It is well known that fortification offers tremendous benefits to animals in human care, whether those animals are in zoos, aquariums, animal shelters, or sleeping on our couch. What is far less known is exactly what “fortification” means, not to feed animals in such a way that it is difficult to obtain food or to give them puzzle toys or normal toys to amuse them. While these offerings are certainly an important part of many enrichment programs, they are only a fraction of the overall enrichment concept.
In the 2019 book Canine Enrichment for the Real World: Make It Part of Your Dog’s Daily Life, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong note that enrichment can be defined as “addressing all of an animal’s needs as accurately as possible meet as they would be taken in the wild to enable them to engage in species-specific behaviors in a healthy and appropriate manner. “This broader approach to enrichment is a welcome development in the canine world, and the book by Bender and Strong has become the focal point for this topic.
Like most trainers, behaviorists, and animal shelter workers, I find this book an indispensable tool in making our dogs’ lives as fulfilling and happy as possible. It is rich in current research, easy to read, and equally useful for reference. As the authors say, “This book is not about our opinions. The goal of this book is to bring you the full world of information and resources available about who dogs are and how they can meet their needs. “
In order to enrich our dogs (or any animal we care for), it is important to recognize the importance of natural behaviors for the well-being of the animals and to create opportunities for these natural behaviors to be carried out. In the zoo community where the concept originated, the goal of enrichment is to do what we can to induce the natural behavior of captive animals.
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Wildlife studies are being conducted to determine what these specific natural behaviors look like for each species and then to facilitate their expression. This has been achieved in a number of ways: changing the exhibition design, including changes in structure and temperature; Adjusting sensory elements for light and sound; Providing water, mud or branches for climbing; Offer foraging opportunities that mimic the natural experience; Prioritization of social groups; and so much more.
In the pet world, the concept of enrichment has often been more narrowly defined, and play, toys (including feeding toys), and exercise have been recommended to make dog lives richer and more interesting. Enrichment is so much more than that. If those who love dogs and want to please them understand what enrichment really is, dog lives could actually be vastly improved.
The emphasis on evoking natural behaviors adds significantly to the concept and quality of life of our dogs. Dogs have a wide range of natural behaviors, and we are familiar with many of the items on the list: exercise of sufficient amount and intensity; mental stimulation such as problem solving and exploration; dig; Barking; Chew; social interactions with people and other dogs; and enough sleep.
While the book is filled with specific suggestions for enrichment, as well as detailed explanations that put them in a historical context, I would like to highlight the following general tips that are essential for the best possible enrichment of our dogs.
• The ideal fortification varies depending on the individual and race. Dogs have different needs in terms of what they enjoy and how much time they want to spend on such activities, including the time they spend in social contact with others.
• Choosing a dog is a great form of enrichment whether these decisions are about which path to go, what to sniff, or whether or not to approach a person. Some control over their surroundings and what happens to them prevents dogs from feeling powerless, which in turn can lead to all kinds of negative emotions.
• Exercise affects the brain, mood, and digestion, Memory, appetite, sleep, learning, stress, impulse behavior, depression and anxiety, but not all physical activity is enough. Some dogs require longer periods of vigorous exercise each day, while others thrive with shorter, gentler physical activities. (Interestingly, the many benefits of exercise are not achieved through forced treadmill exercise.)
• Security and protection are important elements of enrichment. Providing a sanctuary that can be used by a dog who needs to relax in a busy household can make a huge difference to many dogs.
• Mental stimulation is an important part of enrichment and can take many forms. Dog sports, playing, exercising, foraging, and walking all offer dogs opportunities to use their brains in beneficial ways.
• Let them be dogs! Dogs usually need to get involved in the specific activities that they enjoy. Activities can include digging, barking, sniffing, sleeping a lot, chewing, searching, or playing. It is an important goal of enrichment to give them the opportunity to immerse themselves in what happens naturally. Of course, some behaviors that dogs like – like digging, barking, and chewing – are problematic for owners (and neighbors!) And can even indicate a dog in distress if done too much. The goal is not the unlimited chance to engage in such behavior, but to create pleasant and appropriate opportunities for it.
Improving enrichment plans for our own dogs can make them happier and full of their lives, and enriching dogs for the real world shows us how.