The word “enrichment” has become synonymous with other words dog owners may come across, especially when working with a dog training expert (especially in the casual community). Words such as “mental stimulation”, “movement” and “activity” represent ways to enrich a dog’s life. But what is the endgame? What are we trying to achieve with our dogs with these activities?
In my opinion, the overall result we are looking for is satisfaction. When a dog feels satisfied, it is unlikely that he will practice destructive or disruptive behavior, or worse, develop problematic emotional problems associated with unsatisfaction (e.g., depression, frustration, decreased ability to deal with stress, etc.) .
For the sake of reasoning, let’s agree that the ultimate goal of enrichment is satisfaction. From there we just have to ask ourselves: How much of what activities do I have to do to keep my dog happy? The answer sometimes varies dramatically between individual dog and owner teams.
What types of enrichment activities should we focus on?
As predatory predators, dogs find satisfaction in food-related behaviors, likely in part due to an increase in the “feel good” brain chemical, dopamine, associated with those activities. As you may recall, dopamine rises when a dog (or indeed any animal) is given the opportunity to be given food.
Get the barge in your inbox!
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date.
Enrichment activities can be broken down into two very general categories, the first of which is predatory. Most obvious are all games / jobs that involve a dog chasing and grabbing. Sometimes these activities can include searching, stalking, and dissecting (pulling things apart). Each of these behaviors creates its own neurological state (that is, it is fun and feels good) every time the dog rehearses the behavior. These behaviors are extremely satisfying for some dogs as well. Options include fetch, pull, frisbee, agility, herding, and bait run.
What do we mean by “some” dogs? Here is a personal example. We have three Border Collies: Motley and Dazzle (age 10) and Chase (age 5); They all have the same father. Chase is only satisfied when he can do at least 15 minutes of frisbee a day. At the end of the day, he can be pretty irritating if he missed it. In the meantime, Motley and Dazzle couldn’t care less about chasing things and packing. While they enjoy playing frisbee, Chase’s predatory instincts are far greater, and therefore his need is greater.
In the end, it is up to the individual dog owner and the professional they work with to determine whether or not any of these activities will be particularly satisfactory for their dog.
The second category is tidying up: almost all dogs (regardless of whether they are driven by predatory activity or not) will experience tremendous levels of satisfaction from cleaning up. We define these activities as any behavior (other than predatory behavior) that a dog does to get food. This is where you see the greatest variation (and creativity) of owners, coaches, and behavioral counselors. Even practicing new behaviors and tricks could fall into this category (e.g. a dog solves a problem and is given a piece of food). Common suspects include kongs, treat-giving toys, puzzle toys, nose work games, and leash walks (although leash walks can also fall into the predator category depending on the dog).
My personal favorite is a snuff mat. I’ve used them on hundreds of client dogs as well as our own, and noticed a few things that are common with almost every dog that has used one.
First, almost all dogs seem interested in the snuff mat. We’ve seen dogs blow away treats and kongs, but we haven’t yet seen a customer’s dog completely blow away a snuff mat loaded with appropriately motivating food / treats. Second, satisfaction appears to be high for almost any dog engaged with a snuff mat (as measured by observing a dog’s apparent arousal levels before and after working on one). In addition, the Calgary Association of Digestive Health and Research (CADHR) has conducted research showing that snuff mats have been scientifically proven to improve a dog’s mental and physical well-being.
Just because you don’t have an AKC Defined Working Dog doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t like to be busy! Regardless of age, breed or size, all dogs have a natural desire to enrich mental and physical activities. Leave them to their own devices and they will likely find activities that have the potential to wreak havoc in your home!
Whether it’s a Belgian Malinois chasing a bite sleeve or a lazy border collie – like our older man Motley – sniffing around a mat with multiple strips of fleece to find treats, the end result is the same: one contented animal that it can settle down more easily and relax. And isn’t that something we all want for all dogs? A happier, less stressed dog means a happier, less stressed owner.