Behavioral enrichment, also called environmental enrichment, is an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.
Enrichment has widely been a key component of keeping wild animals in captivity, although debate definitely goes on about whether or not the use of enrichment is an acceptable substitute for life in the wild. Enrichment is also widely used in the keeping of research animals, shelter animals, and in some cases, farm animals. I will be concentrating on enrichment for domestic pets, primarily dogs (although I do share my home with several other pet species!)
Why is enrichment important to pet dogs? The standard for care in urban or suburban pet dogs has long been "the walk" (either on or off leash). Walking can certainly be beneficial for dogs who enjoy it, who feel safe, and who are confident in different environments. There are, however, many types of dogs for whom traditional walks aren't the best choice. This includes:
- New puppies
- Newly adopted or foster dogs
- Dogs with behavioural problems
- Fearful dogs
- Injured or recuperating dogs
- Senior dogs with limited mobility
All of these dogs, as well as "normal" dogs, can gain huge benefits from the introduction of enrichment in their lives. In fact, highly active or energetic dogs can really use enrichment to provide a different type of activity in their lives. Those dogs who can run or play all day and don't seem to get tired need more mental exercise and encouragement to relax, not more physical exercise.
So really, all dogs can benefit from the inclusion of enrichment in their lives! Here's a short list of some of the benefits you and your dog can gain from adding some enrichment:
- Mental exercise
- Confidence building
- Building of problem solving skills
- Providing appropriate outlets for natural behaviours
- Stress reduction
- Bonding with caregivers
- Reduction of problematic behaviours
- Impulse control
What constitutes enrichment for dogs in general is usually some sort of activity that allows them to engage in behaviours similar to behaviours that come naturally to them, such as chasing, chewing, destroying, sniffing/foraging, digging, socializing, exploring, problem solving and resting. Interestingly, a lot of these behaviours are the same behaviours that people find problematic in pet dogs, so providing them with appropriate outlets is a win-win situation! And while dogs can certainly engage in a lot of these behaviours while out on walks, the most effective way to use enrichment is to incorporate it into your dogs' everyday life: at home and away from home. This way, they get mentally engaging activity in small doses throughout their whole day, as opposed to just one dose of a walk. It's also an ideal way to help keep your dog happy if you have a busy work schedule, children, or physical limitations that mean you just can't take your dog for a 2 hour walk each day.
The internet is absolutely full of awesome ideas for adding enrichment to your dog's life, which makes it really easy to get started! Briefly, here are a few of my favorite ways to add enrichment to the day for my dogs:
- All meals from food toys or for training - no bowls!
- Frozen Kongs, bones or bully sticks for chewing
- Walks where lots of sniffing is encouraged
- Clicker training
- Playing ball
- Soothing music when left alone
- Scent work
- Backyard agility
- Taking naps together
And there are so many more! Here are some great links to other sources on enrichment:
K9 Aggression: Environmental Enrichment (part one of a 4 part series)
If you want to get started on adding enrichment to your dog's life, my first suggestion and challenge to you is to get rid of the food bowl for a week and see what happens! Challenge accepted? Good luck!