If we could change just one thing to positively impact the lives of dogs in homes and housed in shelters, it would be this: provide regular, varied, species appropriate enrichment.
While enrichment is not the same as behavior modification, it can do wonders to prevent behavior issues from developing and/or escalating due to boredom, stress, and frustration. Enrichment in all its many forms is, at heart, about quality of life. A dog who is happy, relaxed, and has his/her needs met is typically less likely to act out and more receptive to behavior modification when it's needed. Enrichment done well is also a gateway to fun, skill building, relationship enhancement, and so much more. So what does it look like?
1. Oral Enrichment
It’s a very doggie thing to put stuff in your mouth. While this need is more intense in some dogs than in others (see especially puppies and adolescents), most dogs like to gnaw and if that need is not met, it can contribute to putting things in their mouths that don’t belong there. Some of our favorite gnawables include bully sticks, Nylabones, antlers, fish skins, tracheas (yeah, we know but if you think bully sticks sound cuter, google what they’re made of 😉 ), and of course, the original KONG filled with tasty goodness that you’ve frozen to make it last longer (we love almond butter + banana/apple or other fresh fruit, plain yogurt + wet food or fresh fruit/veggies). Also great for dogs who are into it, rubber gnawables like the KONG Bounzer.
2. Olfactory Enrichment
Let them sniff! Dogs experience much of the world through smell. It's such an integral part of their lives that our inclination to limit it ("We are walking here, no time for sniffs!") is pretty lame and human-centric. Instead of preventing your dog from getting their much needed whiffs, use it to your advantage to reinforce dog/handler connection and polite leash skills with the Premack Principle!
Wanna use all that sniff drive to your advantage to tackle more structured mental enrichment too? Add in some nose work! Check out these game versions from Suzanne Clothier, Dog Star Daily, and the Center for Shelter Dogs to learn how to play!
Even the squishiest couch potato pups need some regular exercise. While your pug is not going to need to get up and GO the same way your neighbor’s border collie is, he still needs you to put on those walking shoes. Depending on your dog’s energy level, this might be neighborhood walks, strolls around a local park, going out for a jog, hitting the trail for a hike, or teaching your dog to be your running buddy.
And of course, sidewalks and trails aren't the only ways to get in some great exercise! There's fetch, recall training, fun with a flirt pole, going for a swim if that's your dog's thing, and even signing up for a dog sports class like agility!
4. Mental Enrichment
Games, training, and puzzle toys, oh my! Games can range from the classics like tug and toy play to training games that help you build skills like Leslie McDevitt's pattern games and they're all awesome mental enrichment for your pup. The same goes for all manner of training, from working on basic cues or tricks at home to signing up for a group class or individual training program of ANY kind, whether it's help with the basics, fun extracurriculars, or more serious behavior modification help. We're probably biased but training is excellent enrichment that simultaneously gives your dog the skills they need to thrive and you the skills you need to support and understand them.
And of course, puzzle toys are a go to suggestion for mental enrichment with good reason. Some of our favorites are the KONG Wobbler, Buster Cube, Tricky Treat Ball, Dog Tornado, and Dog Finder. Also just as great? Making your own!
5. The Great Outdoors
Plenty of the above activities include time in the great outdoors but we think it deserves its own spot on the list. And shoot, it's probably just as important for us humans as it is for our canine companions. Get outside. You can walk the neighborhood. You can go to the park. You can seek out nearby camping and hiking spots. You can just chillax on your own deck or porch or yard. The important things are fresh air, those glorious smells we mentioned above, and all the wonderful natural environmental enrichment you can only get outside.
PS. Also super great though not technically the outdoors as gushed about above? Car rides! Don't underestimate the wonderful enrichment power of going for a drive.
6. Comfort and Downtime
Sure, dogs nap a lot. That's not exactly what we mean here though. We mean cuddles, TTouch, doggie massage, aromatherapy, yoga doga, and getting in that quality decompression time, even if it's just a movie on the couch, *together.*
7. Social Enrichment
And that brings us to our final and most important type of enrichment. Dogs are a social species and what they need most in life is time with YOU. What many of the above activities have in common is that they're things you and your dog can do together.
Absolutely this can and often should include social opportunities with other dogs as is appropriate for your pups' social preferences (or cats, or guinea pigs, or bearded dragons if your dog is into that kind of thing). But there really is no substitute for time with humans.
Maybe we're tired at the end of a long work day and don't think we can manage a walk or some training games with our pups. Maybe we think that shelter dog got a KONG this afternoon and it's enough. But dogs need us to shake it off and prioritize that quality time. And much like that choice to hit the gym (BETTER than that, even – dogs + humans = oxytocin…it's the love hormone, guys!), it might be hard to get your shoes on or grab that bag of treats, but you will always be glad you did it once you make the choice.
Now as Finnegan is very clearly saying in that photo over there, "Get off the computer and enrich me, human!"
PS. Looking for even more ideas? Check out this wonderful #100daysofenrichment challenge from AniEd Ireland!