Should food be used for enrichment?

I often see people writing about enrichment in ways that do not quite fit with my beliefs. Strangely, they often don’t want my uninvited opinion. So, ever so slowly, I’m learning to keep out of other people’s realities. But here, I will continue to teach what I consider to be right. But, of course, things aren’t often completely right or completely wrong. There’s usually a lot of ground in-between. So, what is it that I disagree with this week?

I’m seeing the opinion, both in books and on social media, that if the dog must work to get their food, then it’s not enrichment. The argument seems to be that the dog must do the activity to eat, therefore, it’s not internally rewarding or enjoyable to the dog, just something they must do in order to eat. On the face of it, I understand the perceived logic. Ideas like this are great because it gives us the opportunity to take another look – nobody should believe a thing just because somebody said it, no matter who said it, it needs evaluating and so does our current belief.

So, let’s start with what enrichment is.

Enrichment is the act of identifying and providing environmental stimuli (activities) which might otherwise be unobtainable to captive animals (this includes companion animals) (Sherpherdson et al., 1998). The aim of enrichment activities is to improve the animal’s welfare. The term ‘welfare’ is itself often misunderstood. A dog doesn’t necessarily have good or bad welfare because of their environment. Welfare means ‘the state of an individual as they attempt to cope with their environment’ (Broom and Fraser, 2007). Imagine two dogs that both have only three legs; One may cope very well (they have good welfare), while the other might struggle and suffer discomfort or pain (poor welfare). These days people often apply other terms, like wellbeing, but essentially it is exactly the same thing – It’s how the animal is coping with their environment (or condition).

The welfare of captive animals is greatly increased by providing enrichment that facilitates natural behaviours, including devices for enrichment feeding (Claxton, 2011). This is supported by recent studies: food foraging was shown to reduce stereotypies in walruses (Fernandez and Timberlake, 2019) and Durranton and Horrowitz (2019) found that dogs using olfaction to search for food became more optimistic (improved mind-state). Additionally, dopamine rises and peeks during the anticipation of reward Sapolsky (2011), or what Panksepp (2011) described as the SEEKING system of the subcortical brain areas.

It is pretty well accepted that dogs are natural scavengers. In captivity, we’ve taken away their ability to freely find a mate and breed, we’ve taken away their ability to wander and choose where to settle. We’ve taken their natural behaviour of finding food. They are very often locked in a box (our houses) for 23+ hours per day. Then for some reason, we convince ourselves that it would be unfair to feed them in interesting and engaging ways. I would argue that there is nothing natural about an animal having a bowl of food placed in front of them. I’m not opposed to bowl feeding if the enrichment needs are being met elsewhere, but for many dogs, this is a fantastic opportunity, lost.  Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution – every ancestor the dog ever had – and none of them (until recent years) ever had their food come to them in a bowl.

I don’t agree with making it difficult or complex – I just want the dog to be enriched and have the opportunity to be a dog.

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