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Over in the Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues group on Facebook (come join us!), some of our frequently asked questions are along the lines of:
What enrichment can I use with a resource guarder?
What enrichment can I use for separation anxiety?
What enrichment can I use for dogs that steal?
What enrichment can I use for [insert behavior problem here]?
Before we dive in, let’s review a couple of things. If you remember back to last week’s blog, enrichment isn’t about an activity or toy, it’s not what we do to or give to our pets. It’s about the changes in our pet’s observable and measurable behavior after the opportunity to engage with something that allows them to meet a need.
The simple definition of enrichment is: meeting all of an animal’s needs.
We can expand that to a full definition: enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s needs in order to empower them to perform species-typical behavior in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways.
Using Enrichment for Problems
The first step to goal-oriented enrichment is to list out the undesirable behaviors. Remember to use overt, observable, measurable behaviors.
The second step is to list out the DESIRABLE behaviors. What do you want to happen instead? Remember to use overt, observable, measurable behaviors.
The third step is to look at the categories of needs and ask yourself, based on the undesirable behaviors listed, “Is this need being met?” What category do they likely fall into? The categories are:
Instinctual Behaviors/Species-Typical Behaviors
Now, let’s return to the original question. “What enrichment can I use for [insert your problem here]?”
And the very honest answer is, I can’t tell you. It’s going to be dependent on you, your dog, your situation. Without having a better understanding of your life, it is very hard (and unethical) for us to say “do XYZ activity for XYZ problem”. With different issues, we often see clusters of needs that aren’t being met, but HOW we meet each of those needs is entirely dependent on the individual.
For example, all dogs need physical exercise, but Griffey, my 5-year-old forever puppy, and Laika, my 8-year-old dog need very different things. Griffey needs 2-3 bouts of very intense tug or flirt pole. Laika needs 15 minutes of low-key ball catching. All dogs need to participate in species-typical behaviors, but Griffey, my suspected hound mix, and Laika, my suspected terrier mix need very different things. Griffey needs the opportunity to sniff out food in the yard, meanwhile, Laika needs the opportunity to shred things for her food.
So, because it would be unethical to tell you exactly what to do without knowing you, your dog, and your situation, let’s take a look at a few success stories where we addressed behavior concerns through the lens of enrichment.
The One Where The Dog Couldn’t Sleep
Let’s kick it off talking about Truman. Truman was about a 65 pound, long-backed, low-riding pup. Every night around dusk, Truman would start pacing around the home crying and panting, he’d lay down, then get back up. He would spend the entire night shifting, getting up, moving around, crying. Neither he nor his people were able to get a good night’s rest. Truman’s folx needed sleep. The sleep deprivation was increasing their overall stress and impacting their welfare too.
The undesirable behaviors: getting up throughout the night, crying/pacing/panting throughout the evening, overall restlessness.
The desirable behaviors: able to rest in the evening, sleeping through the night.
When we look at the categories of enrichment there were a couple of places that we thought might need improvement: physical exercise and health/vet.
In order to achieve the desired behaviors, we took a multi-pronged approach. We got Truman in for a general vet exam to make sure that his health/veterinary needs were being met.
While we were waiting for that appointment, we also tried adjusting his physical exercise routine. Truman’s people noticed that he had harder nights (louder whining, more frequent adjusting and moving…) on days he went to a full day of daycare. So, we tried reducing his time at daycare to half days, then down to a couple of hours a couple of times a week. We saw an improvement, but it still wasn’t the restful nights the family needed.
With the information that the increased activity was making the situation worse, Truman’s vet found that Truman had a back injury and inflammation that was causing physical discomfort. Once Truman’s health/veterinary needs were met, and he received treatment for his injury, he was able to sleep through the night again.
The One Where the Dog Wouldn’t Move
Pearl was a small 4-month-old terrier mix who was recently adopted to a new family. They noticed that Pearl wasn’t like their past puppies. She hardly moved, she flinched at movements and sounds, she cowered at the sight of other dogs. Pearl’s family wanted her to feel comfortable in her new environment, and to know that she was safe and secure
The undesirable behaviors: cowering, flinching, staying stationary.
The desirable behaviors: affiliative behaviors toward the family and dogs, walking around, sniffing, movement.
Based on Pearl’s behavior, we suspected that there were a couple of areas that could use improvement: safety, security, and very specifically agency within these contexts.
The first thing we did was create a safe space for Pearl. We gave her two or three options of things to lay on, a few different toys of a few different types. She needed the opportunity to make a choice between multiple desirable things. Only good things happened in Pearl’s safe space. That was her escape, that was her place where she could control the world, any time Pearl went to her safe space, it put a pause on anything that was happening.
When Pearl came out of her safe space, she got even more options. Do you want to engage with us? Do you want to play with a toy? Do you want to go outside? Do you want to play with another puppy? Which puppy looks interesting to you? Pearl got to drive the boat, we were merely there to facilitate.
By the end of a week, Pearl was eager to see her family (loose body, wagging tail, gaping smile), and was soliciting play from other puppies.
The One Where the Dog Would Bite
Turner is a small, year and a half-ish, Heinz 57 kind of mix. His family adopted him when he was 10 weeks old and shortly after realized that he had no trouble telling them when he didn’t want something to happen, in the form of biting. This especially happened when they would pick him to go upstairs for the evening or to get out of the car. Turner’s bites escalated in severity until his dad needed stitches. Turner’s family wanted him and them to remain safe and were worried that he would start biting other people aside from them.
The undesirable behaviors: biting, lip curling, growling
The desirable behaviors: getting out of the car safely, allowing to be picked up to go upstairs, predictable reactions to handling
Turner had already seen a veterinarian who ruled out medical concerns, so we needed to look at other categories of enrichment. Based on Turner’s behavior, we knew he needed help with independence and ultimately agency (which is not a category of enrichment, rather an umbrella category that is a necessary part of all of the categories).
The first thing we did for Turner was to give him the agency to say “no” to being picked up by teaching his parents about his stress signals and how to respond to them. As his dad said in a follow-up session, “Just don’t pick him up!” Turner was immediately a much happier camper when we gave him the agency to say “no”.
But that still didn’t change the fact that he’s a little guy living in a big world. How was he to get in the car, on the bed, and up the stairs? That’s where independence comes in. Turner’s parents got a ramp for the car and stairs for furniture he enjoyed sleeping on in the house. However, he didn’t know how to use them, so his family is teaching him how to use those tools to increase his choices in those situations.
Turner’s journey isn’t quite over at the time of writing this blog post, but he and his family are enjoying living a much more harmonious, bite-free lifestyle.
In each of these cases, the dogs had needs that weren’t being met. For Truman it was health/medical, for Pearl it was safety and security, for Turner it was independence. Without all of the necessary information, advice would miss the mark. Instead, by having all the necessary information, and by meeting each dog’s needs, we were able to make progress and find harmony within the family.
- Do you have a dog with some behavior you’d like to change? List the undesirable behaviors, the desirable behaviors, and then look at the categories of enrichment and ask yourself “is this need being met?” Once you have an idea, you can start strategizing your activities to have the biggest impact on your pet’s behavior.
- To learn more about using enrichment effectively in behavior change plans, come join us for our free Roadmap for Behavior Solutions workshop!