It was recently suggested to me (not for the first time) that using a dog’s food for enrichment activities is cruel because it’s forcing them to do things against their will in order to eat.
The definition of enrichment is to make something better, more rewarding or more meaningful. The purpose of canine enrichment, therefore, is to make a dog’s life better, more rewarding and meaningful.
The vast majority of dogs are kept as pets. They don’t have a job working alongside us as their ancestors once did. They can’t usually go to the office with us. They can’t wander the neighbourhood as they once did (more about that here). Dogs are not free to do as they please; like it or not, they are captive animals. Over the years we’ve manipulated them through selective breeding into all sorts of shapes and sizes and for all kinds of purposes. No greater variant is found in any species within the entire animal kingdom. But today, the majority are kept as pets, companions, and friends. Sounds lovely, and it is, but they no longer have any real job. The lives of many dogs are comparable with little more than a rug; day after day after day after day of lying around the house and occasionally tripping people over.
Visit the website of any zoo and you will find information on their animal enrichment activities. It’s become normal practice, and not before time. It’s perfectly clear that animals need stimulation. They need something interesting to do with their day. Without stimulation, they often develop behaviour problems, depression, stress and general poor welfare. Doesn’t a pet dog also deserve enrichment? Shouldn’t a dog’s life be interesting, stimulating and worthwhile? Should they not be given the opportunity to use that amazing brain?
There are many forms of enrichment, including, Sensory (scent games, sniffing, pet bubbles, nature sounds); Toys (balls, squeaky toys, tugs, chew toys); Social interaction (meeting other dogs, spending time with people, stroking, grooming); Environmental (Streams, fields, woods, beach) and Feeding (kongs, slow feeders, pick-pockets, snuffle mats). They are not mutually exclusive and are often used together. We don’t live in a perfect world and most dogs don’t get the stimulation or exercise they need. Approximately 45% of all dogs are thought to be overweight.
Some very simple things can make a real difference. Weigh out the daily food (so you are not under or over-feeding), hide it around the house, roll it in a tea-towel, place some in your old cereal box, roll it across the floor for them to chase, do little training sessions with food rewards, place your cushions on the floor with a piece of food under each one, make a scent/food trail, use a stack of plastic cups with food between each cup, save the empty toilet rolls and hide food inside. Allow them to stop and sniff and be interested in things; it doesn’t have to be difficult or immensely time-consuming, let them chill-out when they want to but make life interesting and make it worthwhile.
The vast majority of animals spend a huge proportion of their time trying to acquire enough food; you could say, it’s what they live for (well, that and reproduction). No species in the history of the world has ever needed food placed in front of them in a bowl. Dogs are no different. Let them enjoy life; let them live.
So, is canine enrichment cruel? or is it crucial?
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read