Last updated: 19 Aug, 2020
Published on: 21 Jul, 2020
Enrichment and training tips for your dog!
Dogs are incredibly smart animals, and just like people, not having opportunities to use those smarts leads to boredom, poor behaviours and stress. Even if you’re very lucky and your dog is too well-mannered to express their frustration in negative ways, constant boredom isn’t really a dog living their best life.
The type of enrichment that is best for your dog depends a lot on their personality. Some dogs love to solve puzzles, others like to be able to destroy (appropriate) things, and others like to dig or chase or sniff. The best idea is to provide a combination of all these things, but if you’re short on time, focus on those which keep your pooch engaged for the longest.
Some good principles and ideas for enrichment include:
Time with people is always going to be the best possible enrichment for most dogs. While most of us aren’t lucky enough to take our pets to work, make sure the time you are with them is meaningful to them. We’ve all just experienced during COVID how awful it feels to be at home alone all day – make sure when they do get your time, it’s fully engaging for them. Avoid just throwing the ball at the park for half an hour; try instead to engage with them, play, train, take a tug toy, hide things in the bush... Anything that uses their brain! Use the ball only right at the end of the walk to expel any last remaining energy. For more ideas check out: Four party games to enrich playtime!
Using their brains to learn new things is an exceptional way to keep your dog enriched, as well as build their bond with you. Set a target to teach a new trick once a month. Don’t stop just because your dog knows “Sit and Stay”. What about turning off the lights, rounding up the kids for dinner, getting a drink from the fridge? These things really are easy to teach once you and your pup understand the basics of training – and they make fantastic party tricks!
Consider agility trials, dock diving, obedience classes, nose-work or herding classes – you don’t have to compete for them to be great fun for your dog.
When you’re short on time to spend directly with your dog, try to think about how to fill in their time. Whenever possible, avoid feeding your dog in a boring old bowl. Ideally, ask your dog to sit and wait while you hide their kibble all through the room or house. Hide it under cushions, pop some under the chairs or tight spaces that they have to work out how to get into/out of, bundle some up in a folded blanket. If your dog is smart, try harder places like under a rug or on some higher shelves.
If you’re in a hurry, you don’t even have to hide it properly – you can simply “scatter feed” by spreading the kibble across the floor in the morning. By having to pick up one piece at a time, it at least fills in an extra few minutes of their day to finish their breakfast while you head to work.
Remember that enrichment doesn’t have to cost much. Sure, there are fantastic toys from pet stores where they have to work hard to get food from puzzles or move a ball around to get the treat, but much of this can also be made at home. An old soccer ball with a small hole filled with kibble, a shopping box with their favourite toy taped inside, an empty soda bottle with treats, a piece of string to hang their favourite toy just out of reach… The possibilities for homemade enrichment are endless once you get started.
When first introducing a new toy to your pup, you might need to have large holes / small treats in order to make it easy. If it’s too hard at the start, they’ll lose interest in that game. Once they work out the trick and get better at it, start making it harder so it requires more perseverance and fills in more of their day.
🌈 Sight and smell
Some dogs can become over-excited when they see things outside so this doesn’t suit everyone, but many dogs enjoy being able to see. Give them time in the front yard so they can watch people walk past or if they’re indoors, make sure the windows have a view of activities they might enjoy watching. Even just birds (and the occasional sneaky cat) in your garden is more interesting than watching your silent lounge room.
And don’t forget dogs love to use their nose. Spray different scents around the house put a strange smelling item inside a box, and if you’re keen, even consider bringing some smells of cats or other dogs into your home for them to get excited about.
Remember that the basic idea is to make their interactions with you, and the world around them, as enriching as possible. Try to remember how it felt to be locked at home for weeks in a row, watching the world from a window. Even if you’re time-poor, with a little ingenuity you can find ways to fill up their day with interesting items and mental stimulation. Don’t waste food or toy opportunities – use them to best give your pup a challenge and some fun.
This article was a guest contribution by Dr Jessica Moore-Jones. Jessica was a veterinarian who found herself Senior Advisor to the largest Animal Management unit in the southern hemisphere. Since then, she has been Executive Manager and CEO of multiple animal welfare organisations in Australia and overseas, has advised governments on policy and legislation, was a finalist in the Not-for-Profit Leader of the Year Awards, and now runs Unleashed Coaching and Consulting – helping other animal organisations to strategically balance financial sustainability with community outcomes.