An enriched environment goes beyond basic dog care. It includes things like mental stimulation, engaging his senses, and introducing toys or activities that satisfy your dog’s instinctual needs.
As loving doggie “parents”, we provide shelter, food, water, toys, exercise and vet care for our pets. But did you know that an enriched environment should also be integrated into our dogs’ lives on a daily basis?
Environmental enrichment goes beyond basic dog care to encompass mental stimulation, sense engagement, and toys or activities that satisfy instinctual needs. It helps provide dogs with optimally healthy and happy lives, improves the human/animal bond, and reduces the risk of unwanted behaviors.
- Introduce new locales and situations
Slowly introducing your dog to novel locations and situations early in his development will help create a “bomb-proof” companion. Well-acclimated dogs are less stressed and greet change with glee. They don’t react with fear or anxiety whenever new and unprecedented situations occur.
Take new routes, stroll past construction sites, visit new locations, walk with other dogs or people, or allow your dog to take you for a walk by letting him sniff out his favorite smells.
If you have an adult dog that reacts to new situations with stress, try a less “threatening” way to change up his routine. Rotate his favourite toys, for example. Being exposed to the same toys all the time often generates boredom. Putting his toys on a rotating schedule helps maintain their novelty. Placing toys inside other toys, or in boxes, can also increase the dog’s interest and stimulation.
2. Satisfy his hunting instinct
Hunting and foraging for food is a natural part of wild canine behavior. Hiding food, toys, or healthy low-cal treats throughout the house will stimulate this natural instinct. Some dogs may need to be taught through positive reinforcement how to search for their food or toys, but most learn quickly.
You can also satisfy a dog’s foraging and hunting instincts by hiding treats in cardboard boxes, or placing his food in several bowls around the house, or in interactive puzzle toys.
Placing a few treats in an empty muffin tin with a ball over each hole will encourage your dog to sniff out and uncover the treats. To encourage more search-and-snack behavior, scatter premium kibble or treats around the yard. If you have multiple dogs, separate yards or access are important for those animals that are slower at foraging.
3. Improve his mind with training and games
Who doesn’t love to play games? There are many game-like training activities to choose from, including “100 things to do with a box”, originally written about by animal trainer Karen Pryor.
During this game, the dog interacts with a box in a different and novel way each time. It requires careful observation on your part, and a handful of healthy treats. At first, the dog may paw at the box. The next time he will likely paw it again – but don’t give him a treat until he tries something different. He may then push the box, bite at it, sniff it or jump on it. As soon as he offers something new, say “good” and reward him with a treat.
Agility and other sports are excellent ways to stimulate your dog’s brain and enrich his environment. Join a club near you or invest in some inexpensive portable agility equipment. Growing up, I used broomsticks, children’s tunnels and plastic crates to create an agility course for my family’s border collie. To encourage your dog, reward him with toys, treats, praise, or affectionate rubdowns once he has made it through the course.
4. Teach him to “groom” himself
Our dogs’ wild counterparts spend a considerable amount of time grooming themselves and each other. Giving a dog access to a kiddie pool, sprinkler or dog beach encourages him to “bathe” himself while enjoying the excitement that water play provides.
You can also try teaching your dog to wipe his dirty feet on different surfaces before coming inside. As always, use positive, reward-based training methods. Use a piece of indoor-outdoor carpet, synthetic turf, or a sisal doormat. It’s a fun training game, helps keep your house clean, and provides your dog with tactical enrichment.
5. Engage his senses
Think of ways you can stimulate your dog’s senses. Here are a few ideas:
- Engage his superior sense of smell by introducing nosework – a game that lets your dog sniff out treats or other yummy smells in small boxes. Eventually you can increase the complexity of the game by nesting these boxes in other boxes. An aromatherapy massage is another wonderful way to engage your dog’s sense of smell. Use different oils to encourage a desired behavior – a calmer or a more vibrant dog.
- Stimulate his hearing with dog-specific CDs or recall games. For new or shy dogs, softly playing audiobooks or gentle music may help acclimate them to their surroundings.
- Ready or not. . . ! A game of hide and seek in a new, safe area encourages your dog to use multiple senses as he explores the spot while looking for you. Have him “ping pong” between two family members to make the game even more challenging. Once he finds you, be sure to reward him.
Circling through these five themes of environmental enrichment can help keep your dog physically and mentally stimulated as well as happy, content and well-behaved.
Kenny Coogan holds a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and is a certified professional bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. He is a weekly pet columnist and magazine contributor and has authored a children’s book titled A Tenrec Named Trey.