Enriching our Animals!

The new hot-button word in the world of dog rescue and training is ‘enrichment’. It is a tool that has so many applications and approaches, but is endlessly beneficial in the world of animal behavior.

Animal enrichment first originated in the world of laboratory animals, particularly of the primate variety. It was soon apparent that the primates housed in the laboratories needed more than just the typical food, water, and shelter to contribute to their well-being. Not only did a lack of socialization and stimulation obviously contribute to their mental and emotional decline, but these issues also appeared dramatically in their physical health. It soon became common practice to provide mental stimulation to many animals housed in laboratory settings, and researchers now even go so far as to house most primates with other animals. This realization has spread to zoos and most recently, animal shelters.

The blogger that I consider to be the ‘queen’ of doggie enrichment is essentially a hero to shelter dogs, and pit bulls to be precise. Not only is she a blogger, photographer, and foster, but she herself works in a shelter! You can learn more about Juliana and her enrichment pointers here. It is certainly worth the read, and is where I’ve learned some of the information I will share with you!

Why is enrichment so important to a dog’s well-being? A dog, or wolf, in the wild is constantly searching for food, water, and shelter. They are probably interacting with their pack. Their senses are on overload. Compare that to a dog in a small, bland ‘jail cell’ for 23.5 hours a day, in many shelters across the US, and it is easy to see why behavior issues may quickly develop. Oftentimes, these negative behaviors, such as jumping or barking, are not indicative of the dog’s true personality, but simply a product of boredom, stress, and monotony. Enrichment activities are essential to a dog’s happiness and physical health, because they allow the dog to exercise their minds and their senses, and provide an outlet for excess energy. Not only does it make the dog happy, and keep their mind healthy, but it also improves the behaviors that they display to potential adopters. Win-win-win!

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How does this apply to those of us that don’t work in shelters? Very well, in fact! Enrichment can be great for puppies, or any dogs with higher activity levels, as well as foster or adopted dogs that may be learning to adapt to a new environment.

First of all, giving a pup toys or puzzles to chew on means that what they are NOT chewing on are your shoes, couches, walls, etc. You may have heard the training tip, that if you find your pup chewing something that they should not have in their mouths, you take that object away, and replace it with something more appropriate. While that is great advice, and a good example of positive reinforcement, what would be even better is to prevent that behavior before it starts! One way I approach training with my dogs is by not giving them an opportunity to make bad decisions. If, for example, your rescue puppy is working on a toy or puzzle, they are not going to be interested in going for Dad’s brand new, $400, insulated, steel-toe work boots. 😉 Not that we speak from experience, or anything.

Georgia already has a bone to pick...

Georgia already has a bone to pick…

Another great benefit to enrichment, is that it actually serves to tucker out your dog! Believe it or not, a great session with a puzzle oftentimes serves to make our pups just as tired as a long hike on the farm! Their brains are so busy concentrating on just how to destroy or discover or dismantle their toys. One of Juliana’s foster dogs stated it perfectly when he explained that he will, “lie there for hours, meticulously ripping and pulling at my toys, planning exactly which piece of string to pick apart next. I work really hard to be the best Captain Destructo I can be.” In most cases, once the puzzle is complete, your pup will pass out on the spot from the shear mental exhaustion!

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Now that we know about some of the applications of enrichment, what are some ways we can provide it to our dogs? Well, from the most basic of standpoints, a simple toy that your dog wants to chew on can be enrichment. The way they tear at it provides an outlet for their energy. But for dogs that have not been exposed to toys very much, or for dogs in a more stressful environment such as a shelter, we need to find more high-value benefits. In addition, heading to your local pet store and buying toys that you know your dog is just going to destroy, can really add up! Especially on the budget of a shelter or rescue. Therefore, we get creative.

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One common form of enrichment is frozen kongs. Kongs can be stuffed with anything; vegetables, fruits, peanut butter, meat, dog food (wet or dry!), cheese, or just about anything else! What is most important is that it is stuffed in tightly, and that there is a good ratio of liquid to solid, so that the contents will freeze inside. It helps to place a little bit of peanut butter around the openings, to lead the dog into the interior contents, and then place in the freezer for at least a few hours. Some shelters will use pvc pipes with various sized holes, in place of the kongs. Just a cheaper option! A simple google search for kong ‘recipes’ can give you some creative stuffing suggestions.

"Ok now Foster Dad, heavy on the cheese, light on those crunchy orange carrot thingies."

“Ok now Foster Dad, heavy on the cheese, light on those crunchy orange carrot thingies.”

A fun summer-time enrichment for dogs is to fill a bucket with hard toys, like nylabones, treats, etc. This bucket can then be filled with water, and frozen. Talk about a puppy popsicle!! A cold weather version of this game can be to stuff a bucket VERY tightly with various toys, ranging in size, shape, and texture. It can be a fun game for your dogs to work on pulling the toys from the bucket. This game can occupy hours of your dog’s time and energy, because each toy they pull from the bucket will require a good chew or sniff!

Some pet stores are getting on board with enrichment activities, and providing puzzles for your dog. You may remember that I told you yesterday about a fun outdoor toy that our dogs ADORE. It is the only toy that hasn’t resulted in boredom or complete destruction! It is a large plastic ball, with holes, and a smaller plastic ball inside. It is just the right size for two dogs to play tug-of-war, but also allows the dogs to spend hours trying to free the inside ball from the trap! You can find it here.

Gaige playing with their Paw-zzle ball.

Gaige playing with their Paw-zzle ball.

Another great pet store find was actually a gift to the pups from my own mom! It is a three-tiered star, with pockets for treats or dog food. A dog has to figure out how to move the star around with their paws or nose, in order to gobble up the treats! Not only is it an enrichment activity, but it also helps with a dog who eats their food too quickly. To learn more, it is sold here, but there are many variations in most pet stores.

Georgia working hard for her dinner!

Georgia working hard for her dinner!

(It is important to remember that when it comes to food-based enrichment, we don’t want to be adding unnecessary calories to our dog’s diet! Unless your dog is underweight, be sure to decrease the size of their meals, in relation to the amount of food they’ve received from their kongs or other food-related puzzles.)

Enrichment is one of the greatest ways to stimulate our dogs, and exercise their minds. Not only that, but it can be a wonderful way for our dogs to bond with us, and feel more comfortable in their environment. What enrichment activities have you tried with your pets? Which ones have worked for you, and which haven’t? We’d love to hear your ideas!