Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Adding More Enrichment

As dog owners, we use reinforcement to reward our dogs for the behaviors we like. Enrichment is often confused as being an extra great or jackpot style reward for dogs, but it's way more than feeding something special to your dog!

By definition, Enrichment should provide of a way to meet our dog's natural instinct needs in a way that adds value to their day to day life. 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.  (Dog & Human for us)
--effect the response a dog has to a particular action.  
--lead to evidence based, behavior changes.  
--be changing constantly.
--differ from animal to animal based on their needs.
--reliant on the evolution of learning experiences of the dog and human together.

Let's break each one of those down individually.

Enrichment is an activity that brings 2 or more participants together.

This is often the most forgotten part of enrichment! We think tossing our dog a bone or toy puzzle on our way out the door is enriching, but instead that's more of a pacifier to help our dogs be calm. If you do this, please keep doing it! But realize it's not having an enriching effect on your dog unless you condition this habit in a way that includes you. I often scatter kibble in a snuffle box before I leave the dogs in my office at work. This is meant to distract my dogs while I get out the door, but it doesn't really add much value to their lives. It's more of a pacifier.

Occasionally I'll toss some kibble in a snuffle box and sit with my dog encouraging them to enjoy it. Not that they need much encouragement, but by being their with them and letting them feel my joy for watching them enjoy the treasures they are hunting can make this a group activity.

I very much see a difference in Azul when we are out on a sniff-a-bout between when I'm enjoying nature with him or getting distracted by my phone. He enjoys it more when we can enjoy it together. 

Enrichment should effect the response a dog has.

You could argue that my scatterfeeding before I leave the dogs in my office meets this criteria for Belle as it reduces barking, but it doesn't change anything for Azul. Does that mean it isn't enriching for Azul? At one time Azul struggled with being in the office away from me. Prior to opening the Training Center, Azul was almost always at my side or home with Dad if I was working with another dog team. But at the Training Center he had to learn to be behind a gate or shut in the office for safety. I used this feeding technique to help him get used to me being on the other side of a barrier. So this method already changed his behavior and now to works to keep him in an happy emotional state so I would argue that this is still enrichment.

Enrichment should always be changing.

Dogs seem to get bored if they do the same puzzle over and over every day. Once they've solved it, the fun goes away and it becomes a chore to get the food out. But if we can change what we do to slowly increase the difficulty level or add new things to the puzzle, our dogs continue to enjoy the activity. That's why I'm a huge fun of low budget do it yourself puzzles that you make at home. I have a "kitchen puzzle box" that cost me less than $3 to make at the store and the first time Roz ate dinner that way it took her 12+ minutes to eat instead of the 5 seconds it would in a bowl. 

You can see that video here: https://youtu.be/4iSNGuZqHOg

Find It Games are another great way to start simple and continue to make it harder! 

The store bought puzzles can be fun if you don't use them every day and pull them out once in awhile on that rainy day or something when you need just a bit of extra enrichment. We also offer a puzzle exchange box at the Training Center where you can bring in a puzzle your dogs are bored with and exchange it for one that is here.

Enrichment is going to differ from dog to dog!
While Azul and Belle both love chewing on sticks and digging in their dig spots, they also have very different needs. Azul loves to explore any area that has wildlife scents making a slow sniff-a-bout one of his favorite enrichment activities. Belle on the other hand likes to go fast on walks sniffing as she runs. Some of this is due to age, but it shows their current needs. Azul has explored most of the environments around our area and recognizes where there and what is there, so he would rather keep his nose to the ground sniffing everything. Belle is mostly walking in new environments and doesn't have any of the memorized except perhaps the road by our house and the field we train in near the Training Center. Belle spends her walk looking and listening to everything in the environment. Her brain is trying to process so much that sniffing the ground isn't even on her radar unless she sees Azul sniffing a specific spot for a longer time. She loves to push her nose under his nose, but I'm not sure she is really thinking much about what she is smelling yet. At 8 months old, Belle is really in tune to all sounds and sounds hold more value, therefore the faster she goes and the farther she goes, the more she gets to hear! 

Watch your dog and find out what they love to do the most and do what you can to add more of that in their day to day life! Sometimes this might be breed specific and go towards behaviors your dog's breed was designed for such as swimming, hunting, guarding livestock, etc. Sometimes dogs don't really care for those breed specific activities and they like something else. Let them tell you what they enjoy.

Enrichment should include elements of previous learning experiences and engagement with their human.
This is the enrichment rule that doesn't always get followed as owners tend to get stuck in a pattern of always doing the same thing.  It's easy to drop a stuffed kong or a ball in our dog's safe space and walk away to do something else while they enjoy the food toy. This idea is often promoted by sellers of such toys. And if that's all you can do to add some enrichment to your dog's day, then please KEEP doing it! But there are also simple ways that don't take up much more time! 

If I'm preparing a food toy that I'm going to give my dogs, I'll try to build in some engagement while I prepare it.  I could ask my dogs to stay on a mat and keep them out of my way while I prepare it. Instead I like to engage my dogs in the act of preparing the treat. Since they are trained to retrieve, we can go together the box that food toys are stored in and I can ask each of my dogs to pick an empty toy and hand it to me.  Building some choice into the activity helps to build that engagement while also relying on their previous experience. Some dogs will just grab the toy on top because it's easy, while other dogs will dig to find a specific one. This is based on previous learning history and what they have enjoyed most in the past. If I have multiple dogs and I want them all to have the same type of toy, I might not give them a choice of toys and offer a choice of treats to add instead. Adding choice to fun activities helps dogs by increasing their feeling of agency. 

By building in choices and other forms of interaction as we prepare enrichment activities or during activities, we make the activity far more enriching for our dogs. My husband sets up a puzzle challenge every night for Belle and each night it gets harder and hard. Sometimes it involves something that is slightly impossible such as the treat might be inside a locked container that Belle can't open. However Belle knows that when she finds any part of the challenge too hard she can ask for help by taking the object to a human in the room or going to get a human and leading them to the challenge. This might frustrate some dogs, but Belle loves to interact with humans so it's a great thing for her. Azul on the other hand, prefers to eat his treats and treasures in private and he prefers to bury them and same the for later, even if later is a minute later. His evening enrichment happens in the bedroom where he has to search his bed, Belle's bed and our bed to see where the goodies are tonight. He typically determines this in the first 2 seconds in the room! Then his treat might be hidden under a blanket or wrapped in a towel, or scattered in multiple places in the room. He always rushes in the room and comes trotting out all proud when he is done.

How do you add all this enrichment into you day?
This is easier that it sounds. Watch your dog and see what they love! 

If it's sniffing, find lots of good places or items to sniff. In the fall when there are leaves all over the ground, I'll pick up a small back full and when I'm making new snuffle boxes, occasionally I through some leaves in. This brings some outside smells inside on the days that I use a nature snuffle box.

If your dog loves digging, you can prepare a specific dig spot area in your yard. I have a natural spot for my dogs since we live in the country, but I know several others who have created a dig spot using a kiddy pool, sand or dirt, and buried some fun things inside. My dogs love when I drop something in their holes and lightly cover it up with dirt.  Sometimes it's food, toys, a stick, pine cones...pretty much anything in the yard works for my pups.

You get the idea! Give your dog what they love in a way that impacts their behavior, either reducing behaviors you want to go away or increasing the behaviors your love. 

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