When is Enrichment Not Enriching?

When Allie and I first started writing our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, we had a conversation with Dogwise about what exactly the book would cover. When we submitted the outline, our publisher’s comment was, “This is a lot more comprehensive than I imagined!” And, yes. That’s precisely the point.

The thing about the pet-owning community is that we want to learn more about the animals in our care, and we often do so by passing information around, rather than learning about these topics in a more formal, structured way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but community-shared information doesn’t come without its risks: namely, that we end up playing a game of Telephone, and as information gets shared it gets watered down and misinterpreted, until no one is really sure what’s true, what’s false, and what’s somewhere in between the two.

The topic of enrichment has not been immune to this game of Telephone. Most folks in the pet community don’t realize that enrichment started in zoos, and that the concept was created to improve the welfare of captive wild animals. As such, what zoos, aviaries, and aquariums mean by enrichment is often significantly different than what pet owners and dog trainers mean. For zoos etc., enrichment is the means by which they ensure that the animals in their care are physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy. When the pet-owning community talks about enrichment, they generally talk about it in terms of keeping pets occupied, making their life more interesting, or giving them things to do—keeping them busy, in other words. Which, to be clear, is certainly an important aspect of enrichment! But by no means the whole picture.

During the process of writing the book, I spent a solid three months trying to get in touch with people from the zoo and dog training world who had been in this profession in the 70s and 80s, trying to figure out when and how the concept of enrichment made its way from zoos into the pet community—to no avail. No one could tell me how it happened, or when. It just… kind of… did. So it’s no wonder that much got lost in translation!

So our goal for the book was to bridge the gap between enrichment as it was originally intended, and as zoos etc. currently use it, and how the pet-owning community thinks of it. We want pet owners, behavior professionals, shelter workers, veterinarians, and anyone else in the pet community to have access to the same information that zookeepers have. We want the people in our community, which we love so much, to be empowered by more and better information.

And here’s the reason this matters so much: our community has a strong tendency to approach problems prescriptively. We look at a situation – whether it’s a specific behavior issue or just a general, overall welfare issue – and we say to ourselves, “I’m going to use positive reinforcement,” or, “I’m going to give this animal more enrichment,” or, “I’m going to provide foraging.” Those are all fabulous goals! The problem is that we tend to get stuck at the stage of our intentions, without paying much attention to whether or not our outcomes match our intentions. We often keep doing something because we believe that we’re achieving our intended goal without actually measuring whether or not we truly are. This often leads to us doing a whole lot of work without seeing a whole lot of improvement. Which can be frustrating and demoralizing.

But enrichment isn’t what we do or the things we give them; enrichment is what happens as a result of what we do and the things we give them. Toys aren’t enrichment. Playgroups aren’t enrichment. Nose work classes aren’t enrichment. All of those things have the potential to make enrichment possible, but enrichment itself doesn’t happen until the animal chooses to engage with those things, and as a result of that engagement, is able to meet one or more of their own needs. We can only know if enrichment has happened after the fact.

This approach to enrichment is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. When we learn how to take a descriptive approach to enrichment, it looks like this instead: “This dog loves to spend time with other dogs but is not currently getting enough play opportunities. So I am going to take him to some playgroups to see if playing with dogs in that setting will meet that need. Oh yes! Look! It does! Look at him having fun playing with those dogs. Wonderful. For this dog, at this stage in his life, playgroups are a good form of social interaction enrichment.” Or, “This dog is destroying my furniture when I leave her at home alone. This tells me she needs more opportunities to chew, tear, and shred appropriate objects rather than my sofa. I’m going to give her some foraging toys that have to be chewed, torn, and shredded in order to access the food. Oh look! Now that she has these toys to keep her occupied during the day she’s no longer destroying my stuff. For this dog, at this stage in her life, destructible foraging toys are a good form of foraging enrichment.”

Being able to take this descriptive, goal-oriented approach to enrichment requires an understanding of what our pet’s needs truly are. It requires learning a bit more about their species – their body language, common motivators, and species-typical behaviors – and it also requires carefully observing the individual animal in front of us to see what behaviors they’re offering, what needs they have, and how we can best meet those needs. It requires learning to see with our eyes, rather than our ideas. And all of that is very doable! We’re here to help you do exactly that.

Want to dive deeper into this topic with us? Want to learn about how taking a descriptive approach to enrichment can improve your relationship with your pet? Here are some upcoming resources which will be available soon:

  • I’m a guest on the FDSA podcast, talking about this very subject, on March 14th. The link is here.
  • I’m also doing a webinar, “Using Enrichment to Improve Your Relationship With Your Dog”, for FDSA on March 19th. The link to purchase the webinar is here.
  • Allie and I are guest authors in Books, Barks, and Banter from March 16-31st, and we’ll be going through our book one chapter at a time to discuss it in more depth with whoever wants to join us. The link to that group is here.
  • And of course, as always, if you want to chat with me directly or want information about any of the services I provide, you can always email me at [email protected]