Revised and updated 2023
How would you feel living among a pack of wolves in the middle of chilling winter, without proper clothing and having to eat from a carcass of a prey animal? Turning things around, your dog may actually feel similarly in a human environment
… unless you do something about it.
How did enrichment start?
Animals in general have a history of millions of years of evolution during which they have experienced changes and adapted to their environment. We, humans, have kept animals in captivity closely living with us for thousands of years since the dawn of our species. During that very long time, we have learned to use those animal species to meet our needs and to make life easier for us.
Dog, cats, and other pets are in captivity, living with us in a somehow unnatural environment for them.
Pets deserve to have a dignified and healthy life that satisfies their physical and socializing needs (in plain words, a happy life!). Since they can’t have a say about where or how they would like to live, they need our help and ideally all the available scientific knowledge to that end.
This is what animal enrichment consists of:
An enriched environment provides our pets with optimal conditions like those in their natural environments (where they originated and thrived in the first place) so that they can have the best possible quality of life, following their own nature as species.
The concept of enrichment is very important and following it allows for good physical and mental development for our pets.
Enrichment = Dogs and cats fully expressing their potential for fun and happiness.
Absolutely, animals do have rights!
But, what do animal rights have to do with our pets? Bear with us.
A universal declaration of animal rights has not been drafted yet and there’s still a long way ahead until we reach that point. We still have too much confusion, disagreement, and conflicts of interest around the matter of animal rights, in part because animals are commonly used as commodities or just objects or “things” by part of society. Animals don’t have a voice after all, right?
Animal enrichment brings up important issues regarding animal welfare
Why enrichment should be a general animal right?
Dogs and cats are entitled to enriched environments to live in. There is a common debate around the question of whether animals are entitled to their own existence.
Very basic interests, such as the need to stay away from suffering, should be afforded the same consideration as those of human beings.
Wouldn’t you agree with this?
Pets often surprise us with attitudes and actions revealing a sensitive dimension that is an expression of their intelligence.
Animals matter to most of us and in many cases, we feel love for them.
Let’s not forget dogs and cats are, like us, are capable of experiencing emotions, not to say they have a nervous system, almost identical to ours that enables them to feel pain.
What are dog and cat “freedoms”?
Dogs and cats can feel a range of emotions such as
They, like us, have dedicated parts of their brain to process such emotions.
The concept of ‘animal rights’ comes in handy when we think of how to enrich their life, so certain basic freedoms or rights should be considered when having animals in captivity (at home):
- Health = freedom to be healthy
- Proper nutrition = freedom to have proper nutrition
- Protection = freedom to have a behavior directed to get protection, or to be protected
- A life free from fear and pain = freedom not to suffer and enjoy life
- Express or manifest their own nature = freedom to do so according to their own species
As pet owners, we must ensure these basic freedoms are met in the environment we provide to them while living among us.
Actually, there are many things we can do to give our furry friends the right environment so that we accomplish their basic animal freedoms.
How can dog and cat enrichment be achieved at home?
Before acquiring a pet, especially dogs or cats, we should learn about their animal nature, by answering the following basic questions:
- What is a natural dog or cat environment like?
- How should I feed my dog or cat properly?
- What is a dog or a cat’s life cycle like?
- What conditions do dogs’ or cats’ social life respond to?
….but above all…..
Are we prepared to provide the minimum environmental conditions considering dogs and cats nature?
Answering this and the above questions can be handy as a first step to make sure your pet will have a healthy and happy life with you.
Keep in mind: some changes and adaptations will probably have to be made at home and in your own lifestyle to achieve a more natural, or at least close to the natural environment where your pet will feel comfy, but after all the effort will be rewarding for both you and your pets.
Why is this?
An enriched environment = less stressed dogs and cats.
Less stressed pets will be healthier and behave well.
Dog enrichment principles are valid for cats as well.
Let’s now cover how we can provide the basic five freedoms to our dogs
Let’s Talk Dogs
For dogs, the conditions of enrichment (indoor and outdoors) should be adjusted considering the basic needs of space, socialization, physical and mental performance, as well as physiological needs.
Dogs’ nature and enrichment
No matter how many thousands of years animals have lived with us humans, pets keep strong instinctive natural behaviors. Importantly, their way of communicating, their behaviors, the sounds they make, their body language, their different states of mind and emotions, are all traits that define them. All these things should give us important hints to make the right adaptations to the environment at home according to the needs of your pets.
Trying to look at things from the dog’s perspective will help understand their psychology.
Learn to recognize signs of pleasure, stress, and relaxation in your pets. This will give you cues on the possible ways to begin adapting your home for your furry friends to feel comfortable, especially when they first arrive.
The idea is to have our own proper pet enrichment plan at home.
Remember: Dogs used to be wolves. This is a very important fact when designing how to enrich our home for them. As former wolves, dogs are pack animals and their behavior and psychology respond to hierarchical structures within their group. They see us humans and other animals at home as members of their pack.
Dogs are very social by nature (and that is where we meet as species), so, some of the adjustments at home will facilitate interacting with their adoptive family (their “pack”) of us humans and possibly with other dogs (or cats!).
Depending on the breed and age, dogs should have enough space to run, play, explore, and rest undisturbed.
Dogs do better when they are allowed to have an organized life with fixed routines. For example, regular walks or feeding schedules. Getting pets used to routines, requires adjusting the physical environment at home, the acquisition of some necessary elements, and even changes in your own habits and rhythm of life (hopefully for the best!). For example, having toys or leashes stocked in specific places, water plates located at specific places and filled with fresh water before dogs come back from a walk on a sunny day.
Many changes of routine (a disorganized life) lead to stress.
Adaptations will also depend on the breed, age, and size of the dog and our particular way of living.
The ability for a breed or age or size of dog to adapt to our specific conditions or situation will make it easier for us not to have to make major changes or adjustments at home
….but, certain things should still be looked after……. Bear with us.
Dog’s freedom of choice
Do you think dogs should have a say?
Dogs should get the opportunity to make some basic choices, such as preferences for rest areas or those designated for feeding; We can take notice of these inclinations and, whenever possible, make the necessary adaptations (like for instance relocating dog beds or water/food bowls to the dog’s preferred places).
Dogs or cats will move around the house under the influence of factors such as time of the day, temperature, or hustle in the house. These all will influence their choice of location.
Bear in mind that a very busy place will not be appropriate for a dog to eat or rest (they actually might dislike such a place and express it somehow).
Some enrichment answers
What is the best dog feeding time?
To plan for the best possible feeding time, remember that dogs, as they became domesticated many centuries ago, learned to scavenge leftovers around early human settlements. They have retained this omnivorous scavenging nature. Actually, originally carnivores, dogs have their own enzymes to digest certain sugars (which they developed through the millennia living with us).
Therefore >>> it would be great if we could make adjustments in pet feeding times matching our meals.
Where is the best place for dogs to rest?
Dogs will definitely look for their favorite resting places, naturally.
Believe it or not, dogs can detect electromagnetic flows and chose the most comfortable place for them to have a good rest. And to top it, dogs sleep more hours than we do. So, providing them with a good place to eat is extremely important.
In general, we should provide dogs with all the necessary stuff to make it snug for them. Perhaps a nice dog bed, perhaps a rug, ventilation, but above all, an adequate temperature. Being furred animals, dogs can stand cold and even rain to a certain level, but too warm environments can be awful because they only have a few sweat glands contrary to we humans (dogs then have to dissipate heat through panting).
Would like to know what to look for in an ideal bed for your dog? Click HERE
Since dogs sleep a lot and do enjoy a good nap, designating those quiet, comfortable places with the least traffic in the house is convenient and ideal.
BEWARE! Dog at work
Dogs love to be guardians!
From the dog’s point of view, their adoptive human family is their pack, and they will zealously try to care for and protect you, whenever given the chance.
Although a little training is not bad for controlling this natural tendency, let’s understand that being a good guardian is an instinctive behavior in dogs and should have its place – although it may also be a good excuse for …. you guess it …… barking!
Here is an interesting article about how to help your dog to get calmed when they bark excessively.
For a dog, having a space and opportunities to care for ‘their herd’ is ideal. Whether they can run around the house or lean out of the window, it is very rewarding.
Dogs are not happy in isolated conditions, so they really don’t like to be kept alone in places such as garages or terraces for very long periods. This is the perfect concoction for the behavioral problem called separation anxiety.
Not to mention keeping dogs tied up. That’s torture, folks!
How important is exercise? Let’s go! Time for a walk!
Walking time is quality time!
It is a happy moment that our dog friends enjoy and eagerly wait for. In their minds, this time is associated with play and possibly, depending on the place or conditions of the walk, interaction with other dogs.
Walking is the main source of exercise for dogs.
Enrichment tip: certain objects dogs associate with walking, such as a leash, a harness or toys (balls, frisbees) could be placed in strategic places that the dog recognizes.
You will be surprised to see how your canine friend stands by the toy chest or the coat rack (or wherever the leash or toys are placed) exactly at the walking time, day after day.
After all, it’s time for fun!
Want to know more about dog exercise? Click HERE
Dogs rave for sniffing. Equipped with their powerful sensory organ, aka nose, dogs explore, get to know their surroundings and socialize with other dogs.
Actually, dogs can “see” through their noses!
We can take advantage of this feature to stimulate their mind through search and find games that include prizes. This is a terrific activity for dogs to do at home or outdoors.
A scavenger hunt, for example, involving digging to hide things (like bones) or discovering treats can be a lot of fun.
Dog digging and enrichment
Dogs love digging, (and even more, hidden prizes!). Some places can be allocated for this activity and dogs can be trained to dig in such designated places. However, uncontrolled digging can be a problem.
Many reasons justify the need for digging.
Why dogs dig (normally)?
Dogs dig for the following reasons:
- To “store” food (as part of the hunting sequence)
- To create a cozy resting or cooling place
- To express playing or exploratory behavior
Unwanted digging (dogs dig holes indiscriminately in large areas of the garden) is a sign of frustration or anxiety (usually this behavior comes with excessive barking and destruction of furniture and other objects). This has to be addressed as a dog behavior problem.
Chewing and enrichment
Dogs also love chewing! This is definitely inscribed in their brain programs.
Don’t worry too much if the dog destroys its favorite toy. When it’s done with it, get him another… (destroying furniture is another story, pointing to a behavior problem)
However, there are specific toys and treats for dogs to chew safely.
Dog training as enrichment: Dog School. Time to play!
Good dog training is always necessary, and more or less will depend on the breed and age of your dog. In some difficult situations, dogs may need specialized intervention by behavior professionals in order to help them in their adaptation process (you can always discuss this with your Vet). Nonetheless, training is meant to be part of the fun. The mission shall never mean punishment but rather correcting inconvenient behaviors.
Dogs love challenges!
Dogs must have the chance to test their intelligence in situations where they must playfully solve problems.
Providing appropriate problem-solving opportunities improves animal welfare. Many scientific studies support this notion. Training definitely contributes to dogs’ wellbeing.
There are many available dog schools and training specialists around the world and there are probably some good ones near you.
Dog education is not only desirable to correct unwanted behavior but also to strengthen dog-owner bonds for a better quality of life for both parties.
For instance, you can teach your dog:
- Agility activities
- How to play games
- Strategies based on rewards
For instance, dogs really enjoy treats, but try hiding them in your garden or a park and you will see something like what is happening in this video:
When teaching your dog “new tricks” consider a place where your dog feels safe as an individual, avoiding large gatherings, noisy environments, or proximity of other dogs that may become sources of negative stress or distraction during training (like in dog parks).
It should be an opportunity to stimulate your dog’s mind while being an experience that they enjoy.
VERY IMPORTANT: The freedom from fear and stress
Fear is an emotion associated with survival.
When feeling afraid, animals seek refuge, or in the worst-case scenario, defend themselves against any imminent threat, or whatever they feel like a threat just like we humans sometimes do.
This emotion and behavior of dogs is part of evolution. Thus, the fact that our dog expresses or manifests signs of fear from time to time is natural, depending on the circumstances. However, a dog that is too aggressive or, on the contrary, tremendously frightened, must be professionally taken care of to reach a certain emotional balance.
If the dog is a rescue adopted as an adult (older than 6 months) and turns out to be very fearful, it may be due to the memory of pain or trauma suffered at some point during life and perhaps the dog is stuck in a mental loop. This situation will require attention to help him get rid of these emotions that can be so overwhelming that completely paralyze them socially.
Also, any frequent stressful situation for your dog is inconvenient and should be noticed for further corrections.
An environment that is too noisy or exposed to external stimuli beyond our control should be avoided.
Remember: do not try to remedy any undesirable behavior with verbal or physical violence (We know you probably won’t, but just in case). We all lose our tempers once in a while. But we should get calm and seek smart solutions. Being aggressive will only result in the animal withdrawing and weakening its confidence in you and itself. It will also create great fear in the dog.
So, no punishing or yelling if our goal is to provide a healthy and rich environment.
Time to Potty! How much fun!
Dogs need to eat healthy food to have proper digestion which in turn makes it easier for them to go to the toilet regularly. Therefore, two aspects from an animal enrichment perspective that should be considered are
- Type of food
- Feeding routine
(If you ever considered giving your dogs raw food go ahead and check this article )
Important tip: Despite its omnivorous scavenging nature, a dog should never scavenge garbage.
Give your dog the chance to go out to poop and pee on a regular schedule.
When there is a garden and going out is part of your enrichment strategy, installing dog doors can be handy. Greatly designed dog doors are available can be aesthetically integrated into your human doors or walls.
Combining exercise (walking) with toilet time can also work (don’t forget your trash bag). As a bonus, this is a great way to socialize with other dogs.
Dogs “social” smell sense
Dogs (like those living in a neighborhood), similarly to many other mammals, identify each other through the smell of their urine and feces.
Disgusting as it sounds, that is the way they have been doing it for centuries. But what they are really smelling are pheromones, substances that come in feces and urine and get transported in the air for animal communication (through the sense of smell).
Through specific pheromones, dogs may even know what urine is from what dog and leave traces of their own presence (through feces or urine) at different places.
Dogs also leave pheromone traces through their paws.
Special glands in dog paws produce them.
In some situations, it is impossible that dogs go out regularly. In these cases, the space destined to go potty in the house should be a relatively private place that shall be kept clean, because, like us, animals also dislike filth. It is not the most ideal situation in the case of dogs, but if there is no other alternative when you gotta go, you gotta go, so it better be done right.
There are many soiling beds for dogs that can be adapted to apartments or houses lacking a garden or green areas.
Wrapping remarks. What dogs love!
This infographic is a summary of what dogs love the most
dog enrichment today = fewer problems (health and behavior) tomorrow
Nobody wants an unhappy dog.
There is nothing like a happy dog that feels welcome in its adoptive home, with the best possible quality of life conditions.
Doing everything possible to optimize pet enrichment is well worth it. Doggies will thank you and pay you back with all the love, company, and fun that only they can give humans, in their own “personal” way.