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This month, we are spending quite a bit of time talking about overt vs. covert behaviors. We want to switch our language from constructs and covert assumptions to overt, measurable, observations. This is also true of our enrichment plan.
What is enrichment?
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.
When we see pets with behavior problems, both nuisance behaviors, and maladaptive behaviors, we always look to see if their needs are being met. Enrichment isn’t an activity we do or a thing we give to our animals. It is in the opportunity and ability for the animal to meet their needs, and we measure that through the behavioral changes we see as a result. We cannot say an activity is “enriching” if we don’t see a change in their overall overt and observable behavior.
Enrichment isn’t measured by:
They played with the item or not
They spent 20 minutes on dinner instead of 5 minutes
They “liked it”
They “had fun”
Enrichment can be measured by:
Changes in their overall behavior (my dog barks at sounds outside 50% less on days after we take a 45-minute sniff stroll)
Decrease in undesired behavior and/or increases in the desired behavior (my dog doesn’t mouth me at night when we play tug in the middle of the day and/or my dog rests more at night when we play tug in the middle of the day)
Now, I’m not saying this to be a party pooper. If you want to do activities with your dog because they are having fun (what does their body language tell you?), and you are having fun, then do it!
Activities can be fun!
But they may not be enriching.
And you may be wondering, does this really matter?
Yes, for a couple of reasons.
When I’m implementing an enrichment plan to help with pet behavior issues, I want to do things that are really enriching, not just occupying my dog. I want to objectively know that I’m meeting their needs in a way that works for both of us and will support our progress on a behavior change program. Let’s look at an example.
Griffey reacts (barks, cries, whines, runs away, runs towards) sounds outside. We have two separate activities we do on a relatively regular basis: sniffing for meals in the yard, and frozen food puzzles. When we do sniffing for meals in the yard, Griffey reacts to 50% less of the sounds that happen outside, AND he reacts for a shorter duration. When we do frozen food puzzles, there is no observable difference in his response to sounds outside. One of these things is enriching, one of these things is an activity.
We all have 24 hours in the day, but we don’t have the same 24 hours. Someone that commutes and someone that works from home has different capabilities throughout the day. Someone with a dishwasher and someone who has to hand wash dishes have different amounts of effort to clean toys. Living with a dog with behavior problems is stressful enough. My goal for my clients is that their enrichment plan provides them relief, not just more work. I don’t want time, energy, effort, and money invested in places where it isn’t objectively going to help progress our behavior modification program.
Circling back to those two activities we do in my house: sniffing for meals out in the yard, and frozen food toys. To sniff food out in the yard, I take a couple of handfuls of kibble and toss it around. The effort from me is almost nothing. After sniffing for meals in the yard, Griffey reacts to 50% less of the sounds that happen outside, AND he reacts for a shorter duration. This means that my effort (incredibly low) gets me a great return. Now let’s look at those frozen food toys. It takes time to stuff them, I lose a lot of freezer space, I have to expend time, effort, and energy to separate and monitor the dogs, I don’t have a dishwasher, so I have to wash all of them by hand and air dry, and I have invested a lot of money and storage into keeping all of them. The effort for me on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) is probably about a 7. That’s a lot of effort to not see an objective difference in his response to sounds outside.
Being able to prioritize and build a sustainable enrichment plan is critical. If we continue to do things that aren’t meeting our dog’s needs AND create work for us, we are going to burn out. That’s time we could spend doing something meaningful.
For Griffey, I know that the frozen food toys are an activity. Whether he gets them or not, there is no difference in his overt behavior. This means, that they are optional. On the flip side, sniffing for meals in the yard has a very large positive impact on his overt behavior. This is a staple in our routine. When things get busy, it’s incredibly helpful to know what is going to get you the best return on your investment.
Now, does that mean I skip frozen food toys all together?
Definitely not! They are an excellent management activity for me. If I need my dogs quiet for a while, or I need some space, or I need to clean the house in peace, then I pull out a frozen food toy. It keeps them occupied while I’m able to do my stuff. It’s just incredibly helpful to know that when I’m busy, tired, or just not up for it, I can skip them and my dogs won’t be impacted. Plus, it’s fun for me to watch them get all excited (prancing, galloping, hopping, windmill tails, “woowoo” bark, big dog smiles). It brings me joy, and that’s important too.
Enrichment is a necessary part of the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions, so let’s make sure our efforts are enriching.
- If you don’t know where to start, you can sign up for our free Enrichment Chart Guide here. This guide will help you identify which of your dog’s needs might not be met (currently!), and where to start.
- If you’d like to learn more about how enrichment fits into the Roadmap for Behavior Solutions, sign up to join our upcoming free workshop. Learn more about our free Roadmap for Behavior Solutions here!
- If you already have an enrichment plan in place, look at the lasting impact it has on your dog’s overt behavior throughout the day. Days where you do XYZ activity, do you see an increase or decrease in measurable behavior?