Enrichment for Dogs: What’s the Endgame?

by Matt Tuzzo, CTC, CPDT-KA and Angela Tuzzo

The word “enrichment” is thrown around by dog professionals constantly, especially among force-free trainers. For many clients, the word has become synonymous with others that they hear all the time – words like mental stimulation, exercise, and activity – all of which represent ways of enriching a dog’s life. But what’s the endgame? What are we actually trying to achieve by doing enrichment activities?

In my opinion, the end result is satisfaction. A dog who feels satisfied is one who is less likely to exhibit destructive or disruptive behaviors, or worse, develop problematic emotional issues associated with a lack of satisfaction (e.g. depression, frustration, decreased ability to cope with stress, etc.).

For the sake of this article, let’s agree that the end goal of enrichment is satisfaction. With that in mind, we need to ask  one important question: which activities should we be doing—and how much of said activities are needed to satisfy this individual dog? The answer will vary heavily between each team of dog and owner.

Types of Enrichment Activities

What types of enrichment activities should we focus on? Dogs as a species are scavenging predators. As such, most activities that dogs find satisfying revolve around behaviors associated with obtaining food. These can be broken down into two very general categories:

Predatory activities: The most obvious are any games/jobs that involve a dog chasing and grabbing. These activities can also include searching, stalking, and dissecting (i.e. pulling things apart). Each of these behaviors has its own set of neurology that creates an internally rewarding event each time the dog rehearses the behavior (i.e. it’s fun and feels good to do). These behaviors are also tremendously satisfying for some dogs. Some common choices could include: frisbee, agility, fetch, tug, herding, etc.

What do we mean by “some” dogs? Here’s a personal example. My family has three border collies: Motley and Dazzle (age 10), and Chase (age 2) – all have the same father. Chase isn’t satisfied unless he gets to play at least 10 minutes of frisbee a day. And he can become quite irritating at the end of the day if he misses out on it. Meanwhile, Motley and Dazzle could care less about chasing and grabbing things. While they do enjoy playing frisbee as well, Chase’s predatory instinct is far greater, therefore his need is greater.

In the end, it’s up to the individual dog owner and whatever professional they’re working with to determine whether or not any of these activities would be especially satisfying for their dog.

Scavenging activities: Almost all dogs (whether they’re driven by predatory activities or not), will get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from scavenging behaviors. We define these activities as any behavior (other than predatory behavior), that a dog does to obtain food. This is where you will see the most variation (and the most creativity) from owners, trainers, and behavior consultants. Even training new behaviors and tricks could fall into this category (e.g. a dog solves a problem and receives a piece of food from his/her trainer/handler). The usual suspects include Kongs, treat dispensers, nosework games, leash walks (though leash walks may also fall into the predatory category, depending on the dog), puzzle toys, etc.

Our personal favorite is a Snuffle Mat. Matt has used them with hundreds of clients’ dogs (as well as our own), and we immediately noticed a couple of things that are universally common among almost every dog that’s used one. First, they all seem to be interested in it. We’ve seen dogs blow off treat balls and Kongs, but have yet to see a client’s dog completely blow off a snuffle mat loaded with appropriately motivating food/treats. Second, the level of satisfaction seems to be high for almost every dog who works on it (measured visually by observing the obvious arousal levels of a dog before and after working on one). Snuffle mats are a great addition to anyone’s box of “work-to-eat” toys.

Just because you don’t have a “working” dog, doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t love to be busy! No matter your dog’s age, breed, or size, all dogs have a natural desire to engage in enriching mental and physical activities. Leave them to their own devices, and they’ll likely find self-chosen activities, potentially leading to destruction in the owner’s home. So, whether it’s a Belgian Malinois chasing down a bite sleeve, or a lazy border collie, like our older guy, Motley, sniffing around in a mat made out of fleece to find treats, the end result is the same – a satisfied animal that can more easily settle and relax. I think we can agree that this is something we all want for all dogs. Additionally, a satisfied, less-stressed dog, means a happier, less-stressed owner.

 


 

Matt Tuzzo, CTC, CPDT-KA, is the owner and head trainer at Jersey Shore Dogs, an in-home dog training and behavior consulting company based in New Jersey. His wife, Angela, is a technology PR specialist by day and owner/creator of SnuffleMutt snuffle mats by night. Reach them at matt@jerseyshoredogtraining.com; www.jerseyshoredogtraining.com and angela@snufflemutt.com; www.snufflemutt.com.