Defining Animal Enrichment

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February 7, 2016
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May 13, 2017

Defining Animal Enrichment

The focus of behavioural/environmental enrichment typically falls upon specific activities and toys, rather than looking at the whole picture. The risk of focussing on the activity is that we don’t address the dog’s overall well-being, and overlook the more important aspects of improving mental and physical health. Enrichment activities can quickly become box ticking exercises that do little more than distract the dog for 10-15 minutes with no long term behavioural benefits. This is not to say activities don’t have their place, they are an important component of any enrichment program – please read our earlier blog “Nobody’s home… What now?” for some great activity ideas.

Behavioural/Environmental Enrichment Definition: To encourage species appropriate behaviour. An enrichment program should stimulate the dog both physically and psychologically, with the goal of enhancing their overall well-being, in the context of their biology.

Enrichment Categories

Social – Cognitive – Physical – Sensory – Food

When developing an enrichment program it is important to target all five categories. These categories are not mutually exclusive, there is always some cross-over. With some consideration you can target 3-5 of these categories at any one time. Implementing an enrichment program that effectively covers all five categories will ensure that you are effectively managing your dog’s overall well-being.

When animal enrichment was first introduced, there were some who embraced it with incredible enthusiasm and with an extremely strong focus on toys; the more the better. Animals were flooded with objects and it became hard to tell if any were enriching and if so, what level of activity/stimulation they provided. Disney had the answer…

Disney’s Enrichment Process

All areas of behavioural management require a systematic, consistent approach to successfully assess whether or not the goals are being met.  The team at Disney’s Animal Programs introduced the S.P.I.D.E.R. model, which is a process to follow when implementing a new enrichment idea.


This process was designed for zoo animals. A zoo keeper would spend considerable time writing up all relevant documentation to support this whole process. I don’t think this is necessary for pet dogs, however it is still a great process to follow. If you are dealing with significant behavioural issues, a dog trainer may well include this process as part of their behavioural management strategy, so you can easily assess results and make adjustments where needed.

The 3 Key Focus Areas of Behavioural Enrichment 

So where should we focus our energy?

The Home Environment: Behavioural/Environmental enrichment starts with the home environment, as this is where your dog will spend the majority of their life.  The key areas needing consideration are:

  • The size of the home;
  • The general layout, inside and outside;
  • How much of the home is usable space for the dog;
  • Are there any additional areas that you could give your dog access to?
  • Are there varying substrates that the dog has access to?
  • What type of fencing does the property have and can the dog see through or over the fencing?
  • What is on the other side of the fence? and how does it affect behaviour?

The layout and effective utilisation of space is very important. An extremely large yard with nothing but grass, no trees, no other substrates, limited shelter and no structure, is not a stimulating environment for a dog. A dog in this environment will focus heavily on the door that YOU come in and out of, given this is the place where their food and social interaction comes from. Dogs in this type of environment are prone to developing compulsive behaviour disorders, amongst other issues.

Once we have designed the general layout, structure and substrates with in the home environment, we can now focus on the various activities that we offer our dog’s in the home and yard.

Human Interaction: Domestic dogs have an unrivalled relationship with human beings, both species cooperating for over 15,000 years.  Both humans and dogs build strong bonds, with new evidence suggesting that physical contact and even a gaze can release oxytocin in both species.

(It was this mutual gazing that piqued the interest of Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviourist at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan. Kikusui’s lab studies oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in maternal bonding, trust, and altruism. The results suggest that human-dog interactions elicit the same type of oxytocin positive feedback loop as seen between mothers and their infants). 

The human-dog social interaction is valued extremely highly by dogs. The interaction is heavily reinforcing and strongly desired, becoming a key component in a behavioural/environmental enrichment program. The following factors require some consideration:

  • How much time does your dog spend in your company?
  • How are your spending that time with your dog?
  • Is your dog alone for long periods of the day?
  • Does your dog sleep in close proximity to you at night?

Every dog/human relationship is different. Our ability to develop a strong relationship is determined by the dogs genetics, temperament, our approach and the environment. As a general rule of thumb, spending time together is reinforcing and stimulating in itself.

Training and Exercise: When we are considering the overall well-being of our dog’s, we must address their physical and psychological needs. Nothing addresses these areas better than training and exercise. I have but these two categories together, as they are often combined in the dog world for good reason.

The key to combining exercise and training successfully is to make sure the activity is both challenging and rewarding. A slow walk around the block has some value, but is somewhat limited compared to high energy retrieval, running, training obedience and other activities that create a rush of blood and release of endorphins, which are reinforcing to both the human and dog, strengthening your bond and improving mental/physical health.

Dogs that don’t have an outlet to burn off excess energy and/or dogs that aren’t challenged mentally are more likely to develop undesirable behaviour. Dogs all have their own set of behavioural needs which is determined by their genetics, temperament, breed, size, age, health, and environment.

More than just toys

The home environment, human interaction, training and exercise make-up the vast majority of our dog’s daily routine. We should be making continual improvements in each of these areas, throughout the dog’s life; the more we learn about our dogs, the better we can manage their needs. Making some landscaping improvements to provide some extra greenery, a sand pit to dig in or another sheltered area with a view can make a big difference to a dog’s general well-being. The most important area of all is training and exercise combined; this will not only improve their physical and psychological well-being, but also strengthen your bond, creating greater value in your relationship.







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