So what does Enrichment actually mean ?
Well…. It depends on the dog, their individual needs and what the you want the end result to be …
Enrichment for dogs is basically anything which add to your dogs’ quality of life and can be used to help moderate their mental state. Bored dogs who lack mental stimulation can suffer stress and destructive behaviours and enrichment can often mean the difference for some dogs between anxiety and being in a more relaxed state. But over Active dogs can also suffer stress and require a different type of Enrichment to help them relax – A ‘busy’ dog doesn’t always need ‘Busy’ activities – sometimes they need us to help teach them how to relax and slow down
Active enrichment might be as simple as playing with your dog and tapping into their breed specific needs - tug games, retrieve, digging etc or could be more formal activities such as agility or gundog work. Going to a local secure field and investigating tunnels, sandpits and sniffing where other dogs have been or visiting relatives or going out to meet new people (for social dogs) would all be active enrichment. These types of enrichment release Cortisol which is essential (in the right amounts) for a healthy & happy dog – but too much of it can lead a dog who is unable to settle.
But, many dogs also need to be taught how to calm themselves through other forms of ‘Calming’ enrichment to help them learn how to lower those Cortisol levels after an exciting/ stressful event. So following an active enrichment with calming enrichment can help to teach your dog and help to regulate those Cortisol levels and leave the dog in a more relaxed and healthy mental state. So Enrichment does not need to be active but can also include things to help relax a dog and be used as a way to learn how to reduce stress and cope with situations more effectively.
Calming enrichment can include simple treat scatters in the long grass, snuffle mats or sniff walks where the purpose is to slowly take in every scent in the area rather than to do lots of distance. Bin day is a good one for this when there are lots of things out on the pavement for the dogs to investigate (although watch for them trying to eat inappropriate items). Remember though that the area you walk in and your dogs personality can also affect whether these walks are Active or Calming - a dog who loves to chase cats, rabbits or foxes etc who catches a scent of one may turn the walk from ‘Calming’ to ‘Active’ and you may need to follow that experience up with some more Calming enrichment.
Knowing your dog is what is important here and being able to watch their body language to assess whether a walk is ‘Active’ or ‘Calming’ is important - Calming walks are possible for most dogs if you give your dog the right environment and try to reduce the chances of encountering things which over arouse them. And even dogs who cant go out due to injuries, who are in season or even rescue dogs who need time in a new house to reduce stress ,can have the outside world brought to them in a ‘Discovery box’ of smelly items to sniff. Bringing home pine cones, filling hessian sacks with collected hay from the stables etc will all give your dog a sniffari experience without having to leave the house.
Lick mats ,stuffed Kongs, Natural Chews and chew toys can be another type of calming enrichment for some dogs but others may find these types of things cause frustration and with some dogs they may need to be ‘taught’ how to use such items. There are also other activities we use in classes such as snuffle boxes, cardboard box games and homemade treat dispenser like the cup tower which can help some dogs to relax but may be stressful for dogs with noise sensitivity or where pain issues mean that these activities are frustrating or cause stress and this negates the calming we were trying to promote.
Calming enrichment can help to lowers cortisol levels so that dogs are better able to cope with all of the things we expect them to do with us and our busy lives. If they spent the day doing lots of ‘Busy’ activities then you may also need to show them how to relax and using calming enrichment can help to do this.
So if you do any active enrichment such as exciting sniff walk in a new environment that arouses the dog, you could then follow that with a quick scatter of treats in a snuffle mat or a lickmat type activity to help the dog relax and lower their heart rate and the levels of cortisol in their system and help to teach the dog to self-regulate