Last week I discussed the 14 enrichment categories that we outlined in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Now, sometimes when people see that list they can just take it and run with it. But I’d say more often than not, the next question I get is:
“That’s all fine and well, but how do I know what my dog needs?”
An excellent question– especially since we advocate looking at each pet as an individual! Taking a descriptive approach to enrichment means identifying what the individual in front of you needs: not what their littermates or your other pet or a previous pet needed. Our go-to, short answer is to look at what their behavior is telling you. Let’s expand on that a little more, shall we?
How to tell what your dog is saying
We talk a lot about body language in this blog and that’s because it’s the way to tell what your dog is saying! Are they scared? Excited? Cautious? They will tell you with their body language.
That can be helpful for some of the enrichment categories, especially the “security” category. Becoming proficient at reading your pet’s body language will help you determine how secure your pet is feeling. But there are other categories where observing the overall behavior of your pet may at times be more helpful.
This is because behavior serves a function– a purpose. While our society often thinks of behavior as random and unpredictable, it’s really not. All individuals of all species are beholden to the laws of the behavior sciences and that means that behavior serves a function. When it stops serving a function it stops happening (kinda like how if you stop getting paid to go to work you stop working for that company.)
When we view behavior through that lens it’s easier to see those different enrichment categories come to life through your pet’s behavior. Is your dog chewing on the furniture? Puppies often do this while teething, but adult dogs will do this to fulfill that species-typical need for chewing. Is your cat scratching the furniture? Again, scratching fulfills a species-typical need in cats. Counter-surfing is a form of foraging. Jumping up on guests is a social behavior, and may indicate a lack of self-regulation or calming skills.
So when we say to look at their behavior to determine their needs, we mean that your pet is already fulfilling a lot of their own needs; you may just not appreciate the way in which they’re doing it. Observe what your pet is already doing and start thinking about what function- or need- that behavior could be serving.
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Once you can identify how they’re already fulfilling their own needs, that’s when we can create a plan to meet those needs in a way that we prefer. For example, I prefer Oso to play “find it” with me instead of counter surf. It’s all about striking the balance between what’s appropriate living in our human society, what we as humans can reasonably provide and need ourselves, and what our pets need!
Okay, I know that I’m making something that takes years of practice seem easy. “Just observe your pet’s behavior!” Yeah, I get it. It’s not so easy when you don’t have as much practice doing this as a professional does. Let’s make it even easier.
The Enrichment Checklist (aka Are You Meeting Your Dog’s Needs Checklist)
When we wrote our Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook, we wanted to clearly spell out the process that we use when creating enrichment plans. That included creating resources to help folks do what we do even if they didn’t have as much experience with animal behavior. Thus, the “are you meeting your dog’s needs” checklist was born!
To create this checklist, Emily and I went through each category of enrichment and identified the observable behaviors we look for to determine if a need is met or not. For example, does the amount of physical activity appreciably reduce fidgeting and other boredom-based behaviors? Does your dog know how to track and/or trail scents? Are they able to self-entertain?
The checklist itself is longer than what we can reasonably include in this post, so if you’re interested in seeing the whole thing you can find blank copies of the worksheets we include in the workbook here and the Canine Enrichment for the Real World Workbook itself outlines how to use all of those worksheets.
What does my dog need daily?
Sometimes when folks see that checklist I see the panic spiral start and they ask, “Do I have to do all of this every day?” Nope! (Unless your pet’s behavior says otherwise.) I don’t walk Oso every day. We don’t train every day. We don’t even play “find it” every day. His behavior says that a few times a week is all he needs of those things to meet his needs.
The same is true for me, too. I don’t need to go to the gym every day (that would actually be to my detriment sometimes.) I don’t need to chat with my friends daily to know they support me and if I eat a less-than-healthy diet one day, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, we all need to eat, and drink water, and sleep every day. But beyond that, there’s little that absolutely has to be done each and every single day. Again, your pet’s behavior will tell you what’s true for them.
- Get to observing! Keep an open and curious mind. Remember, all behavior serves a function and is a form of communication. This is not the step to worry about modifying unwanted behaviors.
- Start identifying which needs those observed behaviors fulfill. If you’re struggling with this then check out our Enrichment Checklist. A blank copy can be found here and the in-depth explanation is in our new workbook.
- Now you can go through the rest of the Enrichment Framework! We have a bunch of resources on this already: