Canine enrichment: top 10 tips for a happier, healthier and better behaved dog

shutterstock_181695896shutterstock_181695896shutterstock_181695896happy dogEnrichment is about providing mental and sensory stimulation to enhance your dog’s physical and psychological health. At the very least, an enriched environment aims to prevent boredom and stress but in the case of our dogs, it’s also about finding and sharing in what gives your dog joy.

Why does it matter? Considering that the symptoms of boredom can include destructive behaviour, hyperactivity, barking, chewing, digging or persistent pestering you for attention or that some dogs will develop more neurotic behaviours such as foot-chewing or tail-chasing (resulting in expensive vet bills) it’s certainly worth our attention. Many dogs may simply resign themselves but all dogs need mental and sensory stimulation to live happy and well-adjusted lives.

Perhaps your dog was bred to perform specific tasks such as retrieving waterfowl, killing vermin, watching over a flock or tracking prey with their powerful noses. Even if your cuddly little lap-warmer was bred purely for companionship, his genetic make up is not so different from that of his ancestors and wild counterparts; not having to forage, hunt, roam, nest, raise litters, find shelter and perform the daily problem-solving necessary to survive can leave a pretty significant behaviour void.

Physical exercise is a must but not enough. You may have heard the expression ‘a tired dog is a good dog’ but this isn’t entirely true. An overexercised dog lacking in mental stimulation can have just as many behaviour problems as his under -exercised counterpart. You may already be providing Rover with appropriate physical exercise (a healthy dog needs a minimum of two 20-30 minute walks daily), but don’t forget that he needs to work his brain and other senses too. Here are my favourite tips for enriching the lives of the under-employed canine:

1. Use his food:

At least once per day someone hears me say ‘there is no rule that says you have to feed your dog his dinner in a dish on the floor‘. There are so many food dispensing puzzle toys on the market these days ranging from the cheap and cheerful classic Kong to the more pricey CleverPet Hub, here are just a few tried-and-true favourites:

-Stuffed Classic Kongs (see The Art of Kong Stuffing for all the ways these can be filled)

-Kong Wobblers

-Tricky Treat balls

-Buster Cubes

-Snuffle Mats

But you don’t even need to spend a dime – make a scavenger hunt out of his food just by scattering it around the room.

2. Ditch the toy basket:

Does your dog have a basket of toys that he regularly ignores? Rotating Rover’s toys can keep them interesting and novel. At the very least, hide his favourites under a pile of less interesting toys so that he has to dig through to find them.

3. Follow his nose:

How often do you find yourself coaxing Sniffy Snifferson along?  Our dogs ‘see’ the world with their noses so plan enough time to allow Rover to follow his nose on your walks. I’m not suggesting that you forego teaching him to walk nicely on a leash when needed or that you blindly follow his nose everywhere but do let him explore his world. Oh, and please leave the phone at home – this is your time to connect and learn how your dog sees the world around him.

4. Create a Room With a Vew:

My parents have a bird feeder in their backyard which has had the bonus effect (according to my terrier) of attracting the squirrels to the area on the ground underneath the feeder. Both cats and dog enjoy hours of critter-watching at the back door. Does your dog have a comfy perch to watch the outdoors?

Note: not recommended for dogs who bark at passersby!

5. Work with your dog every day:

Maybe Rover could be a little better mannered at the front door or be more reliable about coming when called. Maybe he’s already pretty much darn-near-perfect and you just want to work on a new trick or two. Either way, you don’t need to need to spend hours a day training; reserve 25 pieces of food from his daily meals to use as training rewards and aim to deliver throughout the day or in a few 3-5 minute sessions.

6. Go somewhere new:

We tend to be creatures of habit and a structured routine can provide a dog with a sense of security but don’t forget the value of a little novelty. Provided that Rover isn’t fearful of the unfamiliar, go somewhere new; visit a lake for a day, discover a new walking trail or even just walk around a different block, try to mix things up a bit.

7. Meet someone new:

Whether your dog prefers friends of the two or four footed variety, provide opportunities to meet new friends as often as you can.

8. Create a digging pit:

Some dogs just need to dig. Don’t fight it, channel it! You can contain the damage by designating a specific area of the garden for digging: turn up some soil, plant something interesting in there (a stuffed Kong or a chew) and direct Rover to this magical spot whenever the urge to dig strikes. You might even use a kiddie sandbox, exercise pen or tomato-fence to ensure that your designated-digging-area doesn’t expand into your herb garden. No garden? No problem – you can simulate a digging pit with a blanket or two  ‘puddled’ on the floor and scatter some treats throughout the folds!

9. Provide chewing opportunities:

Even if they are no longer teething, some dogs just need to have a chew and furniture legs or sticks may not be the most desirable or safest options. My preference is for the all natural and digestible tendons  – soft enough that you won’t risk tooth breakage but hard enough that they can’t break pieces off and be at risk of choking or bowel obstruction. Of course this will depend on your dog’s size and jaw power so find a safe and enjoyable outlet that works for you both. Always supervise chewing!

10. Play with your dog

This is a no-brainer. Doesn’t matter if it’s fetch, tug, hide and seek, gentle wrestling or pouching on a moving hand under a blanket, find at least 10-15 minutes daily to play with your pal and you will both reap the rewards.

Our dogs are as individual as we are so find out what makes your dog happy, even it’s just to sit under a tree and watch the world together. You’ll both be richer for it 🙂