• Jackie Maffucci, Ph.D.

Enriching Your Way to a Happier, Healthier Dog

Updated: Jun 21, 2018


Former foster Rou (French Bulldog Village) loved her toys, but that wasn't the only way to enrich her day!

We put high demands on our dogs in today’s society. We ask them to be our friends, guardians, playmates, exercise buddies and social extensions in the community as a whole. We want them to be patient, obedient, and loving; be comforting to us when we feel blue; leave us alone when we are busy; take new experiences in stride; and always be ready to engage on our terms at the time and place we choose. It’s quite a tall order, especially if we lay this expectation without providing the groundwork to set our dogs up for success.

Our dogs were bred to work, yet often their job today is to stay in the house and wait for us to come home and engage them. When we do come home, there’s homework, emails, chores, and other activities that distract away from time with the family pet. With all that’s going on in our lives, it can seem hard to meet the needs of our animal companions, but it doesn’t have to be!


When you think about the types of enrichment and stimulation that you give your dog, your mind probably goes to their daily walks and maybe some play time (fetch or tug). These are both very important aspects of your dog’s daily life, but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg! While it’s true that dogs need physical exercise to keep them fit and help tire them down, mental activity is just as important. Today’s pet market has a host of enrichment tools to make it easier to accommodate this part of your dog’s needs. To help give you some ideas, here are few rules that I live by to integrate enrichment into a dogs life.


1. DITCH THE BOWL

In the days of old, feeding time was centered around a food bowl. Nowadays we realize that this is a missed opportunity. Using feeding time as a way to both slow down food consumption and encourage problem solving is a great way to offer a fun, healthy, and interactive way for your dog to eat. There are a host of puzzle toys and slow feeders on the market. Buster® cubes, the Kong® toys, the Tricky Treat™ Ball, and slow feeders from Outward Hound®, Northmate® and Kyjen® (to name a few) are all great options to add some challenge to feeding time. To add another level of interaction, products such as the Nina Ottosson or Kyjen® puzzles, the IQ Treat Ball™ have an added layer of problem-solving. And let’s not forget for the technology inclined, the Pet Tutor® and other emerging products offer a variety of ways to enrich your dog’s day.

If you’re interested in a less commercial route, find it is a great game to challenge your dog’s nose. Hide handfuls of food around the house (start easy and in one room; make it harder as your dog catches on). If you have a yard, toss your dog’s meal out in the grass and let them sniff it out. Or toss it in the air and see if your dog can catch!


Frozen kongs or stuffed bones can add another level of challenges as well, and some relief from the hot summer weather. There are plenty of other “do it yourself” enrichment puzzles to be made. Facebook groups focused on canine enrichment abound to help get those creative juices flowing!


2. CAPTURE BEHAVIORS

Walk time has a number of advantages to it. It gets your dog out and moving to burn some energy through physical exercise. It engages their nose during those moments when they stop to “smell the roses,” which is great enrichment for them and gives them time to be a dog! Walk time is also a great time to capture behaviors.


Think about all those moments when you’re walking with your dog and the leash isn’t tight… those are all opportunities to capture. How about if your dog decides to check in with you, glancing up to you as you’re cruising the neighborhood; another great opportunity to capture. Anytime your dog offers a behavior on a walk that you want to see more of, reinforce it with food and you’ll not only see more of that behavior over time, but you’ll also see a dog who is much more interested in engaging with you while out on walks.

Service puppy in training DAPHNE (paws4people) shapes her way to "sit in the box!"

Shaping by approximation is a really fun way to encourage problem solving through what is essentially a very advanced capturing game. This technique is how most Hollywood animals are taught to perform really complex behaviors. We’ll talk more about shaping at a later date.


3. TRAIN YOUR DOG

I find one of the most important myths to bust with my clients is the amount of time you should spend training your dog. Many dog owners envision a lengthy process--setting aside an hour daily to review cues. Let me assure you, that is not the ideal way to train! Just like us, our dogs learn much more effectively in short intervals, 3-5 minute blocks of time with a goal of 5 sessions a day is great. The more you can integrate these sessions into daily life, the more you set your dog up for success. For example, before a walk work on impulse control exercises like no jumping and wait at the door. After a walk, try a settle. Before meals, sit and wait. During fetch, drop it and sit or down before throwing the toy. And don’t forget to throw some tricks in there, because what’s more fun than a dog that can beg, crawl, or play dead?!


My dog Dinah was an agility champ, but beyond that, agility helped her to build much needed confidence while challenging her mentally and physically.

4. FIND A SPORT

Sports are great for building confidence, engaging problem solving skills, and burning energy. Nosework and Canine Parkour are some of the newer sports out there and both are easily done without the need for any major equipment. These also have the advantage of being extremely friendly to dogs with behavior challenges. Other options such as agility, flyball, and freestyle are just as fun, but might require a bit more planning.

Not only are these all effective ways to enrich your dog’s life, but most all can be done indoors. So for those of you struggling with a dog who might show reactive or fearful behaviors towards the world around them, you can do many of these in the comfort of your own home and consider slowly and safely transitioning them outdoors over time.


A tired dog, both mentally and physically, has less energy to focus on the world around it. These activities are an important part of the equation in addressing behavior challenges, as well as protecting against the development of behavior challenges. They also have the added benefit of building confidence and problem-solving skills in your dog, which can help them better navigate the world comfortably. It’s a win-win. So what are you waiting for -- let’s start enriching!

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