Enrichment for Dogs [and other pets] With Disabilities

We had a great question come through our Instagram DMs asking about enrichment activities for a dog with disabilities, only to realize that we didn’t actually have a blog post on that topic yet! We knew we needed to rectify that. 

Now, if you’ve been following us for even a little while, you know that our standard answer when it comes to the question, “What enrichment should I do with my dog?” is always, “It depends”. Enrichment strategies should be based on individual needs- the pet’s, the human’s, the household’s- and what’s possible in your environment and with the resources available to you. That’s a whole lot of details that we need to know so we don’t lead you astray. But we absolutely can provide you with the process that we take when considering an enrichment strategy for a pet whom we do have all the details for (our own or our clients’)! 

Disclaimer for our differently-abled friends: I fully recognize that I come from a place of privilege in many ways when it comes to this topic. I live in that gray, chronic illness-induced area of having an invisible illness that makes me seem outwardly healthy and inwardly less so. I know that I personally have pretty ooky feelings about able-bodied folks making recommendations about my health, even tangentially by talking about their own health journey or someone else’s, and that this topic may bring up some of those feelings for others. I stuck strictly to talking about pets in this post and do not mention humans (except for this disclaimer), but I know the topic can strike a chord regardless of species. So, if you currently don’t have the bandwidth to read about someone making recommendations about someone else’s health or abilities, then I recommend coming back to this post at a different time.


Identify how your pet operates in the world

Bodies are kind of miraculous (even if they don’t always feel it when you’re living in one). They adapt amazingly and individuals find ways to perform typical actions in unconventional ways when necessary. So I want to first pose the question:

Does your pet actually need any accommodations for this particular activity?

Here’s the thing. I’ve met a two-legged dog who ran as fast and pulled as hard on a leash as a four-legged dog. I’ve met deaf dogs who’ve navigated the world just as well as their hearing counterparts. I’ve met a dog who lost both of his eyes and was still able to play with other dogs (actually better than he had before since he was no longer in pain). Let’s not assume that because they’re built a little differently that they automatically require a lot of special accommodations.

We can’t let ideology get in the way of observation. If you observe that your pet can adapt to perform a particular activity, awesome. They don’t need your help or accommodations.  However, if you observe that they are struggling or unsafe in performing a particular activity, we absolutely should help them where possible. Because while I’ve met pets who’ve adapted amazingly well to the different ways their body and brain work, I’ve also met pets who needed a little extra help to navigate the world (heck, our entire job as behavior consultants is to help pets navigate the world from a behavioral perspective.) There’ve been dogs who were losing their sight and bumping into furniture that benefited from those special halos. Tripawds who needed ramps instead of stairs. Wobbly cats who needed some extra cushioning. Everyone is an individual, and that means that all creatures have different needs. 

So, how do we identify how our pet operates in the world? My first recommendation should come as no surprise to our followers: observe them. Be curious! Let them navigate the world- without intervention as long as it’s safe- and see how they adapt. Be amazed at the ways your pet figures out how to do different activities. Notice when they’re frustrated and could use some help.


The balance between “can” and “should”

Now that you know how your pet navigates their world, talk with their veterinarian about what’s necessary for their long-term health and safety based on the behaviors you’re currently seeing. Just because your 90-pound tri-pawd missing a front leg can jump off the bed doesn’t mean they should; that’s a whole lot of weight and impact on one limb. We talk about this with Dr. Micaela Young in Episode 46 – Dr. Micaela Young: When Medical Problems Become Behavioral Problems.

Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, wait a second. You just said don’t let ideology get in the way of observation and that bodies can be really adaptable and now it’s like you’re saying the opposite. What gives?” Yeah, yeah, I get it. That’s the problem with topics like this; there’s a whole lot of nuance that seemingly contradicts itself. 

The difference here is the knowledge that your veterinarian has about your pet’s specific medical needs and the long-term outcomes of those needs based on hundreds, if not thousands, of pets they’ve seen come before yours. That’s different than an uneducated guess that a typical pet parent is going to make about medical needs. Or, even a semi-educated guess based on past pets. Knowledge and experience are able to more deftly navigate the “can” versus the “should” and weigh the pros and cons of different activities.

So, unless you’re a veterinarian (and we actually have several wonderful veterinarian clients!), leave those decisions to the experts. Your job as the pet parent is to know your individual pet and how they navigate the world and your vet’s job is to see the bigger picture. Both roles are vitally important. It might be a cliche, but it really does take a village. 


The Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework still applies

Now that you know your individual pet’s needs and abilities, you can jump right into our Enrichment Framework to figure out the best enrichment strategy for your pet! As a reminder, here are the steps (and here’s a blog post about how to go through them):

  1. List desirable and undesirable behaviors (aka identify your goals)
  2. Are needs being met?
  3. Are agency needs being met?
  4. Narrow down your options
  5. Prioritize activities
  6. Develop plan of action
  7. Implement & document
  8. Reassess, readdress, and do it again

We actually already started on Step 1 by observing our pets and talking with their vet about long-term health and safety needs. Some desirable behaviors based on those conversations could look like getting our pet to use a ramp instead of jumping out of the car, feeling comfortable wearing a halo, or learning how to use a pet wheelchair. 

But your pet is more than their body’s abilities. You likely will have some very typical goals here, too, like walking on a loose leash, sitting politely for attention instead of demand barking, or learning how to come when called. The great thing about using this framework is that you can tailor it to your specific pet and it works the same way for everyone, regardless of abilities. 


Make modifications to activities as necessary

Usually, when we’re asked about enrichment for pets with disabilities, folks are actually asking about what specific activities we use for those pets. I hate to let you down, but there are no special secrets here or activities that only we know. There’s really nothing new under the sun. We use the same activities for differently-abled pets as we do for everyone else. And the activities we choose are based on the same criteria that we use for everyone: goals, resources, environment, household, etc. 

But what we do do is make modifications to activities as we need to. Let me be clear. We do this for every individual, not just differently-abled pets. Typical pets still have different abilities, preferences, and needs. We still need to make modifications for them. Really the only difference I can think of is that often we need to get more creative with our differently-abled pets’ modifications. 


Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • We want to incorporate scent work because we’ve identified that this dog could likely benefit from more species-typical outlets, including foraging, and mental stimulation. They have a spinal injury that prevents them from lowering their head past a certain point so our typical game of “find it” won’t work. We modify the game by placing food on paper plates around the room on surfaces within their range so they can still search for food. 
  • We want to incorporate food puzzles because we’ve identified that this dog could likely benefit from more foraging and mental stimulation during surgery recovery. They’ve recently had a leg amputated and are still working on navigating the world as a tri-pawd; the vet has cautioned against a lot of extraneous movement during the healing process. We can opt for stationary puzzles like the Dog Brick or Kibble Drop found on our Recommended Products for Dogs page.
  • We want to teach a recall to a deaf dogs to ask them to come back in the house at bedtime when they’re outside in the fenced-in yard. A verbal cue obviously won’t work, so we opt for flickering the porch lights as the visual cue.


And what if we can’t find a modification that works?

When I talk about making modifications to activities, I sometimes see worry creep in on a pet parent’s face. What if they can’t find a modification for an activity that works for their pet? Two things we can do in this situation:

  1. Come up with some other way to meet that need and/or goal. There are a whole lot of ways up the mountain, so to speak. Activities should be implemented to reach certain goals we have for our pets, including meeting their needs. When we think about enrichment as solution-focused, it’s easier to let go of activities that aren’t serving us or our pets and to come up with other solutions. The activity itself isn’t important. The effect that it has is. We provide a lot of different activities for each category of enrichment in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World if you’re looking for some inspiration.
  2. Work with a professional. I’ve worked with thousands of dogs and hundreds of cats at this point in my career. I’ve seen all sorts of clever modifications that I could have never thought of by myself by simply being immersed in so many situations with different pets. Professionals don’t just come with knowledge and expertise; we come with a whole database of experiences to draw from. Creativity comes with the territory.


Now what?

  • Start observing how your pet navigates the world. This is beneficial for everyone, not just for folks with differently-abled pets! Where do they shine? Where do they get frustrated? 
  • Talk with your veterinarian about your pet’s long-term health needs and goals. Again, this is beneficial for everyone! What modifications do we need to make now, or what do we need to prepare for in the years to come?
  • Go through the Enrichment Framework. Whether it’s your first time doing so or your 50th, enrichment is cyclical and it’s good to take a look at our enrichment strategy regularly. 
  • Make modifications to activities based on your observations. One more time: this is true for everyone. 

Happy training!