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Enrichment! What, who, where when and how?! A post by Kate

The definition of enrichment is the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something. So, when we talk about enrichment in relation to our pets, we are basically talking about improving the quality and value of their lives with mental and physical stimulation.

Dogs have evolved alongside humans free roaming on the edge of villages for thousands of years, scavenging food scraps that the village has thrown out. When we remove an animal from its natural environment, we also remove sounds, smells and challenges that they would naturally encounter like for instance the dog's ability to scavenge for food.

Enrichment is species specific for example an elephant would have different enrichment needs compared to our dog companions. There are different types of enrichment that all need to be taken into account when making an enrichment plan whether it be for a dog, cat, horse or even a pet elephant.


Physical enrichment: this includes things like bedding material, burrows, nesting boxes, pools, or crates. A dog or any pet needs to have a safe quiet space where it can have some alone time away from everything.

I can imagine some of you that are in isolation with your kids would love some quiet alone time every now and then, and the same goes for pets they also need to have a cozy safe place to relax when it all gets a bit too much, so making a special area in the house where you can set up a quiet corner for your pet to relax is a great idea. For you dog owners out there dogs sleep for around 12 hours a day and naturally build dens so it's important for them to have their own space. If you have a crate, put it in a nice quiet, calm area of the house and make it extra cozy with bedding so that your dog can go there for a quiet nap or even to just relax with a toy.

Physical exercise is also a very important aspect of physical enrichment; An animal needs to be able to exercise for its own physical and mental wellbeing. You do, however, to be careful not to overdo it - taking your dog for super long runs every day is not always necessary and depending on the breed is not always beneficial, or if you constantly play really intense games of catch with a dog it can make the dog become addicted or obsessive with the ball and can develop problem behaviors, rather than preventing them. It's important to remember that you don’t have to tire your dog out by taking it for a super long run every day or always playing intense fetch - there are many different forms of enrichment so mix it up, get creative, have fun with it!


Occupational enrichment is another form of enrichment that includes natural or artificial objects that can be manipulated, such as toys like traffic cones, tyres, chewers, balls, or flirt poles.

Occupational enrichment is all about providing things for your animal that they can use to perform their natural behaviours; You may have a special place in the backyard like a sand pit or a designated place where you can encourage your dog to dig by burying toys or food items and encouraging them to dig for them, this gives the dog a place that is ok to dig and display this natural behavior without tearing out your freshly planted strawberries! In this way, occupational enrichment can be a great way of replacing problematic behaviours with more desirable ones.

When thinking about this form of enrichment, think about the breed of dog you have - what are its natural characteristics? is it a herding breed? Why not give it a box to herd in the backyard. A staffy? Tie a strong rope toy so a tree and let them tug on it - even a tyre in the back yard can be super entertaining (or so our staffies at daycare tell us!). Sight hound? Use a flirt pole or even just something that moves that they can chase (not another animal) and have fun. You can get super creative with this kind of enrichment and it can be really fun for both the owner and pet.


Feeding enrichment is another one you can get super creative with, but it's important to take into account any extra food you are giving your animal. It is generally recommended to spread out your dog’s normal meals into different forms of food enrichment so that you avoid over feeding your pet - especially important as we watch the epidemic of obesity in pets.

Feeding enrichment is provision of food related activities such as novel food items like frozen treat pops, food devices such as licky matts, food toys like Kong Wobblers or Kong Classics, or simply scattering food on the ground.

We need to remember that most dogs have been bred in a way that they no longer have the need to hunt but spend a huge amount of time scavenging for food, and have never had their food naturally just plonked in front of them in a bowl, so it's important to still incorporate this into their food enrichment. The best thing to do is ditch the boring bowl and add some movement or flair to their meal to make it interesting for them.

If you are wanting some amazing ideas on ways to do this the Canine Enrichment page on Facebook is a fantastic place to get ideas from, it is based on the book written by Shay Kelly that is all about canine enrichment and is a fantastic read.


Sensory enrichment The provision of novel or familiar scents, sounds, visual or tactile stimuli (feel or touch), these are great for find it games like hiding treats or a toy and getting you dog to find them or you can use a piece of material rubbing a certain scent on it, hiding it, and teaching your dog to find it. Games like this can take a bit of training and building up to, and you can also provide this form of enrichment via taking your dog to different places for a ‘snifffari’ in which you let the dog lead you wherever its nose takes you - taking in all those different scents is super enriching for your dog.

Sensory enrichment can be something as small as changing up the environment a little; like moving small bits of furniture around, lighting a small scented candle or even changing bedding around. However, be careful when changing any animals' environment and make sure your pet is ok with things changing before you do anything drastic. I've known dogs that can get very anxious and stressed when things are changing in their environment. Listen to your dog and their individual needs.


Social enrichment: This includes interactions with the same or different species for example dogs interacting with other dogs or interacting with other animals like cats, horsesor rabbits. This also includes humans! Social enrichment is also about training and positive human-animal relationships, emphasis on positive relationships. Some ways you can give your pet some of these social interactions is by taking them to doggy daycare, dog parks, training sessions, going to a farm with different animals, or even having different people or animals come over for “play dates”. It is important to note that just like people with different tastes in the ways they like to socialise - some like nightclubs, whilst others enjoy a bushwalk or a night in playing boardgames, that dogs are the same. Choose your social enrichment according to your dog and what they enjoy/can cope with!

An animal should never be in pain or put into an anxious, stressful or fearful state for enrichment. If at any point an animal is experiencing any of these, the enrichment is not beneficial to the animal and the activities should be stopped immediately.


Cognitive enrichment involves presenting mental challenges and engaging the animal in problem solving; most commonly for food rewards, or using food puzzle games. You can use any reward that the animal finds to be rewarding or of value; it doesn’t always have to be a food reward and by mixing it up it means you don’t always have to rely on food puzzles. An example of a non-food reward could be that your dog has completed a challenge or task, and instead of rewarding with a treat you have a quick game with its favorite toy.

Keep in mind that you want to work up the difficulty of any problem-solving activities or training and start off easy, you don’t want to give a difficult puzzle or task straight away for the animal to solve or do because this can lead to frustration making the enrichment no longer beneficial to the animal.

A good example of a food-based challenge we use in day care is using an empty toilet paper roll putting a few treats inside and folding down the ends. The dogs have a lot of run ripping it apart to get the reward inside. Another example of a non-food reward we use at day care is if we are training a dog that we know loves balls we will use that and throw the ball as a reward instead of a food reward when the dog is able to do what we are asking.

Training, providing it is a positive experience, is a good example of cognitive enrichment as it gets the dog engaged in activity and gets their brains working. It is important to be mindful of the task difficulty, and make sure your training sessions aren't super long. It is always better to have several short sessions throughout the day rather than one really long session.


Why is it important?

With being in isolation, imagine you are stuck in a room with nothing to do. No entertainment at all for a long period of time. Do you think you would be able to stay calm? Would you be able to resist looking for a way out? Would you maybe start pacing? Or playing with anything you can get your hands on out of boredom?

This is what it's like for an animal with no enrichment, animal enrichment is crucial to all animals whether they be domestic animals such as dogs, cats, horses, or even your pet elephant. Without proper physical and mental enrichment enabling them to display their species-specific behaviors the animal may develop health problems for example become overweight and inactive, and can develop abnormal or problem behaviours. Some of these behaviors can be repetitive behaviors like head tossing, pacing and even over grooming and excessive chewing.

In short - if, a dog doesn’t have enough enrichment in its life the dog can become bored, and as a result of being bored develop behaviors such as destructive behaviors, excessive barking, inappropriate chewing, pacing, and can become stressed, anxious, and even become aggressive in some cases. You have to remember though that barking, chewing, digging etc., are all natural behaviors that a dog will display, so when you see a dog that is for example constantly chewing on your favorite chair whenever you leave the house it might be that this dog is lacking adequate enrichment but is still trying to display the natural behavior of chewing.


Appropriate enrichment

You need to remember that every animal has different preferences just like us. For example, some dogs would prefer food enrichment and some might prefer toy enrichment, so you will need to also take this into account when making an enrichment plan.

For example, I could throw this ball for my cat to play with and say its enrichment, but she's not interested and it's not beneficial to her so it's actually not enrichment. However, if I think about a cat’s natural behavior and of course knowing her interests I know that a flirt pole/stick is the best kind of occupational enrichment for her as it allows her to display natural behaviors such as stalking, chase, pouncing etc and it's something she's interested in. This is an example of the fact that the individual animals' interests need to be considered in order for the enrichment to be effective.

So now imagine you’re back in that same room but the difference is now you have enrichment, you have somewhere to sit or lay down, things to entertain you like watching a video, reading, solving a cross word puzzle, or having access to a hobby, you even have food enrichment. Are you now a lot happier in this room for a long period of time? We would expect so!!

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