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What Your Dog Needs: Canine Enrichment

Helping pet parents help their dogs get the most out of life is one of the most fulfilling parts of being a dog trainer. As a science-based trainer, it’s my aim to help pet-parents understand their dogs’ needs and enrich their lives accordingly.


Why, as a dog trainer, am I so invested in canine enrichment?


A large portion of my job deals with helping humans and their dogs learn to coexist in the healthiest way possible for all involved. This involves teaching pet parents how to best meet their dogs' needs.


Dogs have needs for stimulation in areas of their lives pertaining to nutrition, cognition, social interaction, sensory experiences, environment, and physical activity. Meeting these needs in a creative way that is fulfilling to a dog can be categorized as enrichment.


So what can you do to enrich your dog’s life?


First, it’s important to understand that your dog’s needs will be different based on their age, temperament, and lifestyle. A social, out-going puppy will get much more out of a puppy play-date than a senior dog that prefers solitary activities.


Know what your individual dog likes and needs, and respond accordingly.


I've supplied a few ideas for how to meet needs from each category below. Try a few different activities from each category to see what your dog enjoys the most!


Nutrition/Food


Dogs are naturally foragers, so skip the dinner bowl and find a way to make mealtime more engaging!


Most dogs would actually rather work for their meals. Turn mealtime into an opportunity for your dog to practice naturally fulfilling doggie behaviors such as snuffling, chewing, licking, and foraging for food.


You can use a toy specifically designed to promote these behaviors, such as a snuffle mat, KONG, or one of the Busy Buddy toys from PetSafe.


There are all sorts of ways to DIY mealtime enrichment, too. Get creative with old toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, and old water bottles. Let your dog unleash their inner predator and promote naturally fulfilling behaviors such as shredding with contents from your recycling bin.

Of course, you should always supervise activities that involve any toy or object that may become a choking hazard.


You don’t have to limit food-based enrichment to mealtime fun, though. Try stuffing toys like KONGs with different dog-safe fillings for an extra yummy treat. Some of my pups’ favorite fillings are pumpkin puree mixed with chicken broth and peanut butter, or raw ground turkey.


Cognitive


Enrich your dog’s life with puzzles and problem-solving to meet their needs for cognitive stimulation. You can use food puzzle toys, like the ones mentioned above, but this category also includes learning new tricks and fun training sessions.


Try teaching your dog a new trick, or have a five minute free-shaping session. Play hide-and-seek. Try a dog sport such as tracking, Rally-Obedience, flyball, or agility.


Trick training sessions in low-stress environments are not only enriching; they’re a great way to build confidence for many dogs. It teaches them that engaging with training is fun and safe, while building a positive association with the trainer (you!)


Free-shaping encourages dogs to make choices about their behavior, and teaches them that thinking really pays off.


Social Interaction


Social enrichment is any activity your dog enjoys doing with another dog or human. Focus on finding an activity that engages your dog at their pace.


Some dogs may enjoy off-leash walks with a trusted canine companion, but would find larger playgroups overwhelming. Others may do better skipping interactions with other dogs altogether, focusing instead on some human bonding time. Still others may do well only with trusted human friends and a select few canine companions.


Good social activities include walks with trusted humans or dogs, play dates, daycare, and simple activities like visiting family or a good doggie massage.


The focus of social enrichment should always be on creating a trust-filled bond based on a number of positive interactions. Forget all that “alpha” stuff you’ve heard and just carve out some time to bond with your pup.


Sensory


Your dog’s brain has 40% more space devoted to olfaction than yours, proportionally. With so much brain-power devoted to sniffing, it’s no wonder our pups spend so much time doing it!


Sensory enrichment for dogs often focuses on activities that use their noses for this reason. Take your dog on a “sniffari,” letting them stop and sniff wherever they want (as long as it’s safe, of course!)


Fill your dog’s food puzzles with interesting and stinky new treats. Some doggie favorites include duck feet, yak cheese, liver treats, and deer antlers. You can also create a fun game for your pup’s nose by hiding the treats around the house and encouraging them to sniff them out.


For activities that engage your dog’s other senses, try opening a window while birds are chirping and squirrels are chattering, or play some music softly.


Environmental


Change your dog’s immediate living area to provide environmental enrichment. This category can include simple objects your pup likely already has, such as cozy beds and access to windows to look through, but you can also get pretty creative with it!


Environmental enrichment includes fun objects such as sand boxes for your dog to dig in, appropriate toys such as appropriate bones and antler chews. Tunnels and play structures can also make a fantastic addition to your dog’s environment, if you have the space. Otherwise, your dog will likely be excited to use the furniture you already have around.


Physical Activity


Physical activity is usually the most talked about form of enrichment for our dogs. It’s no secret that many breeds thrive with opportunities for rigorous activity built into their daily schedules.


I saved this category for last because I feel dog training has a complex relationship with exercise and our dogs. We’re often told that a tired dog is a good dog, but what modern dog training shows us is that balancing our dogs’ needs with a holistic, individually-based approach is what our dogs really need.


That isn’t to say your dog doesn’t need exercise. All dogs benefit from some level of activity, and of course, some need more than others. I simply wish to caution people against a one-size-fits-all approach to canine care, especially when outdated ideas about our furry best friends may push some to exercise their pups to the point of physical exhaustion for the sake of behavior.


Instead, try to find a form of exercise for your dog that meets their physical needs while also providing a fun & fulfilling outlet. Exercise shouldn’t be regulated to the same walk around your neighborhood every single day.


Try swimming at a near-by lake, hikes, puppy playdates, games with a flirt pole, and fetch to meet your pup’s need for physical activity. Higher-energy dogs may even enjoy an activity like bikejoring. Of course, make sure to take into account age, breed, and physical condition before encouraging your dog to engage in anything physically demanding.


If you ever have concerns about your dog’s abilities and limits, consult with your vet. Health and physical comfort should always take precedence.


How do you make sure you're meeting all of your dog’s needs?


You probably noticed that several enrichment activities fall into multiple categories. A long hike supplies physical exercise, while providing all sorts of sensory enrichment along the way. (Just make sure you actually let your dog take brakes to sniff & listen to the birds!)


Food puzzles provide food-based enrichment, as well as cognitive enrichment. Teaching your dog a new trick may provide social and cognitive enrichment.


Meeting all of your dog’s needs isn’t too difficult once you have an understanding of what they are. What’s most important is making sure the activities you choose are appropriate for your dog based on their health and their emotional needs.


Most dogs will need activities from all six categories listed here, but those activities will look very different based on the individual dog.


For example, my two senior dogs get most of their exercise from long and slow nature walks. When my chow/elkhound mix was younger, she used to love bike rides, but her needs have changed.


Similarly, both of my dogs are primarily interested in social activities involving other humans. Social enrichment for them mostly involves bonding activities with humans they know well. I’ve met many dogs who love dog parks, daycare, and puppy playdates, but it should never be assumed that just because one dog likes the activity, your dog will.


Set your pup up to have a positive experience with all new activities by taking it at their pace. Enrichment is about providing opportunities for fun, safe experiences, so your dog should always be allowed to engage at a level at which they feel comfortable.


Most of all, just have fun with your dog! The more fun you and your dog have together, the stronger your bond becomes. Find some activities your dog and you enjoy.


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