Dog sniffing training with smart toy isolated on white background

Who doesn’t like choices? I certainly do. I know my dog and cats do, too. There’s research that has proven that when individuals (human and canine) have the opportunity to choose between two behaviors, we choose the behavior that affords us more choices. Even if the overall outcome of the chosen behavior has roughly the same value as other behavior.

Choice is at the root of a behavioral construct called Enrichment. Zoos have been engaging in enrichment activities for their animals for a long time, very successfully. After all, who wants a stir-crazy lion on their hands? Giving animals the chance to choose to engage in behaviors that satisfy cognitive needs enhances their general welfare — behaviorally, as well as physiologically. Consider these benefits:
  • Decreased stress
  • Increased natural behaviors
  • Wound healing
  • Improved cognitive functioning
  • Greater ability to adapt and cope
And these are but a few of the benefits!
I had the pleasure of attending a workshop recently presented by Tara Gifford of  Ohio Animal Training. Tara has a background in zookeeping, so she knows a thing or 50 about enrichment. Today, I’ll share an overview of the 5 categories of enrichment. In subsequent weeks, we’ll explore each category specifically.
How many of us put our dog’s food in a bowl and walk away? Squandered opportunity! Use that mealtime strategically and let your dog work for his food. I talked about this in my discussion on doctor-ordered rest. Dogs were originally foragers and we’ve taken the need for them to seek out food away from them. Give them some seeking and foraging activities to engage in for mealtime and you will find, over time, that your dog probably prefers that approach to mealtime over “freeloading.” Check out our assortment of interactive feeding toys at the Training Center.
Many of our sensory capabilities pale in comparison to our dogs’. For example, dogs have more than 220 million scent receptors (some breeds more!) versus a human’s paltry 5 million. And they can distinguish which direction a human travelled in less than five steps! Not sure how to put that to use? Join one of our Canine Nose Work classes. We have openings! Their other senses: taste, touch, sound and sight are also extremely keen, although a bit different than ours. We rely primarily on sight and sound capabilities, short-changing the other senses and how they can stimulate a dog’s brain. Consider sensory enrichment the untapped potential for your dog.
Physical Environment
Just because your dog has become a couch potato, doesn’t mean he doesn’t want a more exciting and challenging environment. Different structures, heights, substrates and temperatures all contribute to environmental enrichment. I know I really appreciated this the day I watched my dog submerge her entire head in our pond to pull out a rock! And one was not enough. She went back several times — thoroughly enjoying the game!
Challenging your dog to exercise that muscle called a brain is what cognition is all about. I think we underestimate our dogs’ cognitive abilities. How about going novel places with lots of exploration opportunities, such as stores and new parks and towns. That’s what our Outdoor Adventures class offers. Make them problem-solve with puzzle toys and hide-and-seek games. Teach your dog some tricks — even getting a Trick Dog Title. Check out our Tricky Powwow class to get started.
When we get busy, our dogs’ social life often takes a back burner. Try to make a point of exposing your dog to other animals and new people. Is your dog a bit fearful of other animals and people? Work at a distance. Or set up a mirror for your dog to interact with himself. That’s fun for you, too!
There are many simple and inexpensive options to bolster your dog’s (and cat’s) enrichment. Stay tuned for more ideas.