Is Your Facility Truly An Enrichment Center?
By Teena Patel
The term “enrichment center” is being used more and more frequently in the pet care services industry. As competition increases it’s become important to differentiate ourselves, and using the term “enrichment” is an effective way to do that. However, most facilities aren’t operating as true enrichment centers.
Enrichment is an active, conscious process with measurable, observable and unambiguous goals. It is the process of manipulating an animal’s environment to satisfy the animal’s physical and psychological needs.
Truly offering enrichment is complex, though certainly not impossible. That’s why my team and I have expanded on guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and their categories of enrichment to create criteria for pet services facilities. We developed 7 pieces of criteria that help answer the question, “What is an enrichment center?”
1) Environmental Enrichment Devices
When we put animals into captivity we need to maintain their biological behavioral health. The things we give them can play a role in maintaining that behavioral health.
Environmental enrichment devices (EEDs) are objects that can be manipulated by the animal. Natural EEDs include large and small branches, wood, wool, hay, and flowers. Man-made EEDs may include things like Boomer balls, tires, and Kong toys, or constructed items like puzzle boxes.
Natural EEDs are ideal as they can foster fixed action patterns true to the species of animals you are working with. How can you work natural EEDs into your own environment?
2) Habitat Enrichment
Behavior is influenced by interactions with an environment, which is why we must create habitats that are reinforcing to the animal’s behavior.
To design an enriching habitat, get into the mindset of the animal you’re caring for. For example, dogs have an innate desire to eliminate away from the areas where they play, sleep, eat, and drink. That’s why you might notice anxiety, pacing, and other stress–induced behaviors in cramped environments with artificial turf where they can’t “do their business” in another spot.
Enriching habitats include a variety of surfaces. Usable space is more than just flat land! Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Unlevel surfaces
- Different elevations, like tunnels and above–ground jungle gyms
- Stones for climbing on
Habitats are complex in nature, but you can also have a lot of fun designing them. Be sure to involve your entire staff—they may have some excellent ideas to share.
3) Sensory Enrichment
Sensory enrichment involves offering the animals different stimuli that will engage all five senses. Making sure our environments tap into each sense also helps us ensure the animal is habituated and able to acclimate to change. Being outdoors often meets this goal naturally. For example, dogs in daycare might hear a helicopter nearby, see and hear a dump truck backing up, feel the sensation of wet grass on their bodies, and more.
Smell includes dogs and people, but also the odors we use on our toys, like deer urine and quail scent. Doglando dogs even know what chickens smell like, as we have them on our property.
For taste, you have tons of options. Here are some of the tastes we use:
- Sweet potatoes
- Frozen bananas
Similarly, there are a number of ways you can incorporate touch into your enrichment center:
- Collar grabs
- Heat checks
- Grooming routines
A big part of sensory enrichment is the total sensory experience, or involving all of the senses in a single game or activity. Two good exercises are swimming and balance—these stimulate body awareness and engage multiple senses at once. Essentially, you want the pets in your care to experience, through all senses, different types of learning so that they are behaviorally richer.
4) Food Enrichment
You can use food mindfully to onset behaviors like hunting, foraging, and problem solving. At Doglando, we might throw food into the lagoon or scatter it around trees. This doesn’t lead to fights, either. There’s no food aggression because we don’t withhold it—it’s just another part of the environment.
It’s important to offer different types of food, including:
- Cold food
- Room temperature food
- Dehydrated food
- Hidden food
- Food scattered on different surfaces (varying elevations, textures, etc.)
You might be wondering how this influences behavior… and figuring that out is the fun part. We don’t know what the animals are thinking, but we can see and observe what happens as a result of the different types of food we offer.
5) Social Groupings
In the wild, social groupings look very different than they do for companion animals—dogs can hunt and mate (which is how social groupings naturally develop). If we aren’t allowing for that, how do we meet this need for social grouping?
We have to carefully monitor groups and mindfully create conditions where the need for social grouping can be fulfilled. Understand that groups of dogs can stabilize and bring out the best in each other… or the exact opposite. Dogs learn proper play, impulse control, and cooperation when social groupings are approached with mindfulness.
Of course, safety is always paramount. The amount of available space contributes to safety, because animals can engage socially without feeling stressed, frustrated, or cornered. When an animal wants some alone time away from the group, they have that opportunity. We’ve never had a fight at Doglando, despite having so many dogs hunt, forage, and play together. The amount of space we have contributes greatly to this.
6) Behavioral Wellness and Conditioning
Behavior is anything we can see, observe, and measure, and those observations remain unambiguous amongst the observers. When behavior is reinforced, the animal will continue to engage in the interaction and the behavior will maintain itself or increase in strength, duration, intensity, and frequency.
Behavioral wellness includes a well-intended, deliberate plan of action that is activated to enhance conditioning of an animal’s response to its environment. Conditioning is learning, and another aspect of enrichment is behavioral conditioning, which simply means anything an animal does that is observable, measurable, and unambiguous that was learned.
You can maintain behavioral conditioning (especially behaviors that are considered “manners” and “obedience”) by making these things part of the animal’s life lessons. We want to give every dog that comes to us the ability to apply what they do at our facility to the real world. That’s why we do:
- Crate exercises
- Preparation for veterinary exams
- Gate exercises, like waiting at the gate
Our enrichment program’s efficacy is measured to enable and enhance each dog’s behavioral health, promoting behaviors that prepare the learners to be ready, willing, and able to participate in a range of different exercises and activities. The continued practice of these behaviors provides our dogs opportunities to advance in the real world, at home, at the groomers, at their vets, and most of all as healthy members of our society.
You can’t have an enrichment center without relationships. And, those relationships have to be maintained. The definition of a relationship includes the number of positive interactions amongst living beings over a period of time.
It’s not just your relationship with the animals, either. Staff and client relationships are just as important. All relationships take time and effort to maintain. Most importantly, relationships require ongoing contributions.
Truly offering enrichment involves constant learning, mindfulness, adaptation, and maintenance of the relationships you’re working so hard to cultivate. When you approach it this way, you’ll realize that it’s just as enriching for you as it is for the dogs.
Teena Patel (LLA, CPDT) is founder of the University of Doglando, a 3.5-acre canine enrichment center in Orlando. She has earned a national reputation for her innovative approach to training and dog care, and now consults around the country on her philosophy of enrichment, education, and improving dogs’ behavioral health. She is passionate about education and elevating the level of care the industry provides to dogs and their humans, and loves hearing from dog daycare owners around the country. Feel free to reach out to her at [email protected].