocalization and even stereotypic or compulsive behaviors. The good news is that many of these problem behaviors improve with appropriate enrichment. Many studies on the benefits of enrichment have been conducted on zoo animals. Benefits range from reduced stereotypic and self-injurious behaviors, improved learning, reduced aggression and fear, decreased reactivity to stressors and improved memory. In dogs, enrichment both early and later in life has been shown to slow cognitive decline.
Enrichment comes in a variety of forms including social, occupational, physical, sensory and nutritional.
Social enrichment fulfills dogs’ needs to interact with others. This includes time with people, other dogs and possibly other species. Consider setting up supervised play groups with dogs that are compatible with your pooch. Allow your dog to interact with friends and family or take them on trips to see your friends. With any social enrichment activity, keep in mind some dogs may not be as comfortable around new people and other dogs. If your dog shows concern in these situations, determine your dog’s preferred social interactions.
Have you ever said your dog just needs a job? You don’t have to buy your border collie a herd of sheep or a badger for your Dachshund. Instead, focus on games, puzzles and tasks that stimulate your dog both physically and mentally. Giving food toys to dogs daily is an excellent way to start. There are a variety of puzzle toys available and rotating them helps prevent your dog from becoming bored. Consider taking a training class, anything from life skills to a sports-oriented class like agility or flyball. Training is not just about ‘sits’ and ‘downs’ but instead a great way for your dog to work and think as well as bond with you and your family.
Physical enrichment is not just about exercise. Interaction with toys is an effective way to physically enrich your dog’s world. An array of toys can take care of typical dog needs. Studies show interaction with toys may decrease a dog’s response to environmental triggers like noise, unfamiliar people and dogs as well as reduce its excessive barking, destructive behaviors and digging. Digging is a normal behavior for many dogs so stifling that behavior may be difficult and lead to other behavior issues. Instead, consider providing a dig pit in the yard and loading it with fun things for your dog to find so it will preferentially dig there.
Dogs have a strong sense of smell that we frequently overlook. Classes focused on scent games (often termed Noseworks or nose games) are a great way to expand your dog’s world through sense of smell. Providing a variety of animal scents or herbal-scented toys is another method. Music is another sensory form of enrichment. Dogs who listened to classical music CDs for animals showed increased resting and sleeping and reduced stress levels. Remember to watch the volume, and do not play the music all the time. Just like us, dogs need a break from a song on repeat! Also, going on runs and walks are not just about exercise; dogs get to see and smell new things.
Dogs naturally forage for food. Discontinue use of a basic food bowl, and instead, solely use food toys and foraging games. Consider hiding food and having your dog hunt and search, whether inside or outside. This allows a dog to express natural feeding behaviors. Nutritional enrichment also can include different flavors and textures of food. Any time you feed something new, start with small amounts and check with your veterinarian that the food is acceptable for your pet.
Add in one or two of these enrichment exercises daily to help decrease the likelihood of behavior problems and keep your dog happy and comfortable.
Kogan, L.R., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Simon, A.A., 2012. Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7, 268-275.
Milgram, NW et al., 2006. Neuroprotective effects of cognitive enrichment. Ageing Research Reviews. 5, 354-369.
Young, RK. Environmental enrichment for captive animals. 2003.
Dr. Florsheim was born and raised in Dallas. She graduated from Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Veterinary Behavior Solutions.