All About Dog Enrichment

Updated: Sep 30, 2021


Hands up… who has heard of the “buzzword” enrichment when it comes to dogs?


Whether you are a new or experienced pet parent you’ve probably at some point come across this word, be it while in conversation with someone else, or while scrolling through your social media. The term and concept is catching on within the dog community – it’s becoming more understood about what it is and why it’s important. I would even wager a guess that it is nearing par with its kissing cousin, who has enjoyed a lot of much needed spotlight over the years when it comes to dog’s needs, socialization.


While enrichment is enjoying much more attention these days and it might seem like the new buzzword on the street – the latest fad even – the concept has in actuality been an important focus to those who care for captive animals for nearly 100 years.


“Environmental enrichment is a loosely defined term that describes actions taken to enhance the well-being of captive animals by identifying and providing key environmental stimuli (Shepherdson, 1998). Its conceptual roots can be traced back to least to the beginning of the last century, when primatologist Terkes (1925) emphasized that captive animals should be given opportunities for both play and ‘work’ activities comparable to those performed by wild animals… it aims to both pre-empt and to cure stereotypies and other welfare problems.” *

I realize it seems like an odd thought, but yes Fido is technically considered a captive animal. Our dogs rely on us to help them meet even their basic needs. According to a post by World Atlas in 2018 the total population of dogs world-wide was approximately 900 million and rising. This statistic includes what’s known as free-range dogs which includes any dog who is not confined to a yard or house (i.e., street dogs, stray dogs, feral, etc.,). These dogs are able to make choices such as where they roam and what they do with their days. World Atlas claims that the World Health Organization estimates the population of free-ranging dogs in the world to account for 75%-85% of that global total of 900 million – that’s a lot of dogs needing to rely on their own brain and athleticism to figure out ways to survive.


Your thought right now might be, “wow our pet dogs have really hit the jackpot… what master manipulators... they figured out how to co-opt our parental predisposition for their own gain!”


Not so fast, Skippy. Yes, it’s true that our companion dogs benefit greatly from being “owned” and cared for by a specific person(s) as they will likely easily outlive a free-ranging dog. Our dogs technically don’t need to think about where their next meal is going to come from, or finding somewhere warm - or at least dry - to rest on a nightly basis. They don’t need to think about ways to avoid contracting disease, or avoiding predators, or finding a mate to ensure that they pass on their genes. Sounds great, right? But wait, there is a common theme popping out…. “they don’t have to think”. Since our companion dogs do not need to look out for themselves, they aren’t faced with any real problems to solve.

Nearly all animals have a brain that is involved in every function that their body does. A brain requires many things to grow strong and keep working well and one of those things is regular exercise. So with this in mind, if we start comparing all the ways in which free-range dogs need to use and rely on their brain just to get by on a day-to-day basis, let alone thrive, to the challenges Fido faces on a daily basis it’s night and day. I hear someone now…. “ok Jodi… so why does this matter? Our pet dogs are clearly different to free-range dogs due to continued selective breeding, right?”.


To an extent, selectively bred companion dogs are going to benefit from a responsible breeder recognizing what characteristics will help Fido thrive in their urban world and continue to breed in that direction (there are currently zero legislated regulations on dog breeding btw). However, there are people who deliberately set out to produce “historically accurate” dogs of their chosen breed (read: genetically programmed to perform the work they were originally bred to do in the first place), but are then sold to people as companion dogs where in most cases they will never actually do the work that they were biologically programmed - by humans - to perform. I can imagine how bored and frustrated I would be if I was born in the form of an elite swimming machine – a prime specimen – but then I was made to live in a landlocked desert city with no access to a pool and there was nothing available to channel my drive somewhere.

On the other hand, in Alberta and many other places around the world, dog rescue is popular. I myself adopted two dogs from a local rescue – neither is the product of a breeder’s involvement. In fact my boy, Ichiro, comes from Wasbasca, a reserve of the Bigstone Cree Nation north of Edmonton. He was a part of a weekend spay/neuter clinic put on by the Canadian Animal Task Force when he was around 6 months. He didn’t have a name and didn’t have anyone to be returned to so was transported to a rescue in Calgary. For several months prior to the day that would change his life who knows what he was up to during his day-to-day, but whatever it was he would have been using his brain a lot to ensure his survival.


It may seem like our companion dogs are not the same as free-range dogs and that their needs are different, but I assure you that biologically they are not. Fido almost certainly has the same instinctual survival-geared software (otherwise known as Fixed or Modal Action Patterns) running in his genes somewhere, as does his free-range counterpart. Any time we see a dog exhibiting fear, that is a survival instinct at play. How many of us have dogs who are fearful of things they needn’t be? It’s that old pre-domestication survival software at work.


So we’ve established that Fido is a captive animal and that captive animals are chronically under-stimulated since their entire “confined” lifestyle has removed the need for them to use their brain in order to survive. We‘ve considered how it would likely have negative affects on us if we were designed to perform certain types of activities and we are not provided with opportunities to do so. And we reviewed how despite Fido being a companion dog, they still have a mix of biological inclinations specific to both original selective breeding pressures within the bloodlines AND pre-domestication.


What do I wish for you to take away? That even though Fido doesn’t technically need to do things like scavenge for their food everyday like their free-range counter part, they are in many cases still primmed to want and/or feel the need to engage in those behaviours.

Ok - let’s finally get back around to the main topic here - enrichment! In the interest of continuing to increase public knowledge of the concept of enrichment and not assuming that everyone knows what it means I want to highlight 5 different types of environmental enrichment. We can can mix and match from these categories (and others) daily to not only provide Fido with a higher level of general welfare, but to help them reach their full potential in our home, and perhaps even resolving some “problem behaviours” along the way.

Social

Dogs are social creatures by nature, not just with their own species, but others as well. Look for ways to ensure Fido has access to engage if he chooses with another dog(s), another person, another animal – both new (if temperament allows) and familiar as often as possible.


Cognitive

Give that brain a job to do! Taking a fun training class, or just watch some great trick training videos on YouTube and engage with your dog to teach them a new skill as often as possible will help keep the cobwebs away.


Sensory

Our noses have about 6 million receptors, while our dogs on the other hand have up to 300 million! The part of their brain dedicated to analyzing smells is 40 times the size of ours proportionately. Think of it this way… we come in the door and we smell a pizza. Fido comes in the door and they don’t just smell pizza, but every single ingredient on the pizza in isolation to the point that they can technically taste each ingredient in their mouths via their scent ability. Letting Fido smell is such an important part of his essence as a dog. Walks alone are not a sufficient form of physical exercise for most dogs, try switching from a physical focus to a mental focus for Fido when on walks and take “sniffaris” as often as you can.


Physical

No one would deny the benefits of exercise to the body and mind, there are those of us who loathe going to the gym cause it’s boring, but would love to go for a run outside. Try taking a drive out of town with Fido and bring a 50 foot long line with you so you can get him running with a good game of fetch on some soft grassy terrain. ChuckIt launchers are a great toy that can help you get a ton of extra air time on your throws. During warm months find a dog-approved area to take Fido out for a swim, it’s easy on the joints, refreshing in the summer temperatures and a great source of stimulating physical exercise.


Foraging

Dogs are scavengers by nature, in fact this is an important component in the leading hypotheses surrounding domestication. Foraging activities are some of the easiest enrichment options to implement daily – even with a busy schedule. Pick up some fun food toys/games, or make some with items around the house, and instead of feeding Fido his meals from a bowl twice a day spread out his daily ration among a variety of these quick-loading activities. These types of activities will engage all of his problem-solving energy, alongside engaging all of his senses, and in some cases physical dexterity.


I’m asking that we all think about what our dog’s average day looks like, do they engage in at least one or two of these categories of enrichment daily? If so, that’s great! Let’s try to see if we can find ways to get it to three or even four every day, or other day.


If you realize that Fido barely engages in at least one of these categories of enrichment daily don’t dwell on the past. Start planning ways you can incorporate some of these elements into their day going forward and remember - when we know better, we do better!


* Swaisgood, Ronald & Shepherdson, David. (2006). Environmental Enrichment as a Strategy for Mitigating Stereotypies in Zoo Animals: A Literature Review and Meta-analysis. 10.1079/9780851990040.0256.

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