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Q&A: Why Environmental Enrichment Is Essential for Dogs!

In the wild, dogs spend most of the day foraging and hunting for food. In the wild, there are animals to chase. There is grass to hide in and room to run. There are streams to swim in, hills to climb, dirt to sniff, and plants to eat. A dog in the wild is barking, running, chasing, digging, hunting, and playing all day long. It’s much different for domesticated dogs.

In a domesticated environment, dogs find their food and water in bowls. They go outside maybe a few times a day, to check out the backyard or take a short walk. Many are stuck in the house, playing day after day with the same toys. Sometimes they get scolded for begging at the table, or yelled at for barking.

Although domesticated dogs are often happy and healthy, they still need their pet parents to create a bit of the wild at home. Just like they need food and fresh water, dogs need environmental enrichment to live a full life.

What is environmental enrichment?
Environmental enrichment is the simulation of the natural environment in the home. Environmental enrichment actually helps prevent disease, as well as destructive and unwanted behaviors.

What can I do to enrich my dog’s home environment?
A great way to enrich your dog’s home life is to use food and treats in fun, interesting ways.

  • Use food to simulate foraging. Feed your dog in a food toy, such as a Buster Cube, “roll-a-treat” ball, or Kong. Many dogs love dry and canned food mixed together, stuffed in a Kong, and frozen. For many dogs, peanut butter frozen in a Kong is an engaging delight.
  • Use treats to simulate hunting. Put dog treats in a small cardboard box or an old towel, and let your dog “hunt” by tearing it open. Make sure non-food items are not ingested.
  • Use food and treats as fun surprises. Scatter kibbles in the yard, or “hide” small portions of food or treats in durable plastic containers around your home, such as under the sofa or behind the bookcase.

Two more great tips for using food and treats as enrichment are to…

  • Put fruits and vegetables around the house or in the yard for your dog to sniff out. Good options are strawberries, blueberries, apples, bananas, cubed melon, or chopped carrots, celery, peppers, or broccoli. Do not offer grapes or raisins! Grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs.
  • Freeze low-sodium chicken broth in ice cube trays. You can even add pieces of fruit and veggies. Licking up this fun frozen treat gives your dog something active and engaging to do.

Be sure to calculate treats as part of your dog’s daily calorie allowance to keep him or her at a healthy weight.

How can I make my dog’s home environment exciting?
Dogs need stimulation. There are many ways to stave off boredom and stress—and keep your dog engaged and happy.

  • Rotate toys to keep life interesting. Keep out three or four various toys at a time. Good options include squeaky toys, rope toys, stuffed animals, and tennis balls. Rotate with new or different ones every week to make your dog’s day fresh and exciting.
  • Offer chewing items around the house, such as nylabones, Greenies, or West Paw bones.
  • Play soft music or leave the television on softly.
  • Place novel scents in your home or yard. You can use small amounts of spices, herbs, or extracts. You can even buy synthetic animal smells, such as squirrel, rabbit or quail, at a sporting goods store.
  • Offer regular tactile stimulation to your dog by petting, massaging, and brushing.

The toys you keep out around the house depend on your dog’s preferences. Be sure to consider your dog’s tendency to ingest foreign bodies, such as plastic or cloth. Make sure non-food items are not ingested.

Let your dog’s wild side fly!

  • Fill a small child’s wading pool in the yard with water or sand, or offer one pool with each. Let your dog experience the joys of romping!
  • Hang a strong rope or an inner tube in the yard. Let your dog play tug-of-war!

How can I use exercise and play for environmental enrichment?
An active dog is a happy dog.

  • Walk your dog for 20 to 30 minutes, one or two times a day. Dogs love walks! Walks are also great bonding time. (Letting your dog out into the yard is not a substitute for walking.) Always walk your dog on a leash, so he can safely sniff and explore to his heart’s content. Avoid flex leashes; they do not allow you to remove your dog quickly from a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Take a jog with your dog. “Sniff walks” are great for stimulation. Running walks are perfect for exercise.
  • Take a hike with your dog. Long hikes in safe parks or wooded areas offer exercise, excitement, and bonding.
  • Form a play group with two or three safe dogs—only dogs your dog knows and likes. Friends with dogs are the best.
  • Spend time playing with your dog! Throw the Frisbee or tennis ball. Play tug-of-war.
  • Sign your dog up for sporting activities such as agility and tracking training. We can recommend good options.

A dog living in an enriched environment can fully express his or her true self in healthy, constructive ways. Environmental enrichment helps prevent unwanted behaviors that can stem from boredom or stress. Most importantly, environmental enrichment brings joy and happiness to our canine fur babies!

By Dr. Jennifer Goetz

At AHBC, we are always happy to talk about creating an enriched environment for your dog—a home full of love, health, happiness, and intact furniture.