The more you learn about a particular topic the more you realize how little you know. It’s not just a cliched saying, it’s actually a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As humans, we want things to be cut and dried, black and white, good and evil. But it’s rarely as simple as all that. There are layers to everything, nuances that can drastically change outcomes. As a behavior consultant, I see that all the time: we tweak the timing of a training exercise by literal seconds and get very different results.
Not understanding the nuances of a topic can impede desired outcomes. And while there are many enrichment myths that I see circulated that impact results, today, I want to focus on diving deeper: the nuances.
Before we get into 3 enrichment activity myths holding you and your pet back, let’s get on the same page about what enrichment is. Y’know, in case you’re new to us here at Pet Harmony and Canine Enrichment for the Real World.
Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s physical, emotional, and behavioral needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways.
In short: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s not about providing entertainment, though that can often be a side effect. It’s not about providing more novelty, though that can be an element. Enrichment is about meeting the needs of your pet so they can be the doggiest dog or cattiest cat or piggiest pig they can be. And, in turn, that improves their quality of life. (By the way, we didn’t come up with this. This definition comes from the father of zoo enrichment, Dr. Hal Markowitz, who put the topic on the map.)
Now that we have the bonus myth out of the way (enrichment is about entertaining your animal), let’s get to it.
Myth #1: All Activities Are Effective
We get asked all the time about what activities we recommend for [insert enrichment category]. What are our favorite mental exercises? Physical activities? What do we do to provide security? And our answer is usually the dog-trainer-favorite but definitely audience-despised answer of: it depends.
The black and white myth here is that an activity, inherently, either is enrichment or is not. That the activity itself is imbued with a certain level of effectiveness. But here’s the nuance: the activity doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the effect that we see from the activity. The only thing that matters is the actual, observable result. Activities themselves are only tools to achieve results (yep, even in the case of you having fun with your pet. Fun is the result.)
So why is our answer, “it depends”? Because our activity recommendations are based on the individual dog or pet, the humans and household, the desired results, the environment, and other factors. Sure, we have our go-to activities that tend to yield similar results in a variety of cases, but even those can require modifications or may not be appropriate for all animals. It’s not about the activity. It’s about the result you observe from that activity.
The Solution: Data Tracking
I know, I know. Data tracking tends not to be a favorite topic. But, hear me out. It doesn’t have to be painful or intensive. It can be as simple as tally marks, adding numbers to a calendar, or clicking a button on a habit tracking app. Emily and I chat all about this in episode 15 of our Enrichment for the Real World Podcast (and be sure to check out the transcript if you prefer the blog format over podcast format!)
The heart of this solution is that you observe the results and then make a decision about how effective an activity is for your individual animal. See with your eyes, not your ideas.
Myth #2: If an activity isn’t effective, then it isn’t effective.
Remember earlier in this post when I mentioned that sometimes as a consultant I’ll tweak the timing of an exercise by literally a few seconds and that yields drastically different results? Activity effectiveness isn’t all or nothing. There are little tweaks that can be made- like timing, location, treat type, and more- that can impact how effective an activity is.
Let’s use an example for this one. During our first or second session, I asked a client to start playing the Find It game with her dog, Raina. I assumed that this game would help with Raina’s overall anxiety, would help her mom be able to lower her stress levels in stressful situations, or at least use it as a distraction if needed, and I wanted to use it as a tool to modify future behaviors. The next time I saw Raina’s mom, she told me that Raina hadn’t quite taken to the game as we had envisioned. She would only chase after the treats if she saw them being thrown instead of using her nose. It wasn’t currently effective based on the results we were hoping to see.
Did that mean we scrapped that activity and tried something else immediately? No! I coached Raina’s mom through the exercise, making little tweaks, to get Raina searching for longer. After that step, we started expanding the search area, then moved on to new locations. Now, months later, Raina’s mom plays Find It with her regularly and it does now have the intended effect.
Now, in this example, I felt it was worth it to troubleshoot this activity instead of scrapping it for another. Other times, I choose to scrap instead of troubleshooting. And other times still I will troubleshoot a little, decide that it’s not worth continuing down that path, and then scrap an activity for another.
The point is that there are nuances to how we execute an activity. And those nuances can change the effectiveness of that activity. So while we need to focus on the results to decide if an activity will help us achieve our goals, we may also be able to alter those results.
The Solution: Trial and Eval
One of our consultants, Corinne, came up with the phrase “trial and eval” and we’ve all loved it so much that it has become one of our catchphrases at Pet Harmony. If you try something that you think will work a certain way and it doesn’t, try it again, but tweak it a little. That could be tweaking your timing, including the time of day, where in the routine the activity happens, the location, or handler, or how the activity itself is executed. There are so many things to change. Some will affect the outcome; some won’t. That’s why it’s trial, and evaluate.
Oh and that data tracking? Yeah, that will make trial and eval so much easier to keep track of the results so you actually remember what was effective and what wasn’t.
Myth #3: All [insert species, breed, behavior challenges, etc.] need the same activities
I hope by now you know where I’m going with this. All individuals are individuals, and the effectiveness of an activity depends on a lot of factors, making it pretty challenging to make a blanket statement that all [insert whatever] need the same activities for optimal quality of life.
We especially get a lot of questions about enrichment activities for individual dog breeds, or breed types. What’s the best enrichment activity for a German Shepherd? What’s the best enrichment toy for pitties? What activities should I try with my Australian Cattle Dog or other herding breeds?
My answer is still: it depends. Did your dog get the memo that they belong to a certain breed? Are they a Pekingese who knows in their very soul that they are destined for royalty? Or are they a Lab who doesn’t like retrieving? A Newfoundland who doesn’t like water? And that’s added on top of all of the questions that we ask for every individual: what behaviors do they show or not show? What’s your household like? Etc. At the end of the day, dogs are dogs, even if they have certain breed tendencies. Breed is only one factor, out of many, many factors to consider.
Going further than this, I see a lot of people run into trouble when they assume that because their last pet of a certain breed liked a particular activity, that this new pet of the same breed will, too. I’ve seen quite a bit of heartbreak when people compare past and present pets like this. Check out our blog post, Compare Leads to Despair, from consultant MaryKaye here.
While I wish it was as easy and black and white as saying, “All herding breeds need Treibball”, it’s not that simple. There are nuances.
The Solution: Observing the Individual
The solution here is to observe the individual in front of you, without letting the stories you have about who they ought to be cloud your observations. I think one of the easiest ways to do this is to think of them as someone else’s pet, or of another breed. How would you interpret your observations if you had just met them? If you had no history with them? If someone was describing their behavior to you and left out what breed they are? If you remove the stories you have about who they are and why they behave a certain way, how does that change your observations?
Once you’re able to observe the individual and truly see with your eyes and not your ideas, then you can more easily determine what activities to try and more easily observe the results of those activities.
- Take a few days to observe your own behaviors and thoughts. What is the biggest enrichment activity myth that is holding you back?
- Once you’ve identified that myth, it’s time to get to work! Reread the solution and determine what your next step will be to bust that myth.
- Put that solution into action. Regardless of what you choose, I still recommend tracking your results to better see the difference. You can download a free copy of our enrichment chart with a step-by-step guide here.
- Share your results with us over in our Facebook group or on Instagram @petharmonytraining