The term canine enrichment sounds a bit complicated, especially if you are a new dog owner, but here at Ruffle Snuffle we will demystify it and give you some great ideas for enriching your dog’s life and environment.
Engaging in innate behaviours to canines, such as sniffing, fetching, digging, chewing and licking, are incredibly satisfying for your dog. You can make your dog happier by providing lots of different opportunities for these activities. This is what we mean by canine enrichment.
While you may think that canine enrichment is something to do every once in a while to entertain your dog, it is an absolutely essential part of keeping your dog happy, healthy, and well-behaved.
So, as owners, what can we do to provide enrichment for dogs to ensure they are as happy and healthy as possible? Read on to find out what types of enrichment we recommend and some example activities to try with your dog that are easy to implement.
What is Canine Enrichment?
First, let’s get to the bottom of it: What exactly do we mean by ‘canine enrichment.’
Canine enrichment is any type of interaction or activity you provide your dog to stimulate their senses, engage their minds, or move their bodies.
You might think that dogs only need a few toys and to be let outside for the bathroom a few times per day. However, this is the bare minimum in terms of caring for your dog. To truly keep your dog healthy, you will need to provide enrichment.
Dogs need exercise to remain physically healthy. They also require significant mental stimulation to avoid boredom and stay well-behaved.
There are many categories of enrichment and recommended ways to implement them backed by research and are proven to help dogs.
While all dogs will benefit from canine enrichment, certain breeds have specific needs for tasks that stimulate them more. For example, Border Collies and other herding dogs are very smart and are genetically designed to work. These types of dogs require a lot of mental stimulation, including tasks that are similar to herding, to satisfy their needs.
In general, I recommend you enrich your dog in multiple ways. Do some research about your dog’s breed to determine if there are any recommended enrichment activities that you should do. You should also incorporate a range of other activities to satisfy multiple enrichment categories, which we will go over later.
What are the Benefits of Canine Enrichment?
Canine enrichment is an essential part of making sure your dog is happy and healthy.
Canine enrichment includes activities that engage all of your dog’s senses and moves their body. This not only keeps your dog physically fit, but it keeps them mentally engaged as well.
A mentally stimulated dog is much more likely to take part in a healthy activity when left alone, like sleeping or playing with a toy, rather than partaking in destructive behaviour. If you have a dog prone to making a mess when left alone, it is best to offer some canine enrichment rather than leave them in a crate all day.
Canine enrichment also involves socialising your dog and participating in other activities that reduce stress and fear. These activities can make your dog more friendly and can help prevent unwanted behaviour like barking or biting at others.
However, one of the best benefits of canine enrichment is that it can help create a stronger bond between you and your dog. Many of the enrichment types and activities that we will discuss will require you to spend time interacting with your dog. Through these enrichment activities, you will be sure to form a strong bond with your dog that is healthy for both of you.
Ultimately, canine enrichment is a great way to not only make sure your dog is healthy and happy, but it can help to curb unwanted behaviour and can increase their independence in your home.
What Happens If I Don’t Enrich my Dog?
When you don’t participate in canine enrichment with your dog, you run the risk of your dog becoming unhealthy in multiple ways. Many dog owners are not adequately enriching their dogs because they don’t realise that they need to or think that they are doing enough by doing the bare minimum.
A dog that has not been given enough enrichment can exhibit these behaviours:
- Fearful other dogs and people
- Become lethargic and lazy
- Gain weight
- Bark because they are bored
Owners often assume that they cannot stop destructive behaviour or prevent aggression, so they keep their dog in a crate all day and never let them out. Locking your dog up will exacerbate the situation. Providing good, all-round enrichment can reduce and often eliminate most of these issues.
Types of Canine Enrichment
There has been a lot of research conducted about canine enrichment, and, therefore, there are many ideas and types of enrichment available. They generally fall into two main categories, active and passive.
Experts can’t agree on how many categories of enrichment there are as many cross over, but for this guide, I will look at the eight most common types of enrichment.
- Auditory Enrichment (passive)
- Cognitive Enrichment (active)
- Environmental Enrichment (active)
- Food-Based Enrichment (active)
- Human Interaction Enrichment (active)
- Olfactory Enrichment (active)
- Social Enrichment (active)
- Visual Enrichment (passive)
Auditory Enrichment Engages Your Dog’s Sense of Hearing
Auditory enrichment engages the sense of hearing in your dog. This type of enrichment is beneficial to any dog but can be particularly helpful if your dog is afraid of loud noises or if you live in a noisy or busy area. Listening to calming sounds can help your dog feel more at ease in your home or garden.
This type of enrichment can also be helpful if you live in a generally quiet neighbourhood. If your dog is only used to quiet surroundings then they might be scared of loud noises like crop-scarers or the occasional loud car exhaust from your local boy racer. Yes, we have one in our village who insists on blasting up the road. Well, we’ve all been young once. It does make Dolly bark though, and motorbikes, she hates motorbikes. But using auditory enrichment can help desensitise your dog to some of these sounds and reduce stress.
To help your dog navigate the noises in the world around them, you can play a variety of sounds for your dog from a young age. There are apps, videos and audio clips available that are great for auditory enrichment. These can include soothing music and high-pitched sounds that only dogs can hear.
TOP TIP: Sound Proof Puppy Training is a great app available on android and apple devices.
The Scottish SPCA carried out some research on playing classical music to kennelled dogs and found that it did, indeed, help them relax. Just ask your Amazon Alexa or Google Home to play you some.
For active auditory enrichment try whistle training. It’s one of my favourites with Dolly as you can use the whistle over long distances and it cuts through distractions. I use one sharp peep for ‘stop’ and two for ‘come back’.
Cognitive Enrichment Engages Your Dog’s Brain
Mental stimulation for dogs is as important as it is for humans to keep their brains healthy, which is what we mean by cognitive enrichment. Things that get your dog’s brain working. Boredom and frustration can lead to undesirable behaviours so brain games are important.
Cognitive enrichment is essential for keeping your dog happy and mentally healthy at any age. This type of enrichment can also keep your dog occupied for a while and increases their overall fitness. Cognitive enrichment includes any activity that requires your dog to think, gives them a job, or uses multiple senses at once.
DID YOU KNOW: Research in the 1970s found that brains that are continually stimulated continue to develop even into adulthood. This is called neuroplasticity. So you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Other examples of cognitive enrichment are puzzle feeders that require your dog to solve a wooden or plastic 3D puzzle to find pieces of food or treats. Check out our Top Picks for dog puzzles that we love.
Cognitive enrichment that doesn’t require food includes walking a new route or playing with a toy. You could also play hide and seek with your dog or hide treats in different places around the room with the Find it! game.
There are also types of cognitive enrichment that can be great for specific types of dogs. For example, if you have a sighthound, you might want to play with a flirt pole that allows you to quickly move something through the air that your dog will have to see and chase.
If you have a retriever, you can throw tennis balls for them to chase and bring back. These activities allow your dog to tap into their genetic traits and use their ancestral skills during play.
Environmental Enrichment Encourages Interactions
One of the most important types of enrichment that often gets ignored is environmental enrichment. This is about making your dog’s living space interesting and stimulating.
Keeping your dog in the same environment every day will lead to boredom and often destructive behaviours which can also be self-harming, such as excessive licking and chewing of paws.
Only going outside to the garden or walking the same route is something that many people don’t realise is actually not that great for your dog’s health. Perhaps, though, after a year of lockdown people are beginning to understand what it might feel like to be stuck in the same four walls?
It is easy to enrich your dog’s environment. Here’s a 5 simple ideas:
- Change your walking route
- Create a doggy den for them to cosy up in
- Go for a drive to a new place to play
- Add some dog-friendly plants to your garden
- Add a pop-up tunnel or dig pit
Editor’s Pick: How to Create a Sensory Garden for your Dog
Food-Based Enrichment Provides Foraging Fun
Food-based enrichment encourages dogs to use their natural skills to forage and search for food. This type of enrichment is great for getting your dog’s body moving and provides some variety in their day by changing the way they eat.
Food enrichment is great for any dog but works especially well for dogs that are more motivated by food. There are many ways to provide food enrichment for your dog.
Try hiding your dog’s food in your garden, in destruction boxes, rolled up towels, a kong stuffed with yummy food and treats. By doing this, you can turn your dog’s meal times into play time, enhancing their mental stimulation.
A snuffle mat or slow feeder can also be a great way to slow down your dog if they are a fast eater.
Treats that encourage normal behaviour in dogs such as licking and chewing are also good for your dog’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Be careful with bones though, as cooked bones are not suitable for dogs – stick to large raw bones that your dog can lick and chew safely.
Human Interaction Enrichment Builds Bonds
Enrichment in the form of human interaction is an essential part of a dog’s life – otherwise known as training! Training with your dog builds trust, provides social interaction, cognitive stimulation and is fun. Have you ever tried dancing with your dog (heelwork to music)?
But it’s not all about training. Interactions with humans can be simple things like:
- going for walks
- playing with toys
- chasing bubbles
- running around the garden, or
- just laying together on the couch.
Make sure that you pet your dog and talk to them. Even if they can’t understand what you are saying, it will be comforting for your dog to hear your voice.
Editor’s Pick: 100 Ways to Show Your Dog You Love Them
Studies have shown that human interaction is also an important factor in reducing fearfulness and aggression in dogs.
Olfactory (Scent) Enrichment Activates Your Dog’s Nose
Dog’s love to use their noses and it’s not surprising that they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans.
DID YOU KNOW: The dedicated part of your dog’s brain that analyses smell is about 40 times greater than a human.
Dogs sniff everything which is why scent enrichment is so much fun.
Nosework games where you train your dog to track scents are my favourite as you can play them indoors and outdoors. If your dog is a scenthound then they will love this type of enrichment.
Research on scent enrichment for shelter dogs by Dr Todd discovered that olfactory enrichment worked. Vanilla, valerian, coconut, and ginger reduced activity, barking and whining and coconut and ginger increased the dog’s sleep. Might be worth considering if you have an anxious or over stimulated dog.
WARNING: Overuse of bleach can cause your dog to lose their sense of smell completely.
Social Enrichment Stimulates Natural Behaviours
We all know that socialisation is an essential part of being happy and fulfilled as a human, and it is no different for dogs.
Social enrichment includes anything where your dog will meet new people or other dogs, so includes trips to the park, beach, going into dog-friendly pubs or cafes, going to work with you or you could even take your dog to the pet shop.
The change of location will stimulate your dog’s innate behaviours so you should expect lots of sniffing (which is a great way for a dog to burn calories by the way) and probably some pulling on the lead as your dog tries to explore the new environment.
TOP TIP: Proper socialisation when your dog is a puppy is important in giving them the skills in how to interact with other people and pets.
You could even create a doggie playgroup in your town with other compatible dogs and their owners so that all your furry friends can play together.
By regularly interacting with others, your dog will become used to meeting new people and dogs, helping with any fear or aggression issues.
Visual enrichment is a type of sensory enrichment since it engages your dog’s sight. Visual enrichment is important for dogs to get every day to keep their mind and senses active.
Generally, there are two types of visual enrichment: inside and outside of their environment. You can visually enrich your dog in many different ways very easily.
One visual enrichment method outside of their environment is to let your dog have a view out of a window. If your dog is crated during the day, consider moving the crate closer to a window so that they can have a view of the world around them.
Another form of visual enrichment within their environment would be to provide your dog with toys that are of different shapes, sizes, and colours. Dogs see blues and yellow best as their colour receptors are different to humans.
TIP: Sighthounds love flirt poles and retrievers love chasing balls.
You can also play a video for them on the television that they can watch. There is even a DogTV channel which has been created for dogs with sights and sounds scientifically designed to enrich their days. Subscriptions are from $6.99 a month.DOGTV is a 24/7 channel with programs scientifically developed to provide the right company for your dog when left alone! Be sure to check them out and get a subscription that’s 10/10 for the best dog in your life!
How Often Should I Enrich My Dog?
Canine enrichment should be a regular part of dog ownership. However, you do not need to constantly have an activity or enrichment session planned for your dog. The frequency and amount of enrichment will vary from dog to dog.
The age, breed traits and health conditions will all affect how much and what kind of enrichment your dog enjoys.
Puppies and older dogs need short bursts of stimulation and then long naps. Anxious dogs will need calm games and enjoy a sensory garden where they can seek out lavender and other soothing scents. Herding dogs will want challenging and active enrichment that get their brain and body working, like parkour.
What is dog parkour? Parkour is where your dog has to conquer obstacles, such as climbing, balancing, and jumping in an outdoor environment. Cities, parks, woods and gardens can all provide great locations for parkour fun.
You will need to determine how much enrichment to implement in your dog’s schedule based on their personality and needs. Consider that your dog will also need to learn how to entertain themselves when you are busy or away. Don’t let your dog get too attached to your presence and interaction, as this can lead to separation anxiety when you need to leave them.
More Ideas for Canine Enrichment
In reviewing the types of canine enrichment and the example activities, you might find that there are many activities that can satisfy more than one type of enrichment. With a bit of planning, you can satisfy all of your dog’s enrichment needs with just a few intentional activities and schedule adjustments.
We will go over a few activities that you can implement to satisfy multiple enrichment categories. These are great for days when you don’t have as much time to do multiple activities with your dog, but you still want or need to provide some all round enrichment.
Enriching Your Dog’s Senses and Environment
One enrichment activity that satisfies almost all of your dog’s enrichment needs is going for walks. You can satisfy all of the sensory needs as well as environmental and cognitive by changing up your walking routes.
How many walks does my dog need? On average a healthy dog needs 20-30 minutes once or twice a day, 5 days a week. Rest days are just as important as walking days. Use rest days for other enrichment activities.
Walks don’t necessarily have to be long, and in fact going on a 15 minute ‘Sniffari’ will use up as much exercise as a 2 mile walk!
For example, you might have a specific route that you take for your morning and night walks so that your dog can use the bathroom. In addition to these walks that are part of your dog’s routine, add a weekend walk and one or two weekday walks where you walk down different streets or go to a new destination. This changing environment will engage all of your dog’s senses and can be very enriching.
TIP: Dogs that are fearful or anxious may find too many walks overstimulating so keep walks on familiar routes and short. Seek help from a behaviourist.
If you have a garden or yard you can bring a little enrichment to your outside space with the addition of dog-friendly plants and obstacles. I wrote a guide on how to create a sensory garden for your dog. It has many ideas and a list of beneficial plants you can grow.
Enriching Your Dog During Mealtimes
Feeding your dog is something that you do multiple times every day. It can be very easy for this activity to be repetitive, where you simply scoop their food into a bowl where they then eat it (or scoff it down noisily if they are a French Bulldog!). By making some small changes to the way that you feed your dog, you can provide some cognitive, food-based, and olfactory enrichment.
One way to satisfy these enrichment categories is to feed your dog using a slow feeder bowl or a puzzle feeder. Here’s our top picks for puzzle feeders you can buy online they are worth the investment. You can also make your own at home like the Muffin Tin Game or a Destruction Box. Of course you could by one of our award-winning snufflemats too.
By letting your dog work to get their food, they are using their senses and mind, whereas if they were presented with food in a normal bowl, there is no engagement with the senses or mind.
Do you need to feed your dog different flavours of food? This is an interesting question and one that I researched for my article on whether dogs get bored eating the same food every day.
SUGGESTED READING: 11 Fun Puppy Enrichment Ideas Without Food
Enriching Your Dog’s Life with Toys
Another easy way to enrich your dog is with toys. With the right variety and types of toys, you can satisfy auditory, cognitive, environmental, human interaction, and visual enrichment types.
Keep your dog enriched and entertained by providing them with a variety of toys. Make sure you have toys that are of different:
- Colours ( dogs see blue and yellow best)
Toys that squeak or make other noises are also important. Keep in mind that toys and playtime are not just meant as a reward or treat but are an essential part of keeping your dog engaged and well-behaved.
MONEY SAVING TIP: Dogs can quickly get bored if the same toys are given daily, so keep them in a box and swap them each day. Your dog will show a renewed interest and you won’t need to buy as many toys.
Time to get started
At the end of the day, canine enrichment is one of dog ownership’s most important aspects. To keep your dog happy, healthy, and well-behaved, you should be working to ensure that your dog is satisfied in all categories of canine enrichment.
All of your dog’s senses should be regularly engaged. They should have adequate socialisation, and they should have to use their brain to solve a problem or get food.
Canine enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. You can easily incorporate a few extra walks per week, new ways of feeding your dog, and a variety of toys to satisfy most of the enrichment categories. Start incorporating some of these changes into your routine to enrich your dog thoroughly.
Without this enrichment, your dog will be prone to misbehaving and will be unhealthy. Give your dog the best life possible by regularly participating in canine enrichment.