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North Hills Monthly

Pet Enrichment Key to Happier, Healthier, Calmer Animals

Feb 29, 2020 10:52AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Photo courtesy Wagsburgh

Did you know that when you let your dog play with food puzzles that it stimulates his or her brain? Or that when your pooch spends time sniffing while out meandering that he or she will wear out more quickly than if you’d taken a power walk?

While pets require physical stimulation to help keep them happy and healthy, it’s also important to provide opportunities for enrichment that promote mental and psychological well-being.

“All animals need enrichment, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical activity,” explained Debby McMullen, certified dog behavioral consultant and owner of Pawsitive Reactions, LLC. “It’s very similar to humans having hobbies outside of work. Dogs need to keep their minds busy and they need to have an outlet for their energy—enrichment makes them much calmer overall.”

“In a nutshell, dogs need mental stimulation,” agreed Joe Thornton, owner of Wagsburgh on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “Exercise is wonderful, but you need to balance the two. There are dogs that can have a lot of physical activity, and still never come down from the excitement. When you introduce enrichment, it causes them to use their minds more than just their physical abilities, which drains their energy a lot quicker.”

Types of Enrichment

There are all kinds of enrichment opportunities, from simply allowing your dog to spend time sniffing while on a morning walk to toys specially made to activate their minds. 

“Find ways for your dog to problem-solve; for example, allowing them to forage for food instead of just dumping it in their bowl. Food puzzles allow them to make choices that use the brain, instead of you telling them what to do,” said McMullen, who helps her clients deal with dog behavioral issues and specializes in multiple dog households and aggression.

“Allowing a dog to sniff while on a walk is far more important than how much ground you cover,” she added. “If your dog likes using his or her nose, get them involved in tracking; or if the dog is very athletic, try dog sports or agility. it’s very tiring, but in a good way.” 

According to McMullen, sniffing activates the search function in the brain, which lowers the animal’s cortisol level, putting them into a more relaxed state. Agility raises cortisol, and sniffing brings it back down—McMullen likens it to a human competing in a sport and then stretching afterward.

For people with less active dogs, or who may not want to take long walks in bad weather, there are also numerous options when it comes to puzzles and toys. The shelves at Wagsburgh are stocked with items ranging from Kong-type wobbler toys that dogs have to play with in order to get treats to fall out, to peanut butter-scented bubbles that you can blow for hours of canine and human amusement.

“You can also make toys; you can put peanut butter and kibbles inside old cereal boxes and wrap them like gifts for your dog to open; you can also buy or make a snuffle mat by tying pieces of fabric onto a heavy rubber mat with holes, which is a great way to keep a dog contained in one area,” said Thornton.

“There are also balls that dispense treats that dogs can roll through the house, but that may not be something that you want on new hardwood floors,” he laughed. 

One of the most important things to focus on is making the experience fun for your pet, which means understanding the type of “hobby” they like.

“It’s usually a process of trial and error,” said Thornton. “If your animal is motivated by food, target enrichment products that include treats. If they are more toy-driven, try a toy hooked on the end of a long stick. This not only provides exercise for the dog chasing it around, but also focuses its attention on getting something it wants.”

“Figure out what your dog is interested in and likes; if he or she isn’t fond of other dogs, it’s probably not a good idea to have them involved in dog sports with other animals because you don’t want to make them anxious,” said McMullen. “In this case, tracking or scent work might be more their speed.

“If you haven’t walked your dog regularly, take time to condition them,” she added. “Don’t just start out with a 1-1/2 mile walk. Start out at their speed.”

Enrichment for All

While there’s no doubt that enrichment is healthy for dogs, it works for other animals as well. Laser pointers, catnip balls and feathered sticks can provide hours of amusement for cats and their owners, and other animals, including rabbits, ferrets and turtles can also benefit from enrichment in their environments. Even zoos have gotten into the act, providing food frozen in large ice cubes to give bears and other carnivores something to make their minds work while they wait to eat.

Just like humans, animals need stimulation to keep their minds sharp.

“If you just leave your dog in the yard, they are not getting the stimulation they need,” said McMullen. “Enrichment toys, combined with long walks, give them the chance to go out into the world, then come home and do their own activities. They need both to be mentally stable.”

“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t have to walk my dog, because I have a big yard.’ But it’s nice to have variety,” she added. “Doing the same old thing every day is boring for everyone of every species.”

Looking for More Enrichment Ideas? 

There are hundreds of enrichment toys out there that you can buy, but you can also make your own! Joe Thornton at Wagsburgh provided the following ideas, adapted and inspired by information from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Animal Friends Resource Center, and dog trainers Turid Rugaas, Anne Lill Kvam and Sue Sternberg.

Egg cartons or ice cube trays:  Place treats in some or all of the cups. To make it more challenging, rubber band the egg carton closed (make sure to pick up the rubber band when you’re finished, so it doesn’t become a chew toy!)

Wrapped boxes:  take empty boxes (from cereal, shoes, cookies, etc.) and put treats inside. Wrap it with wrapping paper or newspaper and let your dog go to town!

Paper ball roll up:  take any kind of newspaper, wrapping paper or tissue papers and put treats in the middle. Then crinkle it up into a ball and let your dog rip it up to earn the treats.

Bottle party:  Fill a box with empty bottles or balls. Throw in treats and let you dog dig around for them.

Muffin tin:  place treats in some or all of the cups and cover them with tennis balls or paper balls. Let your dog search for them.

Toilet paper rolls: Fold up one end, put in treats, then fold the other end. Let your dog figure out how to get it open.

Frozen enrichment container: Take an old piece of Tupperware or any type of leftover container and smear peanut butter on the bottom and sides. Sprinkle in kibble, treats or toys, and cover with water. Place lid on and then freeze. (Note: only play with this where you don’t mind water in the house!)

Repurposed toys:  Take an empty water bottle and tie it inside a sock for a chew toy. Use an old pool noodle and cut it into two or three pieces. Stuff it with jerky treats. Cut a slit into a tennis ball, and you have a treat-dispensing toy.

Have fun!