Canine enrichment has quickly become one of my most favorite discussions topics lately. As far as I know, this trend has really hit new heights with dog owners. There is more consideration being taken by dog owners to offer their dogs physically and mentally stimulating “enrichment games” as a proactive measure to prevent some of the most common behavioral problems that most puppy-parents have.
(Okay, fine... Maybe not this EXACT kind of journey)
I, myself, went on a journey for some inspiration for activities that offer a variety of outlets that would satisfy the natural urges of my own dogs. This search was likely started by the introduction of Kongs and other stuffable chew toys into our home and as a staple of our training programs. This prompted me to want to learn more about why such toys are so beneficial to our canine friends. While Kongs are a great starting point and, for most dogs, definitely satisfy the need to chew-there are so many other enrichment activities that go above and beyond. Naturally, canines are scavengers. This means that the majority of a dog’s day, without human interference, would be spent scavenging and/or hunting for their food. In addition, studies have shown that, physiologically, dogs’ digestive systems are not naturally suited for 1 large meal a day-but instead for multiple, smaller meals. Both of these facts speak to the mental and physical benefits dogs receive from enriching food games. Since my learning journey began, it is extremely rare that you will see any of my dogs being bowl fed. And the difference that has made in our multi-dog household is beyond anything I could have imagined.
The run-of-the-mill behavioral problems that most dog-owners find themselves dealing with at some point are generally self-rewarding behaviors, such as barking, digging, and chewing. Most of my clients have had one or some of these issues with their dogs to varying degrees. What I try to explain to each of my clients that come to me with these problems is that these behaviors ACTUALLY ARE NOT THE PROBLEMS. Let that just sink in for a minute…. Okay, let me explain: dogs, like any other living thing, have a set of needs. Obviously, food, water, shelter, sleep, etc are always thought of when considering a pet’s needs-but two equally important needs that are often overlooked or not even considered are exercise (both physical AND mental) and entertainment/stimulation. A dog can not live on food and water alone! So this is why I say that the perceived problem behaviors our dogs exhibit are, in fact, not the problem-they are the symptoms of the problem, which most often is simply boredom. Dogs need to be able to have acceptable outlets for their pent-up mental and physical energy. If acceptable outlets are not provided, the need is still there and the pup will take it into their own hands (paws) to satisfy these needs and urges.
Dogs and/or Dog-Owner teams that are actively involved in a canine sport will often exhibit less of these behavioral issues (judging dogs within the same breed) when kept on a routine of practicing and training. However, most of us are simply pet owners and would much prefer to cuddle up on the couch with our dogs after a long day at work. Oftentimes, at this time of day, our dogs have likely been crated all day and/or left without proper stimulation all day and are just too revved up to want to be couch potatoes with us. So the idealistic dog owner tends to end up aggravated and overwhelmed with their dog’s behavior-especially after a long, exhausting work-day. As stated, all dogs have needs and urges and drive that aren’t necessarily consistent with proper behavior in our world. When you look at different specific breeds, you will notice varying levels and types of drive, needs, and urges. For centuries(give/take), we humans have been involved in the propagation of a certain quality of progeny from specific breeds. Breeders have made it their mission to better their prospective breed through choosing to pair certain bloodlines and dogs that exhibit certain traits. Because of our involvement, we have produced the best of the best of the best. However, most breeds have been bred for a purpose. And, commonly, puppy-buyers choose their new addition based on looks and some sort of idealistic thought of the breed, rather than choosing based on lifestyle and breed purpose. Ergo, you can easily wind up with born-to-be high-drive, working machines in a not so active home and family, which typically is extremely conducive to the development of a perfect storm.
The good news is, that if we take all of this information into consideration we can easily take proactive measures to prevent these unwanted behavioral issues from developing and/or take proactive measures to prevent our dog’s current unwanted behavior from becoming deeply-ingrained bad habits. With just a little bit of effort, googling, and creativity you can find store-bought and home-made enrichment games to satisfy most all of your doggie’s natural inclinations. You can make a sand-pit if you’ve got a digger and bury food toys in it. You can also use empty cardboard boxes filled with packaging paper to scatter your pup’s food in. You can fill a plastic bottle up with your dog’s kibble and drill holes in the bottle. You can place food toys in hiding spots around the house and let your dog go on a scavenger hunt and use their nose to sniff out supper. The possibilities are endless and it makes for a satisfied, calm pup after the game is over. I firmly believe that offering enrichment should be a staple in any training program and work along-side training. So check out some enrichment activities for your dog today and ditch the bowl. I bet you’ll see a big difference in your dog’s behavior in less than a week’s time.