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Ditch the Dish & Enrich

For those of us lucky enough to work with animals, the word “enrichment” is part of our everyday vernacular.

Doctors heal, artists paint, and animal carers (among many other things) enrich.

But enrichment covers a vast scope of techniques, tricks and methods, all of which are designed to help animals; and in Dogs Trust’s case; Dogs. So we thought that it might be interesting to cover the different types of enrichment we do in Dogs Trust, both with the dogs in our care, and with our education dogs. And perhaps after, you might learn some techniques to try out on your own dogs.

 Now where did I leave all my treats?


So, what exactly is Enrichment?

If we are being very technical, Enrichment is “An animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.”

That’s quite a mouthful, but to explain what it means, we must step back a few years and look at zoos and safari parks. When zoos first became popular, the enclosures for the animals were designed for the people visiting to get really good looks at the animals, and the animals needs were generally neglected. This resulted in many animals living short, unhealthy lives.

An outdated polar bear enclosure, designed solely for humans, not  its occupants

Many of the animals began exhibiting stereotyping behaviours-also known as repetitive behaviours. These behaviours varied depending on the animal, but they included things like pacing up and down, licking the walls for hours on end, and it wasn’t rare for the animals to self-harm. These were all signs that the animals were stressed, and although at first, many keepers tried to create enclosures that didn’t allow for these behaviours, eventually the keepers began to tackle the cause rather than the symptom. They developed husbandry techniques that met the animals’ needs, by challenging and entertaining  them. If an animal had to chase their prey in the wild, then instead of simply giving them their food, they would make them work for it, by placing it up high, or attaching it to a moving contraption. If the animal foraged for their food, the food was then scattered throughout their enclosure. This technique of animal care was named “enrichment” and as it became more widespread, animal welfare improved, and the techniques got more varied, complicated and ultimately, more successful.


What has this got to do with dogs?

Well, dogs often preform their own repetitive behaviours. Sometimes dogs may chase their shadows, paddle their water bowls or lick a surface repeatedly. It is important to note however, that just because a dog is preforming these behaviours, it doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is very stressed, but they can be indicators.

Dogs in shelters often preform these types of behaviours, so it is really important for canine carers to provide enrichment for the dogs, to improve their lives, and keep their brains nice and active.


Enrichment and Dogs Trust.

So what types of enrichment do we do in Dogs Trust?

Olfactory enrichment

Often enrichment will take advantage of a particular sense, and what better sense to rouse in a dog than their wonderful sense of smell.

By scattering treats in long grass, sand or among dog-safe plants, dogs will use their nose to locate the treats. Dogs naturally use their nose to locate objects, something that seems so foreign to us that we often forget to utilize this sense when playing with our dogs, but getting a dog to use their nose to find treats is not only fun for the dog, but engaging for their brain.

Pluto is using his powerful nose to locate some of his favourite treats

We have a tendency to think exercise is the only way to tire our dogs but think about how you feel after a long day at school, or a long day at work behind a desk. Although you may not have been overly physically active, your brain was working throughout the day, and this is enough to tire us. It is the same with dogs, and although it is important they still get their physical exercise, mental exercise is just as important.

Side effects of this type of enrichment may include a sandy nose, as exhibited by the lovely Perky

Puzzle enrichment

Speaking of mental exercise, we often hide treats and rewards in different objects, making our dogs work for their returns. A good cardboard box, or newspaper is often a fun thing to dissect. Be aware that some dogs may try to eat paper and cardboard, and if that if the case it may be best to avoid this, but if not, a box can provide hours of fun. Add some shredding’s, add some treats to an old pillowcase and tie a knot in it.

If you don’t have any cardboard, or if you don’t fancy destroying your pillowcases, there are plenty of enrichment items you can get in a pet shop. Kongs resemble rubber beehives, and come is many different sizes. They can be filled with many different rewards that will keep a dog licking them for hours.

And you can mix up the fillings. Try peanut butter (palm oil and Xylitol free, please). Dogs are nutty for the substance, and as a bonus it is really stinky, so you can hide it well, and your dog will likely find it eventually. Or you could try soaking their regular kibble in water and mushing it up. Or perhaps get really adventurous and try bananas, strawberries, blueberries, or even sweet potato or carrot. All of these are safe to give dogs and will mix up their rewards.


Feeding time.

Some dogs are so food orientated, they will gobble up their dinner in a matter of seconds, so in these cases we can offer them their dinner in a puzzle feeder that will slow them down. If they eat wet dog food we could offer their meal on a lickimat. These will transform a meal of 10 seconds, into an activity that will last them a lot longer, and will keep them entertained throughout.

 Education Dog Piper adores her Likimat

The possibilities to enriching dogs are endless, and as long as we are safe, the only limit is our imagination.

Often the canine carers will swap the toys and beds the dogs in the centre use, so not only will they have new toys and beds, but their new items will have really interesting new smells. And it isn’t just the Dogs in the centre that are given enrichment, the education dogs have to go to schools everyday, and sometimes this can get a bit boring, so the education officers often use different enrichment techniques, be it a lovely kong at the start of class, or a new toy to chew on in the afternoon.

Education Dog Lucy loves her K9 connectable enrichment toy every morning


All the techniques above can be utilized by your own dogs at home. Why don’t you try some of them out. You might find your dog really enjoys them and you'll have a new way to bond with your doggy pal.


The education team want to say a big thank you to the canine carers for all the help in researching this post. Particularly Martina for all the lovely photos, Donna for her behaviour knowledge, and Vonna from our new Dog School, for her enrichment advice