Environmental Enrichment is a fancy term for keeping critters busy. Critters that have something to do are less likely to develop behaviors that make them hard to live with – digging up carpet, barking at things that don’t exist, digging through drywall (not that i own that dog /eyeroll).
The veterinary School at the University of Ohio describes Environmental Enrichment (1) as
… the process of manipulating an animal’s environment to increase physical activity & normal species typical behavior that satisfies the animal’s physical and psychological needs. It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time. Techniques utilized to enrich an environment generally fall into 5 categories:
- Food based enrichment
- Sensory enrichment (sight, smell, touch, hear, taste)
- Novel objects
- Social enrichment
- Positive Training
Like most other concepts in behavior – enrichment is something we’ve all done before and not realized it. If you ever owned small cage rodents (mice, rats etc) and put little tubes in their cage with their wheel… you’ve done enrichment (2). The little mobiles above baby’s crib. yup, there it is again.
This is not limited to your baby brother or your dog either. If you watch the Kong Facebook page you’ve seen photos of everything from Ant Eaters to Orangutangs with Kongs. The Milwaukee Zoo even keeps an album of all their enrichment projects. Horses are not left out of this either. Enrichment for horses has been studied, and small changes to the environment can have healing effects for horses displaying stress behaviors (3). The Jolly Ball (a favorite here) was originally a horse toy. Cat owners have been into enrichment for decades; from cat trees to feathers on elastic attached to door knobs, they know how to keep kitty from informing making their dissatisfaction known.
As you can see, dog people as an industry are a bit late to the party. Fear not, as the pet industry is worth billions with a B. Small companies that create great toys get bought up quickly. Designs that are awesome, like Canine Genius and BobaLot… have other more mass market, but similar products. In the non-food area, there is more to the world than Chuck-It’s, Frisbee and tug. Egges are super though not terribly well known. They’re the cult rock band of the dog toy world. Accept no imitations!
We’re going to focus on Food based enrichment because we’re trained a bit to ye olde Food Bowle. If you’re closely related to scavengers, the food bowl gets old – fast. More importantly, food based enrichment can be cheap, easy and allow you to have a quiet cup of coffee alone in the morning. The entire cup. Try to imagine the last time that happened.
While everything I’ve mentioned so far is product oriented, we’ll go over how to make single toys easier and harder to use, how to pick the right toy for your dog, how to turn stuff in your house into food related toys and easy places to insert a little enrichment seamlessly into your life with a little planning.
1 – Ohio State University website – http://indoorpet.osu.edu/dogs/environmental_enrichment_dogs/index.cfm
2 – Neuro consequences of environmental enrichment – Praag, Kempermann & Gage, P2Fig1
3 – ResearchEquine.com Environmental Enrichment Study – http://www.researchequine.com/environmental-enrichment-study/