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  • Writer's pictureCanine Insights

We Could All Use Some Enrichment Right Now

The jokes are already beginning to stream in about what people are doing during their social isolation; eating lots of food, bingeing on Netflix, drinking all the alcohol in the house and generally climbing the walls. Jokes aside, what people are saying is when their lives are boring or unenriched they begin to have behavioral problems. This is why in many zoos enrichment is mandatory for the animals and thankfully it is beginning to catch on in the dog community too. So, what is enrichment?

“Environmental enrichment can be defined loosely as an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive care by identifying and providing environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological wellbeing”[1] [Shepherdson, 1998)

Zoo caretakers have known for some time that environmental enrichment is able to prevent animals from practicing repetitive and abnormal behaviors. This might be the perfect time for us to see that a lack of enrichment in day to day life can begin to take a toll on even the healthiest human. Our dogs have frequently lived with this social isolation lifestyle for years. Humans right now are not able to go to restaurants and gyms and many are working from home. We are unable to spend time with friends or family, unable to meet up with friends for a group activity or enjoy simple pleasures like going to the movies or going out for a cup of coffee. This sounds all too similar to the typical dog’s life. Eating meals from the same bowl every day, leaving the confines of the house for brief times, unable to do things like sniff fresh grass or have the freedom to pee on a tree or play games outside. Dogs spend long hours inside, often in crates and we routinely see abnormal or repetitive behaviors form as a result of this. These may present as barking excessively at passersby, separation anxiety, getting into the trash or destroying furniture. The dogs are stir crazy but it doesn’t have to be this way.

In the zoo world enrichment is often put in to five categories, Food, Sensory, Social, Cognitive, and Physical. I like to use these same categories when creating enrichment plans for dogs in a home or in a shelter.

Here are some ideas for each category:

Food enrichment might be the easiest as slow feeders, food puzzles and Kong and similar toys have become increasingly popular (this makes me so happy!). Begin by giving your dog quick and simple food toys. They should be able to get all the food out of these in a fairly short amount of time. If food is left in the toys than this is not enriching. Try to make it easier. If you do not have store bought food toys try using a muffin tin or paper cups to create one such simple food toy.

Sensory Enrichment: While we might enjoy a night at the movies, a concert or a day at the museum think of the sensory stimulation your dog may enjoy. Scent is probably going to be one many dogs enjoy the most. Try taking your dog to a new location and allowing them time to sniff. My dogs seem particularly fond of decomposing logs and rotting leaves. A nice sniff walk might be enriching for your dog and for you. If you cannot leave the yard try mixing some water from a tuna or sardine can in to a spray bottle and mix with water. Go out and spray this on the grass or on tree trunks and then bring your dog out to enjoy the new scents.

Social Enrichment is of course a tricky one right now as you cannot have human or dog guests over. Try going to a park or someplace that you will have plenty of space (this can vary for each dog) and allow your dog to see other dogs, people and maybe some wildlife or livestock from a distance. Along with seeing people walking their dogs, my dogs also got to watch a group of ducks this morning. Don’t forget that spending time with you might be the best social enrichment of all.

Cognitive Enrichment: Why not try some training games as part of your enrichment plan? You could teach your dog a new trick, like a retrieve, push a ball or ring a bell. Scent work can be great mental stimulation that you can do inside or outside the house.

Physical Enrichment: For the more athletic dogs this can be something like learning agility or playing with a flirt pole. Seniors and dogs with physical limitations still need exercise too but we can always adapt for the need of every dog. Remember, agility skills like going through a tunnel or walking on a homemade dog walk does not need to be fast or strenuous on the body. Creating a digging area for a dog that enjoys digging or going for a swim might be physically enriching for your dog.

Each dog is an individual so while giving suggestions for enrichment is easy we have to remember to adapt to the individual dog’s needs. The ideal enrichment plan should cater to the individual dog (and their human). Just like for us humans, enrichment is not a one size fits all.

Some quick tips to remember:

Enrichment should be more than just food toys.

Always consider safety.

While something may be easy or enjoyable for one dog, it may not be for another. Always consider the individual.

Think about mixing things up. It is not enriching if it becomes routine.

Toys that sit untouched in a toy basket are not enrichment items.

Enrichment can be fun! Enjoy learning more about your dog and his/her behaviors and preferences.


Lucky for dog owners in 2019 not one, but two books were published on the topic of canine enrichment:

Shay Kelly wrote Canine Enrichment: The Book Your Dog Needs You to Read (98 pages). His book is available on Amazon in paperback or for Kindle:

If you have not done so already be sure to join his Facebook group, Canine Enrichment. People from all around the world share examples of how they are enriching their dog’s life. You can find the group here:

Dogwise published the book Canine Enrichment For The Real World (230 pages) authored by Allie Bender and Emily Strong. This book is available as a paperback or Ebook. You can find them here:

I would highly recommend both.

Happy Enrichment!

Breanna Norris

[1] Scientific Approaches to Enrichment and Stereotypies in Zoo Animals: What’s Been Done and Where Should We Go Next? Ronald R. Swaisgood and David J. Shepherdson

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