It's a Wonderful Life


Exploring Dog Enrichment

It’s an amazing world we live in! We live in a time where we can choose to learn, explore, or experience pretty much anything we want.  Whether in real time or in virtual time, our lives can be as full as we want them to be. Big budget or small budget all that life has to offer can be yours if you choose to take advantage of the many opportunities available to enrich your life.

My grandmother was born in 1910 and she lived until she was 93. I remember her telling me once how grateful and amazed she was to have lived and experienced the advances that had taken place during her lifetime – most notably the television.  I think she’d be pretty impressed now!

You can:

  • get an education for almost anything at any age;
  • travel far and wide in real time or through the use of electronics;
  • form friendships and share experiences with people across the world who you may never meet in person;
  • learn about cultures long forgotten or recently re-discovered;
  • experience life as it existed on our planet millions of years before our time;
  • look at space far beyond our own galaxy; or
  • even design your own fantasy-reality if you wish.

In contrast, the animals we choose to share our lives with have far less opportunity – in some cases literally no opportunity – to experience interesting and unique things on a regular basis.  I think it’s our responsibility to enrich the lives of our domestic animals as much as we can. They are with us for such a short time, surely we have a duty to make those short lives as fulfilling as we can?!

Enrichment can be many different things to many different individuals.  It’s not always easy to choose what might be interesting to somebody else.  It’s especially difficult when that individual doesn’t speak our language. However, we love our dogs and we know some of the things that make them happy – that’s a good place to start.  Here are just a few ideas for enriching your dog’s life!

Toy Enrichment.

In a previous article, I discussed how I trained Jack to stop destroying his stuffed toys.  He loves stuffed toys beyond all other things! When he began destroying and also ingesting them, I initially took them all away.  Upon reflection, I just couldn’t deny him the one thing he seemed to want most, so I set up a training plan and we successfully overcame his desire to rip up and eat his toys.  Now he has stuffed toys available all the time and he’s pretty happy about it.

However, it would be nice to keep his joy of new “stuffies” re-occurring.  He shows such delight and excitement every time he gets a new toy; why not find a way to give this to him frequently and without breaking the bank?  

What I’ve started doing is leaving him 6 or so stuffed toys to play with. I put the rest away and then I rotate them out on a reasonably regular – but not predictably regular – basis.  

Sometimes I’ll just pull out one he hasn’t seen for awhile and we’ll focus on that one, have a big play session and it will be special for a few days.  

Other times, I’ll put away all the current toys (except his ultimate favorite Hedgie the Hedgehog), and replace them with a similar number of some others he hasn’t seen in awhile.  I try and do the whole toy replacement strategy when he’s out on a walk with my husband so he can discover a room full of “new “toys when he gets home.

Finally, his most favorite stuffie – the one he anxiously waits for while I perform some minor surgery on an ever-increasingly threadbare coat – gets replaced with a new one on special occasions.  A seemingly rejuvenated Hedgie is the ultimate joy of all!

What’s your dog’s favorite toy?  Can you think of a way to mix it up, change the routine or find variations on a theme to keep your dog’s interest piqued?  

Get creative! Even balls for fetch can be changed up with bigger, smaller, flavored, squeaky or textured balls.  Fetch rules can be played with too. Teach a couple of different ways to fetch and put them on cue: “ Wait for it to be thrown” cue; or “Run over there and wait for me to throw it to you” cue – and mix them up just to keep him guessing.

If you don’t have the budget to have lots of different toys, why not try occasionally hiding the regular ones around the house in different, dog-accessible locations and teach your dog to “find it”?    

Maybe you and your dog owning friends can set up a Toy Swap.  Everyone swaps some toys each month and maybe a small monthly donation is set up to replace anything that might get damaged beyond repair.  

Even just putting all Jack’s toys away in his toy box when I clean the house offers long moments of enjoyment as he brings each one out again and spreads them around.

 

Training Enrichment.

Obviously as a trainer, I’m always going to suggest that you consider taking a new training class with your dog! Once the practical training is complete - your dog is housetrained, social and friendly - don’t overlook all the fun options out there.  Training is a fun way to build your partnership and your bond.

Modern life offers a lot of choice even for training classes.  There are more dog sports now then ever before and there are a lot of options that are appropriate for the average dog and the average family.  Consider, Agility for fun, Nosework, Tracking, Tricks, Dock Diving, or Rally Obedience.

Look for training classes taught by experienced, positive reinforcement trainers in an appropriate location.  If the classes are inside, there should be appropriate footing for the activity and a reasonable amount of space.  We often train outdoors in local parks – the location itself can offer some enrichment too if you choose wisely.

Look at some of the professional dog training websites for trainers in your area:  Karen Pryor (clickertraining.com), Pet Professional Guild (petprofessionalguild.com).  If you can’t find anyone training in your area or if you’re just not a group class person, check out the ever-increasing number of online courses or videos available.  One source I’ve used quite a bit myself is “Kikopup” by Emily Larlham and Dogmantics who has created many YouTube video tutorials.

If training classes are out of your budget, consider getting together with a group of like-minded dog friends and come up with your own class idea.  I occasionally get together with a friend or friends and we work on specific things we all have an interest in. Sometimes we work on obedience with the distraction of our dog’s friends; sometimes we do some fun agility using rocks, fences, stairs or other things in the environment; and sometimes we work on maintaining our leashed or unleashed skills. Other times we just come up with new things like teaching our dogs to respond only to their own names when called or cued within a group – harder than you might think!

 

Meal Enrichment.

This is something that I’ve probably mentioned hundreds of times in my articles over the years, but it always bears repeating: use your dog’s mealtimes to add enrichment and entertainment to his life.  Do the same thing any time he’s alone or when you’re busy doing other things.

There is incredible value in adding in the mental challenge of puzzle solving. Like us, dogs can experience a huge boost in confidence by solving a thoughtfully challenging puzzle.    These kinds of activities can really help anxious and fearful dogs, and it’s the first thing I add into a behavioural modification program. It’s also a great technique to help your puppy learn to handle the emotional struggle of being left alone as he matures.  

Even if you don’t have a dog who’s anxious or struggles being left alone, why not offer them some regular entertainment?  Think about your own wish to occasionally just take some time out and do a jigsaw puzzle, work on a crossword, read a book, play a game on your phone or just scroll through Facebook posts.  It’s different and it’s mentally engaging and interesting. Dogs need and benefit from these types of things too.

Using food and puzzle toys makes the whole idea more enticing for your dog and makes it easy to get them engaged.  Don’t make it too hard! Ease into challenges gradually to keep them engaged.


There are probably thousands of toys on the market designed to contain treats and food and dispense them in various fashions.  Treat dispensers range from remote controlled, to motion activated to those activated solely by your dog’s own hard work. I tend to slot the toys into 3 categories:  slow feeder bowls or puzzle toys; toys that need to be rolled, shoved, tossed or wobbled; and toys that can be chewed on. All 3 categories offer different opportunities and can be used in different ways.  If your dog is in the car or in his crate, maybe a chew-type treat dispenser is best; if your dog is loose in the house and needs some physical exercise, maybe a ball dispensing treats is a good choice.

I highly recommend that dog owners have at least one toy from each category for maximum benefit and some variety.  If you shop wisely and consider your dog’s mouth strength and destructive tendencies, the right toy can last a long time.  I have a lot of toys because I used to have 3 dogs, plus I’m a bit of a dog toy junkie! Many of my toys have been in use for 10 or more years and almost all of them can be safely be cleaned in the dishwasher – a definite bonus.  

If having a drawer full of these types of toys is out of your budget, check out the DIY sites for canine enrichment.  I’m a member of one such Canine Enrichment group on Facebook, and I’m continuously amazed at the creativity of people when it comes to DIY ideas for their dogs.

 

The Freedom of Choice.

While maybe not the first thing that might come to mind when considering enrichment, choice is an important thing.

Choice is a powerful motivator and leads to overall enrichment in any life.  Having an option, a choice is empowering. Long term, a lack of choice for any individual can lead to feelings of hopelessness and discouragement – that spark of interest in things around you just goes out.

 

Training for Choice.

Training for choice should be a “thing”.  What I mean by this is teaching your dog skills that will allow you to offer him or her choices thereby increasing your ability to add enrichment to his or her life.

For example, I meet many dogs who really hate having their collars or harnesses put on before they head out for a walk.  This doesn’t make much sense to most people. If the dogs in question visibly enjoy their walks, so why don’t they enjoy the equipment that leads them into that enjoyable walk?  Comfort of the equipment is, of course, a factor – but that aside, I think it comes down to freedom of choice. Teach your dog to put on his own equipment!

I’ve taught Jack to put his head through his harness and stand while I fasten it up.  I’ve made a pact with him that I won’t just hold him and jam his harness on and I’ve sworn my husband to that same pact.  

I hold out his harness, then Jack usually dances around, maybe grabs a toy but eventually comes to put his head through the harness.  Sometimes he does this immediately and is clearly excited to go out, and sometimes he dances around for quite awhile before putting on his harness – maybe on very rainy days!  

While it’s not a complete choice – he’s not getting a walk without his harness on – he’s still participating in the activity and making a choice in that moment.  He can communicate to me whether he wants a walk or not. He’s always chosen to eventually put his harness on, but if he didn’t, I would put it away and try again later.  It’s one way he has to tell me that he doesn’t want to go – for whatever reason he may have – that’s a choice I can offer to him.

Other ways to offer enrichment through choice:

  1. Sleeping areas.  If you have the space, consider having more than one bed and more than one sleeping area for your dog.  If the beds and areas are each a little bit different, then they can make a choice based on how they feel in that moment.  Even when I had 3 dogs, I always had at least 4 beds plus there was always the option of the tile floor, the area carpet or the sofa.  I love when I get a chance to stay in a hotel and getting to experience a different bed – maybe bigger, maybe softer, maybe harder – it’s a change!  Why would dogs be any different? It’s an easy choice to offer.

  2. Physical Freedom.  There’s nothing more satisfying to most dog owners than to have a dog who is safe and reliable off leash.  This is my number one training priority whenever I adopt a new dog. If your dog isn’t reliable off leash, make this a priority.  The freedom to run freely and investigate is like none other. It’s an incredibly enriching choice to offer your dog.

    If you have a dog who isn’t safe off leash, seek the help of an experienced positive trainer and see if you can’t find a way to offer your dog some increased level of physical freedom.  If a trainer is out of your budget, find appropriate places where your dog can at least get some running room at times. Use long lines and body harnesses, borrow a friend’s yard, make use of empty tennis courts if you can – be creative.  It’s such an important choice.

  3. Grooming and Handling Needs.  With the increasing trend of poodle-type dogs, I find it alarming how many of them hate being groomed!  Even dogs with regular fur – how many of them hate having their nails trimmed? Maybe almost equal to training for freedom, teach your dogs to tolerate and, if possible, enjoy their grooming requirements. 

    I rarely brush Jack as his coat needs are pretty simple, but I’ve still taught him to tolerate being brushed.  He has choice here too. If I begin brushing and he walks away, I stop – I don’t pursue him and hold him still to be brushed.  If he isn’t enjoying it, I think about why: maybe he’s sore somewhere, maybe he just doesn’t want to right now. I try later on and if he’s still resistant, I’ll delve deeper into the why’s and why not’s and try and solve his discomfort.

    Teach your dog to enjoy bathing, having their feet and body toweled off, nails trimmed, brushing, blow drying, ears, eyes and teeth cleaning, everything you can think of. 

    Under the category of Handling is also vet visits. I go to a veterinarian who offers choices to her patients.  They are free to wander about the room vs. being plunked on a table. They also have the choice of being examined intimately or not because they are not restrained.  It’s my job to ensure my dogs can be safely handled. If my dog is usually tolerant of an exam and is suddenly resistant, than we immediately have more knowledge about his condition than if we simply forced an exam every time.  Consequently, my dogs love my veterinarian and going to the vet!

  4. Inside / Outside Freedom.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog could choose to go outside or come inside whenever they wished?

    At my cabin, I’ve installed a dog door so my dogs can come and go into a fenced yard as they please. My cabin sits on some acreage and our neighbors are very far away – no one is bothered if my dogs bark at a squirrel or rip around the yard playing.  I will admit that this is rarely something I would recommend for a suburban dog and I don’t have one at home.

    I do, however, offer a variation of this choice in my home by simply letting my dogs in or out pretty much whenever they ask.  I have spent a lot of time and energy training them to tolerate the sights of sounds of our neighborhood and things going on in the yards around them.  This is NOT an easy job when you tend to adopt reactive Dobermans! It’s also a job that needs refreshing every spring when previously dormant activities start up once again, but it’s worth it for my dogs to have that choice.

    This isn’t an easy choice for everyone to offer, particularly if you don’t have a yard.   However, I think everyone can come up with something with a certain amount of creativity and training.   Even a window with a view can be an enriching activity if your dog can be trained to resist barking at every passing bird, dog, squirrel or human he spots.

 

In Summary.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to make our dogs lives as fulfilling as we can.  They are such amazing creatures and offer us so much in the short time they are with us. I think it’s the least we can do for them.

I would love to hear from my readers about what ways you can come up with to enrich your pets’ lives.  Cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, gerbils, …? Email me with your best ideas!

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