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Enrichment is a big buzz word in the Dog Training community. We're seeing all sorts of new and fun ways to bring enrichment to our dogs life. Snuffle matts and ball pits and specially designed toys... the list goes on. Some schools even offer entire classes filled with these enrichment games. Enrichment is wonderful if it's used right. The question is, are you using it right?
Let's start with the dictionary definition of enrichment: "Enrichment makes something more meaningful, substantial, or rewarding. Enrichment improves something."
So, what is the trouble?
There's nothing wrong with adding more joy to our lives and of course, to the lives of our 4-legged family members, but the pendulum seems to have swung toward using this type of enrichment in the same way some parents use TV and Video Games: as a babysitter, and that is not okay! The trouble with enrichment these days is it has crossed the line from adding something wonderful to instead, replacing something.... and often what's being replaced is training. I'm seeing more and more posts online about using enrichment to keep your dogs stimulated and out of trouble.
Let me just say it bluntly: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR TRAINING
Training is what will ensure that when your dog starts to chase a squirrel towards a busy road, you can call them back before they get there
Training is what will stop your dog from bolting out the front door and running away
Training is what will keep your dog from knocking you or your guests over on greetings
Training is what will enable you to enjoy loose leash or off-leash walks with your dog
And of course, training is what will help your dog learn how to be a good family member who can relax and behave without the need for constant entertainment.
Training is a necessity to keep your dog safe and happy. If your dog is getting into mischief because they are untrained or undertrained, using enrichment to keep them out of trouble or to tire them out will only serve as a bandaid. They'll be back at it after a nap and you'll need to keep adding enrichment to keep them out of trouble.
This is not where enrichment should be added unless it's enrichment that's added through training and interaction with you. Is your dog bored? Get out and work on some training of skills that will help you live harmoniously with them. Work on your recall, practise some stays or loose leash walking in the house. If you're looking for something lighter, working on tricks with them will take you exponentially further than letting them search out treats in a snuffle mat. I've written extensively about the Power of Trick Training in a previous post. Learn about shaping and have fun teaching your dog to offer you behaviours. Learn how to build on successive approximations to create brilliant behaviours and great communication. These are true enrichment activities that will serve your relationship rather than potentially damaging it.
Are You Damaging Your Relationship with Enrichment?
Not all, but a lot of the enrichment ideas that are passed around are simply the dog entertaining themselves or being entertained. Looking for treats in a ball pit, searching for food in a snuffle mat, rolling a treat ball, etc. All of these pastimes have one thing in common - they don't involve us, they're all about the 'video game'.
These methods of enrichment and others, like daycare all week and leash free parks to play with other dogs, all leave us out of the equation. That means your dog's emotional and physical needs are being met by entities that are not you. One of the first things we point out to people who come to us looking for help with their unmanageable dog is that the dog needs reason to be convinced to focus on us rather than the other dogs and distractions on the street. We have a lot to compete with when coveting our dog's attention. Having a good banked history of you meeting your dog's needs will go a long way toward convincing them to look/listen to you, rather than thinking you are just an annoying anchor holding them back from what they really want to see.
There's a lot of value there that you could be capitalizing on to help serve you in your relationship with your dog. This type of enrichment will actually reinforce your dog looking to the outside world to meet their needs rather than looking to you for all of the things that they love in their life.
When are Enrichment Games Good?
Don't get me wrong. There is a time and a place for those types of enrichment games. You may use puzzles games as enrichment when there's been a string of bad weather days and your dog has been cooped up, or if they're on rest for an injury or after surgery. You may just use them occasionally to watch your dog think through something new.
There are many reasons that you would utilize enrichment in conjunction with a behaviour modification program. Having enrichment games to satisfy specific needs as you work through a problem can be a huge saving grace, but remember that they should always be used in conjunction with a training program to help solve the problem, not to simply bandaid it.
Used with intention, this sort of enrichment can be a great thing, but when used as a means of coping with an undertrained dog or to continue the addictive loop of tiring out your dog, they can be very detrimental.
For most other situations, choose enrichment games that involve you, such as training, tricks or even scenting/tracking games. Here's a previous post with some ideas. That way, both you and your 4-legged family members get to feel enriched!
As always, Happy Training!
Hi! I'm Shannon and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members. Join us for a FREE Workshop at MyDogCan.McCannDogs.com