Monday, February 14, 2022

What is Enriching for Your Dog?


Just like reinforcement, enrichment is something that our dogs have to chose.  Not all dogs find the same things enriching.  But how can we know what our dogs find most enriching?

First lets figure out what the difference is between reinforcement and enrichment.  Reinforcement is going to be our topic for next week so we will dive into that more later.  As dog owners, we use reinforcement to reward our dogs for the behaviors we like.  Enrichment is not meant to be a reward but more of a way to meet our dog's natural instinct needs from day to day.  Behavior Consultants from around the world have pretty much agreed that enrichment activities should into these criteria.

Enrichment should...

  • be an activity that has interaction between the participants.  
  • effect the response a dog has to a particular action.  
  • lead to evidence based, behavior changes.  
  • be changing constantly.
  • differ from dog to dog based on their needs.
  • reliant on the evolution of learning experiences of the dog and human.

The importance of participating together in enrichment activities.

For this example, I'm going to use one of Azul's favorite enrichment activities of a sniff-a-bout.  With our winter climate, Azul spends time each day in our backyard by himself.  While he may sniff and explore during this time, this is not necessarily enriching for him because it doesn't fit many of the other requirements.  We also try to take a daily sniff-a-bout together which he finds very enriching.  If he is alone, there isn't any teamwork leading to behavior changes or response changes to things in the environment.  But when we are together on a sniff-a-bout, Azul is processing or reading the environment we are in, while at the same time working as a teammate with an emotional connection between us which leads to a change in responses to things we find in the environment together.  The backyard gets boring, but sniff-a-bouts allow us to change environments regularly and I can choose the best environment for the type of exercise I think Azul needs on a particular day.  Our sniff-a-bouts are ever evolving, as we enjoy new and different things as our partnership grows.  Those things are missing when a dog's only outlet for sniffing is in the backyard.

Enrichment can and should effect responses to activity and changes in behavior.

If you have followed our journey, you will know that Azul's biggest distraction is other dogs.  When we first started taking sniff-a-bouts when Azul was a puppy, if another dog came into view Azul's reaction was to rush up and say hi to everyone.  Being a reactive dog owner, I know first hand how bad this response can be!  During our daily sniff-a-bouts, we slowly transitioned that response of rush to greet into a more suitable response of stop, watch, and wait for my cue for further instructions.  We are working toward having Azul automatically return to my side when he sees another dog and hold a wait or heel with me until I give permission to greet or cue a leave it.  This is what he does when we see people, but dogs are just a bit too exciting still.  While this type of training also involves reinforcement, it's the regular practice of allowing Azul to sniff to his heart's content, return to me for brief periods, then return to sniffing.  This means that once the other dog has passed, Azul's favorite reward is going to sniff where the dog was previously walking or standing, which again is very enriching.  Breaking this down further, Azul returning to my side is the desired automatic response whenever a distraction is spotted.  Then following my cues to make sure everyone involved has a positive experience is the behavior change part of this example.

Enrichment should change regularly.

With a puppy, we can use an enrichment feeder in their crate to help them create a positive associate with the crate as being a calm, safe, and happy place to hang out.  Typically we start by doing this while we are in the room with the puppy, often encouraging them to learn how to eat from the toy presented.  Eventually we work toward being able to give the pup an enrichment feeder so that we can calmly slip away to do something else without creating a panic.  We as humans get set on the pattern of always doing this when we leave, but if we don't change up the enrichment feeding methods our dogs typically get bored after the repetition and either stop eating the treat or going back to some of the unwanted behaviors they had originally when we started the training.  We can continue to make food toys enriching by changing through various recipes, various types of toys, and various locations or changes in routine to help the dog stay engaged and find the activity enriching.

Enrichment driven by breed traits.

Not all dogs will have the same needs based on their personality, lifestyle, and training level.  However breeds often play a role in what they will find most enriching.  For example, herding breeds where bred to be able to move sheep herds, watching over those sheep, providing protection and chasing off threats.  If take a herding breed such as a Border Collie or an Aussie and put them in a "people world" environment where they are never going to see sheep, that doesn't change their natural instinct to want to herd, watch, protect, and chase off.  This is why many herding breeds develop a huge attachment to their favorite toys whether that's balls, stuffed animals, etc.  This attachment often leads to resource guarding tendencies if we don't give them an opportunity to learn how to develop their skills of herding in a natural yet safe way.  Whatever their favorite toy is, let them have lots of them!  That way if they are guarding one, you can offer them to trade for another.  Teaching the dog to trade then becomes invaluable as they then will bring items to you instead of running off to play keep away.  Once the trade is well established, you can then add back in a game of Keep Away with your dog in a controlled environment where other dogs or distractions are not going to interfere.  

So what about a hunting dog that was bred to follow a scent trail, but the owner does not go hunting?  Enrichment activities for these breeds will likely involve sniff-a-bouts, Find It Games, & Hide-n-Seek.  You can take your dog "hunting" without ever stepping in the woods with games that help your dog learn how to use those instincts within their daily activity.

Whatever the breed of dog, enrichment activities should be designed around your dog's senses.  With smell being the strongest sense for many dogs, lots of enrichment activities are based on scent games.  But you should also look for enrichment activities that teach your dog to use their other senses too; sight, sound, touch and taste.

Emotions can impact our dog's enrichment needs.

Our goal is to prevent bad things from happening to our partners, but we also have to be realistic in realizing we do not live in a perfect world.  If your dog has an unexpected negative experience, you can use certain enrichment activities to help them to get rid of some of the stress associated with the bad experience.  Chewing, licking, and sniffing have all be documented to lower stress hormones in dogs.  First and foremost, you want to get your dog back in a calm, safe environment after something bad has happened.  But it can take 3 days for their hormones to come back down to a natural state.  During this time, provide extra enrichment activities that they love.  Also it's important for you to de-stress from bad experiences too so make sure to talk to someone who can help you sort through the negative and come up with a plan to better next time.

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