4 Ways Environmental Enrichment Can Help De-Stress Your Dog

Dogs playing at dog park
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Extroverted dogs may benefit from playing with other canines at a dog park or doggy day care.

I grew up on a 1,200-acre Angus cattle ranch in California during the 1950s and 1960s. We always had dogs; mostly Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Dachshunds. The big dogs never came into the house, and they all had the run of the ranch. They played with my brother, sister and me; rode around the ranch with us in our pickup; and hunted (and ate) jack rabbits and ground squirrels. My recollection is that they were happy, healthy, behaviorally normal dogs. In my opinion, they could cope with life, because they had a strong feeling of control and natural stimulation whenever they wanted it. Life for them was relatively stress free.

Fast-forward 50 years, and things have changed, both for us and for our dogs. Instead of having 1,200 acres, or even a few acres to roam, many more of us are living in homes closer to 1,200 square feet or even apartments. We’re surrounded by neighbors, busy roads and asphalt where pastures used to be. Part of our own coping mechanism to deal with these changes has been to bring our pets along with us. For our dogs, this has meant learning to live in small spaces with a somewhat limited ability to express their natural, species-typical behaviors. They’ve also had to adjust to being left alone for long and sometimes unpredictable periods of time.

Sadly, these circumstances sometimes lead to problematic behaviors, such as fear, aggression, excessive barking, biting or destruction related to separation anxiety. Any one of these behaviors may lead to the surrender of the dog to an animal shelter. In fact, several studies have shown that the most common reason given by owners for euthanasia or surrender to a shelter is the dog’s behavior.

We can change this. What dogs need to thrive in confined spaces truly is not rocket science — it is well known to many animal behaviorists, veterinarians and experienced dog owners. The basics of environmental enrichment for dogs can be learned by any owner and provided in a variety of ways. In my view, the essential elements include informed owners, early education, a job and some kind of social life.

1. Be an Informed Owner

Beyond knowing that we want a dog, we also need to know what kind of dog we want and, even more importantly, what kind of dog we can manage within our lifestyle, resources and space. Dogs come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and “personalities.” There are dogs who are known for being hunters, herders and guardians. Others are purported to be affectionate, independent, active or quiet. The range is large, and we need to select appropriately. While zeroing in on the best breed can help get us get closer to the right “zip code” to get to the “address” of the dog who is right for us, we also need to think about whether we want a pure or mixed-breed dog, which age and sex we are most comfortable with, and where we want to obtain our dog from: A breeder? Shelter? Friend? (Always avoid impulse purchases!) Keep in mind that you are planning for the long term, so some thought and research ahead of time offers the best chances of a long and successful relationship. Talk to veterinarians, knowledgeable shelter personnel and reputable breeders.

2. Early Education

Once you’ve taken home the perfect companion, socialize your puppy early and often. As long as you have initial vaccinations and your veterinarian is comfortable with it, you can take a puppy out to most puppy classes and to pet-friendly public places where a puppy wont be exposed to too many other dogs. Surprisingly, many national chain stores, depending on location, will allow you to take your leashed and well-behaved dog into the store. Call ahead to find out if your pet will be welcomed. Dogs who are introduced to a variety of foods, people and situations early in life seem to learn to cope better with them — a skill that can be lifesaving. Dog parks are not the place to go yet; the number of dogs may be overwhelming to the puppy and frighten her, and, of course, the more dogs, the greater the risk of exposure to disease.

3. Give Your Dog a Job

Dogs, just like us, need to be needed and to have something meaningful to do. This is especially true when they are left alone. And since dogs are generally hunters, the recent popularization of food puzzles, toys and slow food bowls (bowls that use grooves or other features to help keep a dog from inhaling her food) can give them something to do while the owner is away. These devices make the dog “work for food,” which is both mentally and physically stimulating, particularly for confined pets. There are many varieties of feeding devices, and your veterinarian can help advise you on which might work best to try with your dog, as well as give you suggestions for safely introducing and using them.

4. Everyone Needs a Social Life

Dogs are a very social species, and many of them are extroverts — they thrive on interaction with others. Social lives also give dogs both the mental and physical stimulation they need to thrive, and can take many forms. For example, a young, active dog may benefit from dog-on-dog play at local dog parks or a doggy day care center. Or she may be happier doing “doggy” things with you, such as becoming involved in the many sports that have become popular for people and their dogs, such as agility and flyball. Some dogs may prefer to take walks, play with a toy or learn tricks using the positive training methods that have become so popular and effective (never do anything to a dog you wouldn’t want done to you, and have no control over — think about it!). These activities should become the habit of a lifetime. Even when your pet becomes a “ senior citizen,” she will still benefit from interaction and activity. When she stops bringing the leash to you, it’s time for you to start taking the leash to her!

As in any relationship, once problems arise, they can be difficult to correct. The goal of environmental enrichment is to avert problems before they start. To do this, learn to read your particular dog’s body language and behaviors; they are your best guide to what is working and what isn’t. When your dog seems calm, interested, happy and engaged, you are on the right track. If she seems agitated, disinterested, unhappy or anxious, change course and try something different. And don’t be afraid to try new things from time to time, to continue to provide the mental and physical stimulation that comes from novelty. Dogs know what they need to be happy, and they will tell us if we take the time to get to know them and listen to what they are trying to say.

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