For many years I felt that companion dogs often had less enriching lives than the minimum standard expected for animals in zoos. This led me to form the first ever Facebook group specifically for canine enrichment (2nd July 2017). The group membership expanded exponentially and today stands at over 320,000.
Obviously I’m delighted that so many people are interested in providing enrichment for their dogs, but I wasn’t quite expecting so many comments along the lines of, ‘my dog isn’t interested’ ‘he just gives up’ ‘he can’t get the food out of the toy’. With this in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of the reasons that the dog may be struggling with the concept of enrichment:
Reason 1: He isn’t sufficiently motivated to work at getting the food. Perhaps he gets plenty of similar food for free (in a bowl) and can easily do without whatever extra is in the enrichment toy. Or perhaps the food is not of sufficiently high value for him to get interested or put in an effort. I see lack of motivation for food in small dogs mostly (though not exclusively) because it is much easier for them to get enough food (they often only need a small amount).
What can be done? Try really high value treats, like liver, cheese, hotdog or chicken. Of course, not all dogs like these foods. It’s all about finding something that will rock his world.
Alternatively, and my preferred option; Make absolutely sure that you are not overfeeding the dog. It is very easy to overfeed. Kibble often doesn’t look like much food (because it’s dense with very little water content) so make sure you weigh it or you could be giving far more than the recommended amount (I’ve seen this a lot). Next: Stop feeding from a bowl. Encourage interaction for the food. This can be as simple as calling the dog and giving a treat (piece of food), treating when they do any behaviours you like, when you groom them, when they come in from the garden or simple training sessions like, sit, paw and down. Maybe play a game like rolling the food along the floor for the dog to chase. This builds interest and also builds a good bond between human and dog.
A healthy dog should be interested in food (just like we are). If you have concerns about the dogs health due to a lack of appetite then you should consult a qualified veterinarian.
TIP: Keep a monthly record of your dogs weight. This will give early indication to weight gain or loss (so feeding can be adjusted) and might even highlight illness so help can be sought.
Reason 2: The task is simply too difficult and the dog has no comprehension of how to get to the food. Perhaps he doesn’t even realise that the food is accessible. The dogs fabulous sense of smell surely equips him with the knowledge that there is food in our cupboards and refrigerators. However, he ignores this because it is not accessible. It simply doesn’t make sense to continually try behaviours which do not pay, so they usually don’t.
What can be done? In a similar way to training complex behaviour so some enrichment tasks may require breaking down into tiny parts and rewarding (reinforcing) the dog for small steps. For example, training a reverse figure of eight is surprisingly straightforward. If I was to train this behaviour in one go (asking for the whole behaviour before rewarding) then I could be here until next Christmas and Barney (my dog) would still not have a clue. Instead, we break it down. We only ask for a tiny amount of the behaviour and then we build it from there, one step at a time.
Imagine you have a wobble Kong (it has a hole in one side where treats fall out as the dog knocks it around). You might remove the lid and allow the dog unrestricted access to the treats. You might then make it increasingly more challenging. maybe half covering the treats, covering the treats, placing the lid on but not screwed on and then twisting the lid on very slightly so it falls off easily. Eventually you could have the top tightened properly (the dog should be confident and successful at each stage before moving on). This is for dogs that are not too sure, many others could manage the wobble Kong right from day one.
Taking an activity mat as a second example. You might just sprinkle treats on top of the mat, you would then slowly increase the challenge each session. These are relatively simple examples but there are many brain training toys on the market that are really quite complex and the dog needs it to be very, very simple to start off with.
Giving a highly motivated dog a complex brain game or food dispensing toy which they can’t solve will cause more stress (frustration) than it will provide enrichment. Exactly the same goes for non-food activities. Some dogs love water (some dogs hate water) but chucking them in at the deep end before they have been successful in the shallows is not likely to be enriching. It’s much more likely to be stressful (panic inducing).
So when is enrichment not enrichment? When it is frustrating, scary or stressful.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read