What I’ve Learned About Enrichment Since Our Book Came Out

Books are great, don’t get me wrong, but one of the drawbacks about them is that they’re outdated as soon as they’re published. Because we’re in a constant state of learning, books are like a moment in time that gets frozen–a snapshot of what we knew and thought at the time of publication. They do not reflect what we know and do now.

That’s not to say that things are entirely different now than they were at the time of publication! Books still have a lot of value and convey a lot of important information. Our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, is still very much a reflection of our approach to behavior change. But we have certainly learned more and do better since it came out. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned and changed since we wrote it:


Species-Typical vs. Instinctual

When we wrote the book, we were passionate about walking the tightrope between scientific accuracy and accountability on the one hand, and accessibility and relatability on the other hand. This is harder than you might think! 

For example, we were trying to decide what to name the chapter discussing modal action patterns, and we ended up calling it “Instinctual Behaviors”. When our mentors were reading the manuscript and giving us feedback, one of them told me, “You know, ‘instinct’ is an outdated term, and we really don’t think about or talk about those behaviors in that way anymore.” 

“I know,” I replied, “But what’s the alternative? Calling it ‘Modal Action Patterns’? That’s going to feel overwhelming to a lot of people. I’d rather err on the side of accessibility over accuracy in this situation.”

Of course, not long after the book came out, I realized that we could have called the chapter “Species-typical Behaviors.” That would have been both accurate and accessible! It didn’t have to be one or the other.


Discussing the Nuances

In that same chapter, I had written about 9 pages discussing how and why the term “Modal Action Patterns” is an updated and more accurate replacement for “Fixed Action Patterns”, and the terms “Species-Typical” and “Breed-Typical” are likewise updated and more accurate replacements for “Species-Specific” and “Breed-Specific”. After reading back over that section, I realized the discussion was convoluted and felt esoteric and irrelevant to behavior professionals and pet parents. In a fit of panic, I deleted it all and decided against going into that level of detail.

Since then, I have learned much more succinct ways to discuss these topics, as well as why it matters. And it essentially boils down to this:

When we call things “fixed” or “specific”, it implies that these behaviors are permanent, universal to every individual within that breed or species, and can’t be changed. What we know now is that even innate behaviors have a wide degree of variability among individuals within a breed or species, some individuals won’t express them at all, and most relevant to us, innate behaviors can still be changed!

The notion that innate behaviors are “fixed” or “specific” leads people to think of enrichment in a more prescriptive way: “Because this is a German Shepherd, this dog will always exhibit this behavior and that can’t be changed, and they will always need this particular enrichment activity.”

Yes, we should be aware of species- and breed-typical behaviors, and we should learn about the modal action patterns of the species we work with, but we still must always meet the individual in front of us and learn from them what they need. We should also always work to help them be more behaviorally and emotionally healthy, even if the behavior they’re exhibiting is common within their breed or species.


We Got Some Things Wrong, and That’s Ok!

It’s hard to be a layperson who reads, interprets, and synthesizes research for other laypeople. Sometimes you’re going to get it wrong. And I did! There was one part of the book where I discussed a paper about Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and I overstated what the paper said. I attributed Sensory Processing Sensitivity to a single gene based on misreading some details in the paper. 

Fortunately for me, Dr. Jessica Hekman, a behavioral biologist and veterinary geneticist, reached out to let me know that I wasn’t speaking accurately about the topic. She was kind enough to meet with me and walk me through the paper to explain how I had gotten it wrong, and what was a more accurate way to talk about it. Essentially, it is this: some dogs, like some humans, do seem to experience Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and there does appear to be some genetic influence. But there are multiple contributing factors and we’re only just beginning to understand this phenomenon.

But that’s ok! Making mistakes is a part of the learning process, and one of the most common mistakes we humans make when we’re undereducated about a topic is to oversimplify it! So, it gave me an opportunity to learn more and do better, and as a result, Jessica and I have become friends and collaborators.


Natural History Is Still a Thing

For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that referring to an animal’s ethological context as “natural history” was outdated, so I avoided that phrase entirely in the book. Since then, I learned from my friend and mentor, Eddie Fernandez, who has devoted his life to enrichment-related research that, in fact, “natural history” is a wonderful and accessible way to talk about it! I use that term all the time now.


Clarity About Behavioral Diversity

When we were writing the book about enrichment, I’d read some articles about behavioral diversity and had a vague understanding of what it meant. I got the general concept that behavioral diversity is when animals perform a wide variety of species-typical behaviors, just like they would if they lived in their natural habitat. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with the excellent and incomparable Ellen Yoakum, our teammate and co-owner of Pet Harmony, that she gave me a crystal clear definition: “Behavioral diversity is a measure of the number of behaviors that a species exhibits, as well as the frequency of those behaviors. It is thought that when behavioral diversity is high, we are meeting the needs of the animal, and when it is low that may be an indicator of possibly compromised welfare.”


Activity Budgets Are For Everyone!

Way back when I was first learning how to be a behavior consultant, one of my mentors at the time had given me the impression that activity budgets were complex academic things that laypeople like me shouldn’t be doing. Ever since then, I’ve avoided any discussion of them because I thought they were outside of my lane. 

But in the same conversation about behavioral diversity mentioned above, my lovely teammate Ellen taught me that activity budgets don’t have to be super complicated, and anyone can use them.

Activity budgets show us how much time is typically spent performing any given behavior, on average, for a species. They are incredibly helpful, because it gives us a baseline of what to expect from the animals in our care. If we see an animal performing a behavior outside of the typical range, we can pay attention to that as an indicator of potentially compromised welfare. On the other hand, what our society typically thinks of as insufficient or excessive may not actually align with the activity budget of that species, which gives us permission to ignore societal pressures and let an animal do the thing that aligns with their activity budget. In this regard, everyone who works or lives with animals can benefit from learning about and using activity budgets!


There Are Multiple Enrichment Frameworks

When we were writing the book, we mentioned the S.P.I.D.E.R. Framework because we thought that it was the one and only standard for implementing enrichment programs. But I learned from my friend and colleague Nathan Andrews (who was our first podcast guest because he’s #lifegoals in terms of his understanding of and skill at implementing enrichment programs) that, in fact, there are many enrichment frameworks created for zoos, aviaries, and aquariums! We didn’t mean to snub them; we simply didn’t know about them.


We Still Decided to Make Our Own Enrichment Framework

Despite the existence of multiple enrichment frameworks, we still ended up making some adaptations to S.P.I.D.E.R. to make it more applicable to companion animals and their caregivers. After writing the book, we talked to a whole lot of people who felt overwhelmed by the notion of using an enrichment framework to effect behavior change, and got stuck on some of the elements of zoo-oriented frameworks that don’t translate easily to a home, shelter, or training facility environment. We learned that if we wanted to be effective at teaching people how to do enrichment, we needed to create a framework that spoke to their specific needs.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! I could probably write a whole other book and all the things we’ve learned since the book came out, but these are some of the really big ones. It’s a great reminder that reading books is important, but it’s also important to not stop there, but to keep learning and growing and keeping your knowledge up to date.


Now What?

  • If you’d like a short primer on the history of enrichment, its functional definition, and definitions of enrichment-related terms, you can listen to the introductory episode of our podcast.
  • If you’d like to read more updated information about enrichment and instructions for applicability from us, you can buy our new companion workbook.
  • If you’re an animal behavior professional and you’d like a more in-depth education about how to effect behavior change through an enrichment framework, you can check out our Enrichment Framework Masterclass.