Dog Enrichment is a popular buzzword these days, especially for dog parents who are staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are books, websites, social media groups, podcasts, videos, all promoting ways to help fill a dog’s mental, emotional, and physical needs — even spreadsheets to track enrichment opportunities and where there may be gaps that can be filled. As with all things, dog enrichment efforts can be taken to the extreme, and dog parents may feel pressured to fill their dog’s days with enrichment in order to be a good pet parent. Sometimes a dog just needs a break from it all. And so do pet parents.
Let’s take a step back and assess things.
For dogs that spend a lot of time alone or in an environment devoid of stimulation and opportunities to perform natural behaviours, providing more enrichment is beneficial. Enrichment can help reduce stress, improve health, and prevent unwanted problem behaviours. But when is it too much?
To begin with, dogs require a lot more sleep/rest each day than many people realize. Individual dogs differ, of course, but some sources suggest 12 to 14 hours a day, and some suggest 17+ hours a day correlates with fewer stress-related behaviour problems. A dog’s health and behaviour will suffer if a dog’s day is constantly interrupted by activities or if the dog’s environment doesn’t allow the dog to nap (e.g. too much activity in the home, too much guarding of the window or yard as people and dogs pass by, too many sudden environmental changes such as construction noises).
As well as sufficient sleep, dogs benefit from unscheduled time. Structure and routine are very beneficial for dogs, absolutely. But free-time needs to be included in the dog’s schedule so the dog can learn how to settle on his/her own and entertain themselves. Obviously, one must ensure the dog’s environment for free time is such that a dog can entertain themselves safely and appropriately. For example, for puppies, chewers, dogs with housetraining issues, or dogs that tend to get into mischief, barriers/expens can be used to contain the dog to an area with a variety of toys, a bed, water and food dishes, and a potty area for accidents.
Providing enrichment activities for your dog doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or expensive.
Free-time to sniff and explore on walks is also essential for a dog’s well-being and to help reduce behaviour problems. Dogs experience the world largely though their noses, and if they are rarely allowed to stop and sniff (safe) things on a walk, a walk can become a frustrating, unpleasant experience for them. Letting a dog sniff and explore on a walk — if not the entire walk, then at least a portion of it — can do wonders for lowering a dog’s stress levels. Using a longer flat leash (3 to 4 meters) can allow you to shorten the leash to 1 or 2 meters when needed, but let it out to 3 or 4 meters when it’s safe to do so; a longer leash can allow a dog to move more freely and naturally through their environment, and training for loose leash walking skills will allow the dog to walk nicely on any length of leash. There is recent scientific evidencethat dogs on longer leashes sniff more and that sniffing lowers a dog’s heart rate.
Let the dog choose the activities he/she enjoys is also important for a dog’s wellbeing. Sometimes people enrol dogs in activities without considering if the dogs are enjoying the activities or not. Sometimes the environments for the dog sports are too intense for the dog. Sometimes the human has become too competitive and has taken the fun out of it for the dog. Sometimes there are too many of the activities in a week and the dog has not been allowed to rest between activities. Free work for dogs (unstructured time where dogs freely engage with various items in a space) is a trend that is helping dog parents understand their dogs’ preferences for activities. I would argue that for dogs that are not stressed when walking on a leash, a relaxing sniff and stroll on a long leash in a natural environment provides a similar opportunity to learn about a dog’s preferences.
Mealtimes can provide opportunities for mental stimulation and the expression of natural behaviours. Rather than feeding the dog from a bowl, try a food dispensing toy (e.g. a kibble ball, a hollow rubber toy, or a snuffle mat) or feeding a meal by hiding bits of it around the house, scattering it in a room, or laying food trails in the yard.
And finally, Cooperative Care training is a perfect opportunity to provide enrichment for practical purposes. Teaching dogs to love the grooming table, sand their own nails, rest their chin in your lap, happily swallow a pill — all of these things can be taught in a fun way for you and your dog. These “tricks” become practical skills and allow you to turn these necessary activities into relationship building activities.
For more information about dog enrichment, training, and behaviour, contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA.