The Eight Spheres of Enrichment: A Foolproof Approach to Daycare Dilemmas
By Teena Patel
Every dog parent could use some guidance when it comes to their dog’s behavior. If a puppy seems anxious, gets aggressive around other dogs or can’t remember to pee on the pad, it can be baffling and stressful. It’s pretty normal for a dog parent to go looking for advice—maybe online, from friends and family or their vet, or in a magazine. Unfortunately, the seeking parent will find a ton of advice that contradicts itself. When that happens, it’s helpful to have an underlying model to fall back on in order to discern whether the advice will really help a dog, or if it’s so far off that it’s not worth bothering with.
The Eight Spheres of Enrichment is model that was developed to figure out the next step to take with any dog in training. What’s intriguing about it is that it can be applied not only to a dog in your care, but also to anyone who needs to be taken care of by others: young children, elderly or disabled adults, and other kinds of animal companions.
The Eight Spheres of Enrichment is a method of experiencing the world as a dog does. The process builds on what we know about dogs’ lived experiences from decades of observation and psychological research, and it identifies eight key elements that significantly impact dogs’ wellbeing.
These elements, or spheres, are: a dog’s sensory experiences; his social groups; the relationships he has with the people in his life; the habitats he lives, plays, and sleeps in; the food he eats; the objects he engages with; how he’s been handled physically; and how his behavior has been conditioned.
When people observe and empathize with their dogs through the lens of the eight spheres, they find themselves making new choices that empower their dogs to thrive.
For example, let’s say a dog seems fearful in crowds. It can be tempting to assume we already know why and start making changes based on that assumption to help the dog over his fear. But, the Eight Spheres model encourages us to explore from every angle.
If we assume that our dog’s fear stems from his sensory experience—that the noise of a crowd is overwhelming, for instance—we might jump to begin to help him make positive associations with loud noises, using exploratory learning methods that empower him to choose to immerse himself in increasingly louder environments to get a reward. And, if our assumption is correct, that’s ok to do to help the dog overcome his fear in crowds.
But, we might be wrong; there are other reasons a dog might feel afraid in a crowd. Maybe crowds make him feel disconnected from his social group. Or, maybe he feels insecure overall about the habitats he finds himself in; if he was able to learn that a day would always end in a habitat that was tailor made for his comfort and enjoyment, he’d be better able to cope with a temporary environment that is uncomfortable.
Before making a choice to change some element of a dog’s life, the Eight Spheres model provides a sort of checklist that lets us test our hypotheses. We can take what we think might be the cause of any problem and examine that against other potential causes. We can also take the time to learn best practices that are relevant to every sphere, so when we see what element is causing (or exacerbating) a problem, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to fix it.
Different spheres have different experts associated with them; the leading veterinarians commenting on canine nutrition are often different people than the animal–behavior experts who’ve studied physical handling and conditioning in–depth. In this way, the Eight Spheres model prevents an over–reliance on a single expert. Instead, it encourages everyone to follow the questions they have to their most logical conclusions.
The Eight Spheres of Enrichment model isn’t a secret trick nor is it a formula that will crank out a single answer that works for every dog. Instead, it’s a tool that helps a dog caretaker solve problems holistically by letting them see every dog as an individual and experience the world through the dog’s eyes.
This process is so much more important than many people think. The truth is, most dogs are just surviving in a world that’s not designed for them. Our cities, homes and even our parks are human–centric. There’s a lack of understanding of how a dog experiences the things they do all the time—like go to the groomer, or eat, or live in a home with six humans and a cat—in ways that are wildly different than how we do.
It’s normal, as a human, to take our human–perception for granted; it’s background noise for us. Yet, if we can learn to empathize with dogs as strangers in our human places, we can empower them to thrive!
Because empathy is the heart of love and every single person in this business is here because we love our dogs, by being intentional in our empathy when it comes to our dogs, we can understand how their diets, habitats, relationships, social groups and objects affect their whole selves—from what they perceive to what they believe to what they do. This genuine understanding lets us love them better. Moreover, it empowers us to make choices every single day that we know—rather than just hope—make their world better for them.
When people are unable to think intentionally about their dogs’ perception, and when people lack a process to break down an overwhelming problem into segments, things get worse. Well–intentioned dog caretakers can make poor choices by accident, for instance, misdiagnosing a diet problem as a relational problem.
If a dog is acting out because he is hungry due to the fact that his breed needs more calories than is typical, or his food has too much filler, but a caretaker assumes he’s acting out because he’s scared of the yard, the caretaker will find themselves beating their head against a proverbial wall trying to help the dog overcome his “fear.” Without an evidence–based process to examine all elements of a dog’s experience, the cause of any problem can be impossible to identify.
In the worst cases, a dog gets labeled as “untrainable” because nothing his owners or caretakers do seem to solve the problematic behavior. This resignation can lead to frustration and resentment on the part of the dog’s owners. Ultimately, that resentment contributes to a troubling statistic—one out of three dogs at animal shelters are neither strays nor rescued from a bad situation; rather, they’ve been voluntarily abandoned by dog owners who can’t handle taking care of them anymore.
This fate is tragic, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Most of the time, taking a step back and seeing a dog as a whole being, with a unique, multi-faceted lived experience, evokes an epiphany. The Eight Spheres model gives people a concrete process to help us take that step, and to help us see our dog better.
As you get to know the dogs in your care, begin to watch them closely. While you do, ask yourself: How is this dog experiencing his/her relationship with me? How is he/she relating to her social group? How is he/she interacting with objects, and why might that be?
Go through every single sphere separately, and explore it in your mind for every dog. Then, do some research. Try to find the answers to things like, “What elements of a habitat have an effect on mood? How can I unpack what elements are at play here?”
The key is being intentional, rather than making assumptions or just ‘winging it.’ The Eight Spheres of Enrichment model isn’t the only method of understanding a dog’s experience as a whole being, but it’s a good one because it’s straightforward and it gives every person a reliable place to begin.