Keeping a dog happy and healthy is tough work. You bring her to the vet, take him on walks, spend all your money on toys and food. But there are times in everyone’s lives that our attention must be focused elsewhere and our dogs are left to occupy themselves. While some dogs are content to laze around the house all day (thank goodness mine are!), most dogs require more stimulation than that. And when they don’t get it, often they will create it. Many a shoe, pillow, and trash can have seen what happens when dogs get bored. It isn’t just the destruction of our homes that we need to prevent, and it isn’t simply an increase in physical activity that will provide a solution. Keeping a dog happy and healthy includes supporting their social and cognitive needs as well as their physical ones. A lack of appropriate enrichment (cognitive, social, and physical) in a dog’s life can lead to physiological issues, like obesity and stress, and behavioral issues, like excessive barking and chewing.
Fortunately, there’s an endless list of activities available to fulfill all of your dog’s needs. Unfortunately, many of them require additional time and effort that most of us don’t have. Sure, you could drive to the dog park every day. Sure, you could create an obstacle course for your pup, complete with a digging pit. Sure, you could fill your evenings with stimulating training sessions and fancy tricks. But most of us just don’t have that time.
So here it is. Only one thing to add to your routine. The best least effort way to add more enrichment into your dog’s life. Even if you think you don’t have a minute more to waste, you can definitely make your dog’s feeding time more enriching. Most dogs can scarf down a bowl of kibble in 30 seconds – an easy, if boring, feat. To engage your dog’s brain and make an everyday moment more mentally challenging, employ a puzzle feeder or snuffle mat. That’s it! If all you have time for is to feed your dog, try to make it a little trickier. Tennis balls in a muffin tin or the ol’ bowl inside a bowl are classics you could probably put together right now, but there are endless options online and if you’re feeling ambitious, plenty of DIY instructions for feeders and treat dispensers. Another easy trick is to simply hide their food in small piles around the house to be sniffed out. Or grab a cardboard box, crumple up their food inside pages of newspaper and let your pup go to town. You could ditch the bowl entirely and trade food for tricks. At the very least, stuff a Kong with some PB and kibble. Do anything that will engage your dog’s brain and make him work for his supper! The options are endless and only limited by your human imagination. Frozen treats (pupsicles??) are another great idea, especially in the heat, but do take some forethought and can get messy. Whatever way you do it, add some enrichment. Your dog will thank you.
Okay, I lied, there’s one more thing you need to add to your routine. It’s just as easy, I promise! Just as human moods can be influenced by music, so can dogs’! A 2002 study published in the Animal Welfare journal (Wells et al.), found that classical music had a calming effect on shelter dogs. The dogs exposed to classical music were less vocal and spent more time laying down than those exposed to human conversation or heavy metal music. Not all enrichment has to burn calories or create chaos – it just needs engage the senses. For positive, peaceful stimulation while you’re at work or out running errands, turn on some gentle tunes and help your pup relax.
One final note on enrichment that I want to pass along comes from “The Ethics of Enrichment”, an 2017 article by Dr. Barry Kipperman, veterinarian and professor at UC Davis. Kipperman points out that while providing environmental stimulation is, of course, beneficial to an animal’s welfare, the term “enrichment” itself is misleading. It gives the sense, he argues, that “we’re ‘enriching’ an already fulfilled life and therefore exceeding our basic obligations.” Our obligations go far beyond food and shelter and extend to ensuring that all their psychological needs are met as well. For all your dog gives to you, make sure you return the favor.