Vivian Leven, CPDT-KSA
All animals are built "to do something"; to engage in behavior of some sort that promotes learning and survival skills. By enriching your dog and his environment you can prevent many unwanted behaviors from occurring, but even more importantly, it creates a happy, confident and content dog.
While we, as human beings, get plenty of enrichment after we leave the house in the morning and maybe sometimes rather prefer to “check our brain at the door” when we get back home….your dog has waited all day so that his enriching life can begin! How do we balance these rather incompatible needs? Well hopefully the dog helps us decompress and relax in a way that we also find very rewarding But beyond that you also need to have a plan in place.
The longer you are gone during the week, the more important it is to have a strategy for how you are going to give your dog a behavioral outlet every day. Figure out how you can make the most of it so you can engage your dog even if you don’t happen to always be there.
In the old days dogs were often outdoors where they had to either occupy themselves or there was a person at home all day that made life interesting for the dog in various ways. Today we limit where the dog is allowed to go, we use lots of confinement systems and we have a very busy schedule where the dog, who is a social creature, is forced to spend many hours on his own.
The level of enrichment your dog needs to thrive will also depend of course on breed, age and the individual activity level of the dog, but all dogs do need enrichment.
Below are some ideas that you can try to make your dog’s life more interesting and fulfilling.
This is a very important aspect of a dog’s life. Socialization can happen both with a variety of people, dogs, other animals and places. This will help your dog to be well rounded and confident in a variety of settings.
- Play with your dog. You can teach a trick, play tug, fetch, find it game, recall game, etc.
- Set up playdates or walks with a friend or neighbor’s dog that your dog also likes
- Hire a dog walker to break up the day
- Attend a dog park once in a while
- Mix it up in the week with a few dog daycare visits
- A friend or relative who is retired or works from home and who is willing to have the dog with them for a few days a week can be a great way to combine companionship for the dog as well as the person
Note: Not all dogs are comfortable around people outside of the family and not all dogs do well in a daycare or dog park setting.
When and what do I get to eat! This is on most dogs’ minds. Make the most of it. A dog that is left alone for a better part of the day and enjoys his or her food should not eat out of a bowl. Instead, prepare frozen Kongs, fill the Wobbler or the Buster cube. Turn mealtimes into scavenger/hunting projects. Do not feed the same thing all the time. Mix it up! Unless your dog has some special stomach issues, change the dog food once in a while, offer left overs in the Kong (that is safe for the dog to eat of course…no spicy foods, onions, grapes or chocolate of course).
Sensory (seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting)
Find creative ways to enlist the dog’s sensory system.
- Hide tasty treats in the back yard both on the ground or you can push hotdogs or other mushy food into tree stumps or even higher up in the tree where the dog needs to stand on the back legs.
- Create a scavenger hunt where you throw the dog food/ or treats in the backyard in a larger space.
- Take a nosework class and practice the exercises you learned at home. The setup is easy.
- Groom and massage your dog and make all husbandry practices pleasant for the dog by associating checking ears and paws with good treats. Don’t do it when you are rushed as a “have to” exercise.
- Play chase games with the flirt pole or a ball.
- Engage your dog with squeaky toys if he gets excited by high pitch noises.
- Learn doggie massage or TTouch. It can be a great relaxing and enriching experience for a dog, especially if they have a tendency to build tension in the body like some reactive dogs do.
Occupational/ interactive activities
- Offer marrow bones, cow’s ears and other chew items, in addition to the Kong, when you can. Maybe even hide the bone first so the dog has to find it before eating it.
- Does your dog love to dig? Arrange a dig pit in your back yard (a big sandbox) where you can hide treats and toys
- Can you make an obstacle course? Either in your back yard or even in the house with some pillows, blankets and chairs? It will offer your dog a new experience and can be a social interactive event as well
- Put yummy treats in a card board box and tape it shut. Can/will your dog open it?
- Put three cups on the floor, put treats under one and see if your dog can figure it out.
- Teach your dog names of the different toys and have him go and pick them up and get a treat for picking up the right one
- Have him dunk for hotdogs in a larger water bowl.
- Cover food under a pile of old sheets or blankets, or put a treat in an old pillow case, and see if he can get them.
- Get a couple of treat puzzle and challenge your dog’s mind.
- Get an empty plastic bottle and fill it with treats for your dog to get out.
Regular walks in the neighborhood is always good, it provides exercise and socialization and sensory stimulation by sniffing, also playing fetch, engaging in a recall game etc. to give your dog the daily physical exercise he needs. Dogs love to run. Mix it up, between your back yard and the dog park, if appropriate. You can also put your dog on a 30 to 50 foot line in one of our big National park areas and let your dog get as close to nature and the “inner wild child” as possible and at least feel “almost” off leash.
This is a great way to enhance your dog’s life. The dog will learn cues that will make your interaction more pleasant. It is a joint effort so it promotes the bonding process. The positive learning approach encourages your dog to make his own choices and empowers the dog to build success through good choices. It can be obedience, agility, tricks, or a number of other learning opportunities that you choose. If you take group classes, as a nice side benefit you get socialization mentioned above around other dogs and people.
Know that the more a dog gets to engage, explore and learn the more you will see the personality develop and grow. You can think of it as the difference between a store bought and a self-grown tomato. You don’t know what the difference is unless you have experienced it first-hand yourself.