How Can I Make My Dog Happier? Answer: Enrichment (and It's Good for You, Too!)
Enrichment is critical to the well-being of your pets. But what is enrichment? According to Oxford Learners Dictionary, enrichment is "the act of improving the quality of something, often by adding something to it". (https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/enrichment)
Professional pet trainers and behavior consultants often talk about enrichment. Ok, we talk about it a lot. Enrichment is so important for your pet’s well-being. We tell our clients that their pet needs enrichment. But sometimes, we forget to really explain what we mean by enrichment. I’m guilty. First, for all my clients that I’ve neglected to really talk about what enrichment means, I am sorry. This is for you!
Enrichment is not a new idea, people do it for themselves all the time. But can we identify it? If we know what it is, then it’s much easier to identify when it’s happening or when it’s missing. The goal of enrichment is improving quality of life, or well-being. For people, enrichment might be reading a book, wine tasting, gardening, or taking long walks in the woods (with your dog, of course). All of these activities make my life better. Some things on the list I might do every day, like walking with my dogs or reading a book. Wine tasting is less often than daily. Gardening is seasonal. Activities I enjoy change over time. The takeaway is that people are happier and healthier when they engage in pursuits that interest them. That is enrichment in action.
When it comes to our companion pets (dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs) or our livestock companions (chickens, horses, goats) the idea of enrichment can get confusing. Enrichment is more than giving the dog (or cat or horse) something to do to keep them entertained. Meaningful enrichment is species specific. What I do for my cat will be different than what I do for enrichment for my hens which will be different than what the dogs get for enrichment.
When I’m gardening, there’s a strong chance that my dogs are outside with me. We are both experiencing enrichment, but in very different, species-specific ways. I may be weeding, planting, harvesting, raking, watering, or building a new path or other feature in the yard. At the same time, the dogs may be sniffing, digging, munching on grass, observing, meandering through the yard, lying in the sun, or watching me. After an hour in the yard, we all go inside, feeling calm and relaxed. I know that both dogs will take a long nap, not because hanging out in the yard is hard work. Rather, they’ve had an hour of just being a dog, of doing doggie things, making choices – of really being immersed in the environment without interruption.
My dogs also have access to a fenced back yard. I would argue that spending time in the garden or front yard with me is a different enrichment experience than being in the back yard. There are different sights, sounds, textures, and odors in the front yard, all of which give the dogs something different to engage with than the fenced back yard. The back yard is really the dog’s domain. They have digging spots, wood piles to sniff/explore, the deck to lounge on and different lounging options on the deck (dog cots, decking, rugs). The backyard presents its own kind of enrichment options, but often my dogs prefer being with their people than being without me outside in the backyard. There are many, many dogs who love being outdoors, with or without people. For those dogs the absence of outdoor time can be frustrating, which can lead to undesirable behavior.
Indoor enrichment is equally important. Just like with gardening, there are things that I do for enrichment that my dogs enjoy, too. Reading a book is always more enjoyable when I have a dog curled up next to me. I even enjoy cooking more when my dogs are keeping me company. However, dogs need dog specific enrichment options in the house that is compatible with what people consider acceptable behavior in dogs. This can be a point of tension between people and pets.
Foraging behavior is a huge frustration for many people. Foraging? Yes. Dogs are foragers. All that time spent snuffling through the grass, munching on who knows what – that’s part of foraging behavior. Inside the house there are lots of (often illegal) foraging opportunities, like counter surfing, table snacks, and trashing. Trashing is an exceptionally enticing activity because it combines some favorite doggie activities: digging, sniffing, and foraging. No wonder the trash is so much fun!
Dogs are problem solvers. Enrichment activities are great for giving your dog a problem to solve. Living mostly indoors with human rules often decreases (legal) problem solving activities. That doesn’t decrease your dog’s desire to solve problems. And that can cause human-canine miscommunication. When you leave your dog alone and he digs through the trash or chews on a shoe, he’s not getting even with you. That’s not how dogs view the world. Rather, he was alone, the trash can looked interesting, so he went foraging. Maybe he even got to figure out how to open the trash lid – bonus activity! For him it was a great way to pass the time until you get home.
Let’s keep going with the trashing theme. I thought purchasing a motion sensor trash can was a great idea. When I’m cooking, I can take a handful of cans, wrappers or paper towels to the trash can, wave my full hands over the sensor, trash can opens, I drop the trash inside, lid closes. Overall, my kitchen trash can is cleaner, and the dogs tended to sniff it less. An excellent purchase…or so I thought.
One of our foster dogs, an exceptionally handsome boy with little in the way of enrichment in his previous home, would walk with me to the trash can and watch me drop trash in. I never gave it another thought. My dogs really aren’t interested in the trash, in part I think, because I intentionally give them other “trashing” opportunities. But this guy was new, and we were still getting to know each. A few weeks later, I was in the kitchen making my morning coffee. Foster boy goes outside, does his business, then comes inside. As he passes the trash can he stops, leans over it (Great Danes can do that), the lid opens, he glances inside, then walks on. “Hmm,” I thought, and continued making coffee.
A few days later, foster boy strolls through the kitchen, walks over to the trash can, pauses, leans over the sensor, steps back, lid opens, he puts his head inside the trash can, then steps back and looks at me. Then he continued on his way to the toy box. I have no idea how often he did that while we were fostering him. Once he did bring out a wrapper while I was watching him. To my knowledge that’s as far as it went. I did add a “trashing” activity to his routine after that.
Frankly, I was fascinated watching foster boy solve a problem – opening the trashcan. I didn’t get upset because he was actively engaging with his environment. This is critical for well-being! He had a need to solve problems in a way I wasn’t anticipating or meeting. So, he made his own enrichment activity. Perfectly predictable, but many people might find this behavior undesirable rather than fascinating.
So, what is enriching for your dog? We can think in broad, general behavior patterns and say that sniffing, digging, foraging, choice making, and exploring are foundational for most dogs. There may be other things that are breed specific, like terrier’s need to shred and beagle’s need to dig. And each dog is an individual and will have preferences for enrichment activities. My senior dog loves foraging. As he’s gotten older and has started losing vision and hearing, he seems to enjoy foraging more than ever. Most of his enrichment has some sort of foraging component. Exploring is the favorite activity of my 3 yr. old dog, so she gets lots of opportunities to sniff, snuffle and investigate. She also enjoys digging, whether in the dirt outside, one of her toy boxes, or a cardboard box filled with interesting textures, smells, and tastes.
When thinking about adding enrichment, consider your dog’s abilities. Enrichment should be challenging, but not frustrating or boring. A puzzle toy that is too hard or the dog figures out too fast is not enrichment, it’s just an activity. There are some great puzzle toys on the market. I do like things like Hide a Squirrel and treat dispensing balls. The important thing is matching the toy to the dog.
Looking around my house I don’t actually have a lot of purchased “puzzle toys”. Instead, I look at my dog and our environment and think about how I can use what I have in a way that’s fun and challenging for my dogs. That helps keep enrichment interesting. For example, now that the leaves have mostly fallen off the trees, it's a great time to make a leaf pile for my dogs to sniff or dig in. In the spring the dogs will dig in the dirt more. For foraging I may scatter kibble or treats in the back yard (for one dog at a time – I don’t want to create competition for food), or I may give them a box full of paper with a treat at the bottom.
Dogs who live an enriched life will be more confident, more relaxed and have a better quality of life. Regular enrichment reduces stress, attention seeking behaviors out of boredom, and, in my opinion, contribute to better person-pet relationships. When the person-pet relationship is strong, often dogs are more likely to comply with our requests, like coming when called. If your dog is exhibiting undesirable behavior, enrichment is certainly going to help, along with training. In many situations, undesirable behavior is less about obedience training and more about a lack of enrichment.
Curious about more enrichment ideas? Awesome! Any of our trainers are happy to talk more with you about that. I’ll also recommend a couple of books and a calendar.
Allie Bender & Emily Strong wrote Canine Enrichment for the Real World. It’s an excellent resource for dog owners. If your dog is super sniffy like my girl, check out Anne Lill Kvam’s book A Dog’s Fabulous Sense of Smell. Really great search games! The Learning Dog Academy published a 2023 Enrichment Calendar. Each month there are ideas for improving your dog’s well-being through enrichment. Available now at our training facility for $15. If you’re a private client and would like your trainer to bring a calendar to your next session, we’re happy to do that, too.