3 Steps to Positive Species-Typical Behavior with Enrichment
By Teena Patel
True enrichment is vital. Enrichment can be defined by breaking down the term into three parts: en–rich–ment. The prefix “en” is a unit of measurement. “Rich” means abundant. And the suffix “ment,” for our purposes, means “expressing the means or a result of a species–typical behavior in a way to strengthen behavior.” All three aspects are important when it comes to understanding enrichment as a whole.
Canine enrichment is any intervention or arrangement of conditions in a dog’s environment that influences a positive behavior change, specifically one that is species–typical for dogs and measurably more abundant—either more frequent, more prolonged, observably higher quality or more holistically engaging to the dog.
In practice, enrichment can include a wide variety of things: devices, diets, sensory experiences, procedures, relationships, games or any number of other ways a dog’s habitat can be altered. Environment not only encompasses physical space, but also mental, emotional and social space as well. Enrichment is vital because it stems from an understanding of a dog’s whole, lived experience, and thus has the power to make his life better.
A Picture of Enrichment
For example, let’s talk about using food to create an enrichment experience.
The species–typical behavior a caretaker might look for in a dog could be ripping, tearing, shredding, chewing, pulling, shaking or burying the food, in the same way dogs interact with food naturally.
There are different methods to deliver food, and the food itself can improve in quality. There are a lot of different things the dog parents could try to make meals an enriched experience, rather than meeting the dog’s nutritional needs in the most minimal way. They could offer different kinds of food, for instance, or set up a scene where the dog can forage for the meal.
In order to see which changes provide the most enrichment, the dog parents will have to observe whether or not their dog’s positive species–typical behavior measurably differs after a change is implemented. Eating can be observed to be a rich behavioral and sensory experience, one in which a dog appears to be intimate with its food. When this happens, one can observe the dog’s engagement to be more prolonged, enthusiastic and wholly active.
It’s also important to observe if any other positive species–typical behaviors are engaged when the food is delivered. For dogs, this could be things like foraging, exploring, burying or even an experience that produces a behavior that mimics social hunting with other dogs.
When a food delivery method is able to engage multiple positive species–typical behaviors with more frequency, the dog’s quality of life shoots up. That’s the best possible execution of food enrichment.
Some Things Aren’t Enrichment
They’re simply food dispensing tools, commonly referred to as interactive food toys.
Many elements in most dogs’ environments aren’t enriching their lives. In fact, so much of a dog’s environment is filled with “no!” things; things they’re reprimanded for chewing on or interacting with in the way that’s actually the most healthy for them.
Beyond that, most products and practices are just neutral, not enrichment, designed to keep dogs away from what we don’t want them to interact with. Some products and practices actually deplete a dog’s quality of life.
The problem is, there are a lot of products that are fun, attractive and easy to implement; it’s the easiness that makes them so appealing. But, the shift in a dog’s behavioral health and wellbeing is minimal after the product is used. The function of these products is to distract the dog, or exhaust him, rather than improve his quality of life and empower him to be his best self.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a toy or game that’s just “fun”. But, if it has no measurable impact of a dog’s species–typical behavior, then it isn’t enrichment; neither is an exercise routine that a dog enjoys but doesn’t engage him holistically.
So, how can a thoughtful caretaker sort out real enrichment from fads and trends slapped with an “enrichment” label?
Step One: Get to Know Dogs with Science
First, seek out accurate, evidence–based information to understand which behaviors are typical for happy, healthy dogs. When a caretaker is gathering this information, it’s important to keep mental and emotional health in mind, as well as physical health.
Fortunately for us, there’s a wealth of information out there. For decades, animal behaviorists have studied the behaviors of dogs in particular, so all of us can find the results of observational and experimental studies that give us accurate data on how dogs behave when they’re doing well.
The scientific journal Nature is an amazing resource, with articles explaining attachment behavior in dogs, the negative species–typical behavior of dogs (and humans) that precedes dog bites, and the range of positive, species–typical behavior among dogs due to their unique personalities, among other things.
The journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology connects dogs’ unique behaviors with their overall wellbeing, and has many articles articulating which behaviors correlate with various aspects of a dog’s personal biology and which ones are strongly impacted by the environment.
Regardless of which resource someone chooses, the main thing to remember is that positive species–typical behavior will vary among species. So, a behavior that seems unusual to us humans isn’t necessarily unhealthy in dogs. Conversely, some behaviors that seem good to us aren’t actually great to encourage in dogs. Because in dogs, these behaviors indicate health issues like stress, frustration or depression.
One example is prolonged rest. Resting is relaxing, so it makes sense to assume that it’s wise to encourage dogs to rest as much as possible. Unfortunately, that assumption is off–base.
According to veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates, dogs are social sleepers. So, if a dog seems sleepy and is resting while other dogs are awake and people are active, it’s a sign that the dog is over–tired, not sleeping deeply enough or even has learned some level of helplessness. This is different from humans, as it’s species-typical for humans to sleep eight hours at once, and primarily at night, rather than adjusting their internal clocks to the people around them.
In essence, the problem is, we’ve demoted movement and activity, because resting dogs are easier to keep track of. We’ve also created environments that are over-stimulating for the dogs, or places that are too static, stagnant and sterile to truly engage dogs holistically as they would be in an environment that was designed to suit their own needs.
In some shelters, dogs are encouraged to rest while others are up and around, or even to sleep up to sixteen hours a day. This behavior isn’t species-typical; nor an indication of happiness and good health. Therefore, if an intervention of some kind is implemented to encourage this kind of sleep pattern in dogs—something that induces over-exertion and then tiredness—that intervention isn’t enrichment, because the intervention encourages non–typical behavior which indicates stress.
The intervention may well be necessary, as it can be the best of several less–than–stellar options available if a kennel is over–crowded, but it isn’t enrichment. That’s why, if possible, these kinds of interventions aren’t enough; it’d be better to stick with calling them games or activities, not enrichment. This inconsistency can cause problems when the dog goes home, so it’s something to consider when implementing changes.
Understanding enrichment is important and is hugely beneficial because its results are long–lasting and observable long after the experience, hence transformative. So, what’s the second step?
Step Two: Seek Out Leaders and Teachers Who See Dogs as Whole Beings
When looking for methods, objects or other interventions to enrich a dog’s life, seek out leaders who value dogs as full beings, deserving of respect and care. Those leaders are more likely to come up with genuinely enriching ideas and strategies. They’ll discard ideas that they know don’t make sense from a dog’s point of view, no matter how cute or helpful they seem from a human perspective. This way, a higher percentage of the ideas they do pursue will turn out to be genuinely enriching.
Learning effective enrichment methods from others can be really helpful. It can also spark a caretaker’s own imagination, and empower them to come up with their own interventions drawn from observations and life experiences. While species–typical behavior for dogs and humans diverges pretty widely, it can still be helpful to think in broad strokes about things that have enriched their own life.
They might ask themselves: What changes to my own diet, home or social life improved my mood for the better? What made my good habits more frequent? What made me more engaged in my best behaviors? Exploring these questions can be a source of inspiration for new enrichment ideas.
But, these first two steps aren’t enough on their own. After someone understands what behaviors are species–typical for happy, healthy dogs, and they’ve got some ideas from decent sources on how to encourage those behaviors, the final step is implementation.
Step Three: Keep Track of How the Dog’s Behavior Changes (Or Doesn’t) After the Intervention
When implementing a new, potentially enriching intervention, make sure to keep track of both quantifiable and qualitative changes in the dog’s behavior for a decent amount of time afterwards.
If a positive species–typical behavior is encouraged—great! That means the element the caretaker introduced is a legitimately enriching intervention. On the flip side, if the canine–typical behavior is unchanged, decreases or if the intervention leads to an increase in non-typical behavior, then the element isn’t enrichment. You can always try again with something else.
Thomas Edison learned 1,000 ways to not make a light–bulb before he finally figured out one that worked; now, a century–and–a–half later, we all use lights every day! The same is true of enrichment. It’s great to experiment with a lot of toys, foods and other potential interventions to your dog’s environment, even if a lot of them don’t pan out. Because, when you find something that works—when you figure out something that brings true enrichment to a dog’s life—the positive change is immensely rewarding.
And, if you create something that provides genuine enrichment to dogs by this metric, then that intervention won’t be just a fad or short–lived trend. True enrichment has such an impact, that when we learn how to do it—how to do something, or make something, that observably results in making dogs’ lives better—that intervention will catch on for the long haul.
What Enrichment Means For Us Today
Enrichment is a process that we can all discover as we explore new ideas and designs in dog care. When we do it right, we know it works. And knowing it works is what lets us build on one another’s wisdom and leap from one discovery to the next.
By understanding the definition of the word “enrichment”, you can create a comprehensive set of conditions, each of which are intentionally designed to increase a behavior that you’ve learned from your research which is positive and typical for healthy dogs in their most natural spaces.
These environmental elements should be drawn from an understanding that dogs have a whole body, and all senses have the potential to engage a dog fully and deeply into the experience of their life, creating a degree of joy and engagement that’s easily observable and measurable.
Enrichment has the potential to revitalize our dogs and revolutionize our relationships with them. The future can be a place that is so much better for dogs and for those of us who care about them. But that only happens if we keep ourselves honest and protect the true, usable definition of enrichment.
If we dilute the meaning of enrichment until it includes every dog-related thing out there, then we dilute enrichment’s incredible, transformative potential. Enrichment, by this definition, is vital, useful and wise. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s use it to make something amazing.