Turn the clock back just 40 or 50 years and life for pet dogs looked very different. They often came and went as they pleased, wandering the neighbourhood and meeting up with other local dogs. Thinking back to my own childhood, I don’t remember anybody in my street who used to take their dog for a walk. The dogs took themselves for a walk and they were far more streetwise for the experience. They didn’t have a meltdown at the sight of another dog, they understood canine body language and behaviour problems were virtually unheard of.
Times have changed. Now dogs are kept safely indoors and the lucky ones might get to go for a walk with their human each day. But what do they do for the rest of their time? How do they fill the activity void? Where do they get their mental stimulation? Look at the work ethic of some of the working breeds such as the Border Collie or Springer Spaniel. Is it really likely that our pet dogs are so far removed from the working lines that they are happy to do absolutely nothing with their life.
Modern zoos are expected to offer enrichment activities for their captive animals. This goes some way toward improving their lives and replacing activities they might do in the wild, such as foraging for food. Its purpose is to maintain physical and mental health. It helps prevent boredom and behavioural problems which often stem from a lack of mental stimulation. This is of course the very least we can do for animals kept in captivity.
But, don’t our pet dogs deserve the same? Don’t they deserve to use their brain? Don’t we owe it to them to fulfil their needs? Dogs were born to sniff, they absolutely love it, they want it, they crave it, they need it. Yet what do people do when their dog stops to sniff? they pull them away. This is virtually denying them their right to be a dog. It is denying them their needs.
Every animal on the planet evolved to work for their food. You could almost say that it’s the very meaning of life. Obtain enough food to stay alive, without it, little else matters (because you will die). Now, of course, dogs are unique in this world in that they have evolved to be totally dependent on us to provide for them. But dogs are not rugs; they still have the most amazingly complex brains which like all brains, requires stimulation to make it work properly. But owners often just plonk the food down in a bowl. 30 seconds of something to do and then… nothing.
Instead of feeding from a bowl, use that food to get their mind working. You can hide it and play find, you can wrap it in a towel, you can use it for training, you can take it on your walk, you can use any one of hundreds of interactive food toys and puzzles, you can scatter it across the floor, you can make a food trail, stuff it in a Kong and let them eat when you eat or put it in your empty food boxes and let the dog rip it open. For a million and one other enrichment ideas visit my Facebook group, Canine Enrichment
On walks, stop and let them sniff, enjoy letting them sniff, you can almost see their brain cogs turning. Break the habit of just walking around the local field; take them to the woods, the rivers and through the mud. Meet up with other friendly dogs, let them run and play and be dogs.
So, why do dogs need enrichment? Because they don’t just deserve a life, they deserve a life worth living.
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