top of page
Search

Creating a Fulfilling Life - the power of enrichment


Dogs, just like humans, have a variety of basic needs. Some, like food, water, and exercise can be easy for us to identify and fulfill. But some of their other needs such as safety and mental exercise, can be less obvious. Thankfully, there are lots of ways for us to make meeting all their needs a part of our daily life.

Did you know that many behavioral “issues” we face such as jumping, mouthing, destructive behaviors, and struggle focusing come from unmet mental needs? Imagine a kid with an active brain in school – they struggle when they are under stimulated and can even be mistaken for being disobedient or difficult! Dog’s brains are designed for constant problem solving and processing.

Some of the best ways to meet your dog’s needs are to provide play, learning, problem solving, and exploration in their daily life! Variety and novelty are powerful tools, so mixing up the activities to keep things fresh and keep them guessing is key!

We won’t be diving too deeply into the science of need-meeting and canine biology today! Instead we’re going to talk about a few easy ways to make mental, physical, and emotional engagement part of your daily schedule!



How Can We Meet Our Dog’s Needs?


Learning Games:

Learning new things is an excellent way for our pups to practice creative problem solving, which is something their powerful brains are adapted to do! This is a mental workout that also serves to help us refine our teaching and communication skills! 


Food-Dispensing Puzzles:

Puzzles are a great way to encourage our pups to get creative on their own. Dog brains still have systems focused on actively working to attain their food. Thanks to some nifty science, we know that they actually find opportunities to actively seek and attain their food more fulfilling and fun than just being handed a bowl! 

As a bonus, puzzle activities are excellent training tools! They can provide our pups with something to keep them busy, preventing undesired behaviors from boredom. They are great to have on hand for when we feel under the weather or have an important business call! They also help to reinforce our pups for desired behaviors! For example, when our friends come over we would prefer our pup to settle and relax while we catch up. This is much easier for them to do when they have something fun to keep them engaged. And the yummy goodies that come out teach our dog that this behavior is just as rewarding (if not more!) than jumping on our guardian’s friends.

Here are some popular puzzle toy collections that you can buy online and in stores:

There are plenty of “puzzles” we can make using items we may have in the home! Here are some examples:

  • Muffin Tin Game

  • Place treats in each “cup” of a muffin tin and then place a tennis call over each “cup”, hiding the treats beneath them.

  • Towel Puzzles

  • Lay a towel or blanket flat and sprinkle treats on it. Then roll the towel up lengthwise, requiring your pup to use their paws and nose to unroll it and find the treats.

  • Lay a towel or blanket flat and sprinkle treats on it. Then roll the towel up widthwise, making a long skinny roll. Twist this several times, then tie it into a large and slightly loose knot. 

  • Layer small towels or cloths in a stack, sprinkling food between each layer. You can place this stack in a box or bucket to make the challenge harder. 

  • Activity One - Roll Up

  • Activity Two - Twister

  • Activity Three - Knot

  • Activity Four - Combination


The Power of Licking, Sniffing, Shredding, and Chewing:

Licking, sniffing, and shredding are natural behaviors that are all linked to a reduction in the level of stress hormones in our dog’s body. Daily engagement in these activities can help to fulfill our dogs’ mental and emotional needs and provides a healthy outlet for them to engage in instinctive behaviors.

In addition, these items can be used during stressful or exciting events (such as storms, separation, or having friends over) to create a positive experience for our pup and prevent undesired behaviors. 

  • Here are some examples of licking based enrichment items:

  • Lick Mat

  • Slow Feeder Bowl

  • The Toppl Toy

  • The Kong Toy

  • A metal bowl

  • Lickable items can also be frozen. This can help our pups cool down on a hot day, or can help extend the life of the activity.

  • Here are some examples of sniffing based enrichment items:

  • Snuffle Mats on Etsy

  • Nature’s Snuffle Mat: Take food and treats and sprinkle them around a large section of grass. Make sure the yard or field has not been treated with chemicals.

  • Here are some examples of shredding based enrichment items:

  • Boxes, Bags, and Tubes (toilet paper / paper towel)

  • Place treats in a cardboard box and close it up, requiring your pup to shred the box to reveal the treats inside.

  • To increase the challenge and fun of the game, fill the box with toys or other small objects that will require your dog to root around once they have the box open.

  • To increase the challenge and fun, place toys in butcher paper, paper bags, smaller boxes, or small towels and place these in the closed box.

  • Supervise these activities to prevent ingestion of non-food materials.

  • Here are some examples of chewing based enrichment items:

  • Natural Chews: Antlers, Beef Cheek Rolls, Beef Straps, Knuckle Bones, Trachea, Hooves. 


Helpful Tips:

  • It’s important that we monitor our pup’s success. If the challenge is too difficult, it can cause frustration or lead to them giving up. It’s okay to take a half step back and offer an easier puzzle to help them work their way up through the different challenge levels! 

  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and combine items! Here are some examples:

  • I am a big fan of this puzzle because it can be modified by including or not including the bone-shaped pieces or removing some of the red lids. This puzzle can be filled with dry food, treats, wet food, or liquids (unless your dog is going to really toss it around!) and can be fully or semi-frozen to change the temperature, texture, and needs of the puzzle.

  • If you purchase a kong wobbler, size up. Then, as your pup becomes skilled at using it you can add a ball inside to increase the challenge! 

  • It can be as simple as hiding a chew in a box, combining the shredding and the chewing for a varied experience. 


Additional Resource Links


The Art of Decompression Walks

Want to hear some fun facts about a dog’s nose? 

  • While humans have about 6 million olfactory receptors in our noses, dogs have around 300 million! 

  • The area of their brain devoted to processing smells is forty times larger than the area of the human brain that serves the same task.

  • Studies show that when a dog is sniffing, their heart rate decreases. Sniffing appears to engage the “rest and digest” portion of our dog’s nervous system, meaning that sniffing is literally stress reduction!  

Thanks to this information, we know that “decompression” or “sniffy” walks are one of the best things we can do with our pups! (And there are lots of benefits to going for walks together! Learn more about them in an interview I did here). 

The best way to make the most of our walks is to use a 10 - 15 foot leash attached to a well-fitted y-shaped harness. Carry a variety of treats (or other things your pup finds reinforcing like their toy) and head out to a local nature area or new neighborhood. The goal is to find interesting smells to explore! 

Want to hear more about decompression walks? Check out this article titled The Life Changing Power of Decompression Walks written by fellow behavior professional Jenny Efimova. 


Let’s Play!

Our pups benefit from playtime with fellow dogs and with us! Play is a great relationship builder, strengthens communication, and can even be a great way to train important skills like impulse regulation! 

Each dog has different preferences and needs when it comes to play. Some may enjoy chasing and wrestling while others enjoy tug and fetch. Play can happen with or without toys. Don’t be afraid to adapt childhood games for use with your dog such as hide and seek! Creativity is a great tool when we talk playtime! 

When it comes to physical activities such as flirt poles, fetch, and tug we want to make sure we pay attention to the physical health of our pup. We should always be mindful of their joints and teeth, and don’t ever need to feel like there’s an expectation of how “intense” play should be. 

It’s recommended that this kind of high-intensity play occurs for about ten minutes at a time, after which your dog should be prompted to take a break and engage in a low-intensity activity. This helps us to regulate our dog’s cortisol levels and prevents excess stress on their nervous system. 

It’s important that we and our pups understand the “rules” of the game. So before you begin, make sure you have in mind what the game should look like. For example, mouthing during play is common and totally acceptable (as long as you don’t mind), but it’s imperative that we teach our pups bite inhibition (how to use a gentle mouth) so before we play we want to have in mind what kind of mouthing is okay with us, and what kind of mouthing crosses our boundary. We also want to know how we are going to address undesired mouthing so we don’t feel stumped or frustrated at the moment. 

Here are some ideas for higher intensity activities:

  • The Flirt Pole

  • How to Use a Flirt Pole: Dog Training Fun!

  • You can make your own flirt pole or buy one from a great small business

  • Fetch

  • Fetch is a great way to teach our pups cues like “drop” and “wait”. But, we don’t want to rely on these cues to be able to start playing, nor do we want to introduce a lot of frustration into the game by trying to teach something our pup isn’t prepared for! The purpose of play is fun!

  • What do we do? Use two toys!

  • With your pup's attention, wave a toy around enticingly, squeaking it, and then roll or throw the toy for them to chase after. You can encourage them with a phrase like “get it!”.

  • When your dog grabs the toy, get excited and encourage them to come back to you with phrases like “good job!” and “bring it here!”.

  • When they are almost back to you, raise up the second toy and begin to make it exciting as you did with the first one. This encourages your dog to drop the first toy and prepare for play with the second.

  • Some dogs like to shake their toys once they have them. This is totally fine, and you can simply wait for them to be done with the shaking before raising up the second toy. 

  • As soon as your pup drops the first toy, praise them and repeat the process! Over time, when your dog is reliably dropping the first toy, you can even add the cue “drop”.

  • Tug

  • Tug is all about engaging in play together! We want to have fun with it, not cause conflict or frustration. 

  • To play tug safely, make sure you select a toy that is large enough for you to both hold, with room to spare between their mouth and your hand in case they readjust their grip. 

  • There are toys designed specifically for tug. These often include a handle-like area for you and a grip zone for your pup. Some examples are the Kong tug toy, Tuffy tug toy, and ball on rope toys.

  • You can begin tug by wiggling the toy excitingly for them to grab, tossing the toy for them to bring back, or using a cue such as “tug”, “get it”, or “okay” (if they have been asked to wait). 

  • Tug gently on the toy in a back and forth motion, or towards your body. Try to encourage them to do the work of tugging instead of just holding the toy. 

  • When they tug (pull it away from you, shake it, etc) praise them and encourage them. If they like wrestling, you can pat their body and push them a bit. Be mindful to not cause over-arousal - we want our pups’ minds to remain present for safe playtime. 

  • After 2 - 3 tugs on their part (unless they are reluctant in which case you can even start at one) release the toy, giving them a “win”. 

  • If they run away with the toy, encourage them playfully to come back. If they don’t, take out a second toy and try to entice them into play. If they decline, that’s okay too!

  • If you “win”, stay silly and playful. Encourage them to go for the toy again and repeat the game. 

  • Over time we can add cues like “drop”, “wait”, “tug”, and “get it” but they aren’t necessary for the fun to begin! 

  • A great way to add additional mental engagement during play is to throw in some cues! Asking for a sit, spin, touch, etc can help our pup’s brains stay sharp. 

 


Making Enrichment Easy


EXAMPLE ENRICHMENT TEMPLATE


Sun

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thurs

Fri

Sat

Breakfast

Snuffle

Puzzle

Snuffle

Scatter

Puzzle

Scatter

Bob a lot

1

Frozen Kong

Scatter

Box

Puzzle

Chew

Snuffle

Park Visit

2

Bob a Lot

Park Visit

Trick Training

Bob a lot

Frozen Lick Mat

Trick Training

Scatter

Dinner

Scatter

Frozen Lick Mat

Snuffle

Kong

Puzzle

Agility

Chew




This schedule can also be used to make training easier to maintain and remember!

EXAMPLE TRAINING TEMPLATE


Sun

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thurs

Fri

Sat

1

Relax

Thank You

Touch

Relax

Touch

Stay

Relax

2

Loose Leash 

Stay

Loose Leash 

Thank You

Loose Leash

Touch

Loose Leash





This article was focused on our canine companion, but the ideas (and most of the items and activities) apply to many species! Cats, rabbits, birds, fish,  and everyone in between benefits from enriching activities!


Remember, our goal in all things is to tell our loved ones we love them by providing them with the best life possible! To do this, we want to ensure we are meeting their physical, mental, and emotional needs. 


The ideas shared above all serve to meet those needs in various ways, including by helping you build a strong, safe, and joyful relationship with your dog. 





2 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page