Enrichment: It’s not all about food

It can be very easy to get the impression that enrichment is all about food. Don’t get me wrong, food can be an amazingly good tool for enrichment. This is because dogs obviously need to eat, dogs usually find food enjoyable and reinforcing, and dogs usually don’t get to go hunting or scavenging their own meals. This gives us the opportunity to fill the behavioural void and make feeding times more interesting and rewarding.

However, the purpose of enrichment is to fulfill the dog’s behavioural needs, not just to keep them busy. Imagine this: you’re locked in a room with no TV, internet, radio, phone, or any other way of communicating or interacting with the outside world. Every 3 hours you receive your meals in a puzzle box. Due to boredom and the need for food you actively go about accessing the puzzle box. It may occupy you for a while and you may get satisfaction out of your success, but has it fulfilled your other needs? of course not. Whenever I use humans as an example, somebody will always comment that dogs are not people so it doesn’t apply. It’s true, they are not humans, but that doesn’t prevent them from having other needs. If the only thing dogs needed was calories, they really wouldn’t be the amazingly versatile companions that they are.

Copyright Shay Kelly 2019

We’ve bred dogs to specialise in many different areas, for example, gun dogs, hounds, working dogs, terriers, and herding dogs. Within the breed types, there are many more specialisations, for example, the Springer Spaniel was bred for flushing game birds from the undergrowth and retrieving; the Pointer assisted hunters by air scenting and indicating the location of the prey by remaining totally motionless ‘pointing’ towards the prey, however, they both belong to the gundog group (also known as the sporting group in the US). It stands to reason that the job your dog was bred to do will produce some behaviour needs. The fact that he’s now living as an unemployed houseguest doesn’t matter, he was genetically primed to fulfil particular behaviours – You could even say these are his life goals. It should also be remembered that all things in nature are variable. Therefore, some individuals may not show the instincts of their breed to a great extent, however, others may be supercharged examples of the breed. The point is that a food-filled Kong may be of interest and benefit, but it’s only a fraction of what the dog might need. With this in mind, it’s always beneficial to consider the behaviours which the dog was bred for and investigate ways of fulfilling these. Of course, it is easier said than done, most border collie guardians don’t have a flock of sheep handy, but compromise is better than nothing at all. Some ideas might be agility, flyball, or hoopers, which they usually excel at.

There are, of course, other very important elements of enrichment, for example, fulfilling non-breed specific natural behaviours, such as appropriate socialisation and the extremely important superpower of sniffing, companionship and bonding, or having a safe environment (there’s no enrichment value in an unsafe environment). Additionally, enrichment doesn’t always need to be proactive. Sometimes the best enrichment is doing very little, just letting the dog engage naturally with their environment. I love nothing more than simply walking in a safe place and letting dogs just trot and sniff and do their thing without any pressure; I’m pretty sure they love it too. I probably own every food enrichment toy ever made, but none of it is worth much to the dog if we don’t also consider their other needs.

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