The five types of enrichment for dogs

  • 9 min read

For the most part, the world agrees that there are five types of enrichment. However, getting everyone to agree on what to call each type is a whole other story. For example, Purdue University’s (boiler up!) Center for Animal Welfare Science calls them social, occupational, physical, sensory, and nutritional (2016). Whereas Shay Kelly (2019) calls them safe environment, food, non-food, natural behaviors, and companionship and bonding. And then there’s the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement (2017), which says there are 11 types of enrichment. It’s dizzying.

So, who is right? Well, they all are. The differences arise, because some definitions focus on a different facet of the same enrichment type. It’s also worth noting that context plays an important role. The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement says there are 11, because they define the categories in a more detailed manner. For example, they list all five senses when referring to sensory enrichment, but most other sources lump them all together. Karli Chudeau (2018) talks about enrichment within the context of any animal living in a captive environment. So her terms need to be broad enough to apply to all animals out there, not just a specific species. Finally, Kelly (2017) refers to the five types of enrichment within the context of dogs only and seems to define them a bit differently than others, particularly what he calls “safe environment” and “non-food” enrichment. 

While everyone’s all over the map, they’re all in the same neighborhood. Because of that, it’s important for us to agree on terminology before moving on. Here’s how we’re parsing out the five types of enrichment:

  1. Sensory
  2. Food
  3. Environmental
  4. Occupational
  5. Social

The reason we chose these descriptors is because they’re fairly broad and capture the full spectrum of everything enrichment entails and don’t focus on a single facet. We want to highlight two more things before we discuss the different types.  

First,enrichment is about giving your dog opportunities to satisfy their intrinsic behaviors and allowing them to lead an interesting and fulfilling life – as opposed to just lying around all day. When thought about this way, it is somewhat on par with raising a child. And like children, we can’t just neglect our dogs or think they’ll be happy not doing anything. Anyone who has a kid knows that when they’re bored they tend to come up with ways to entertain themselves, like using crayons and your living room wall to bring their artistic vision to life. 

The other thing to know is that there’s quite a bit of overlap between the different types of enrichment. It’s important to call this out, because even though there is overlap, it doesn’t occur across all five types. That means you could theoretically focus on one type of enrichment and neglect others. 

Not only that, but each type is weighted differently depending on breed. For example, our dog, Sammy, is a pittie-lab mix, and she’s highly food motivated and benefits greatly from foraging activities. However, a Border Collie may enjoy occupational activities more than foraging, simply because they were bred for that purpose (Kelly, 2019). This is why it’s important to get to know your dog and their breed to understand what sort of enrichment they’ll benefit from the most. 

As the name implies sensory enrichment means providing your dog with opportunities to engage their five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing – the way they would out in the wild. According to Wells (2009), animals get the greatest benefits from enrichment that focuses on their dominant sense. For dogs, that just so happens to be their sense of smell (Kelly, 2019). 

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the other senses. It just means that sniffing is weighted a bit more compared to the others. In fact it’s so important that not giving your pup ample opportunities to sniff is similar to a human visiting the Grand Canyon but wearing a blindfold the entire time. In other words, smell is to dogs what sight is to humans.

One simple way to add more sniff time to your dog’s life is by taking them on sniffaris. This is where you let your dog sniff any- and everything they want. Other than requiring a little bit more time on your walks, it’s completely free. However, just make sure they’re sniffing stuff that’s safe. We were out hiking once with Sammy, and she sniffed a foxtail which instantly got stuck in her nose. It wasn’t fun for us or Sammy.
Another easy way to engage your dog’s snout is is to switch up the way you feed them. Rather than placing their food in one large bowl, divide it up into, say, 10 smaller bowls and hide them around your home. You can either turn it into ago find it game or let them discover the food on their own, the way they would come across something while foraging in the wild. Just be sure to make it super obvious at first, and as they improve, make it a bit more challenging. 

Using food for enrichment isn’t what you feed your dog, but how you feed them. Believe it or not, dogs enjoy seeking out their food more than actually finding it, because, according to Kelly (2019) the act of foraging gives them a dopamine rush. We’ll talk about this in a future article, but the simple explanation is that anticipation of food is much more exciting than actually obtaining it. You know, that whole “It’s about the journey, not the destination” thing. 

That’s why we like to put Sammy’s kibble in a snuffle mat or a puzzle feeder such as the Piggle. It takes a little extra time to set up, but it makes things a bit more enjoyable for her. If you feed your dog wet food, maybe don’t use a snuffle mat, though. Use a Kong or a LickiMat instead. Or, for a next-level challenge, use a LickiMat bowl. It wobbles as the dog licks the food off and makes them think a bit more. 
You don’t need to break the bank just to feed your dog, though. Like we mentioned above, you can spread the food around your home. You can also flick kibble across the floor to make it more interactive and seem like a little critter scurrying around. Or, wrap their food in several tea cloths before placing them in agrocery bag holder for them to pull out. Get creative with it to see what your dog enjoys. They’ll be happy that you’ve mixed things up.

The Center for Animal Welfare Science (2016) defines this type of enrichment as, “Altering the quality and complexity of the dog’s living space” (p. 2). Whereas Kelly’s (2019) definition focuses on creating an environment where a dog feels safe and has opportunities to explore new environments. And Palika (n.d.) says it’s simply about making the dog’s space as interesting and stimulating as possible. 

Despite the wide range of definitions, none is more correct than the others. They’re just different aspects of the same concept, but we tend to think that Palika’s definition with a dash of Kelly’s encompasses the entire spectrum of environmental enrichment. 

As we discussed in a previousarticle, people homes are pretty boring. This type of enrichment is about making them less boring by giving them outlets to satiate their intrinsic behaviors – like chewing, for example. If you’ve ever bought your dog a squeaky toy, then you’re already practicing environmental enrichment.

However, it’s not just about buying tons of toys for your dog to shred in a matter of seconds, something we’re sure bank accounts everywhere will appreciate. Giving your dog options to choose how they’d like to experience their environments is the core of environmental enrichment. When a dog has choices, it makes them feel safe, because they have control over their environment to an extent. Otherwise, your pup is at your mercy for everything, which feels a bit prison-like.

One way you can give your dog choices is to make sure they have somewhere to retreat to when they’re afraid. Knowing they have a “safe space” is comforting. Whether that’s a crate, special room, or, in our pup’s case, the bathtub (for some reason), that’s up to you and your dog.  
You can also place a few more dog beds around your home, if your situation allows. That way, if you’re being too noisy and they just want to sleep, or simply need “me time,” they can go somewhere else to meet those needs the way humans can.

Even providing your dog with a perch to look out the window to watch birds, squirrels, or your neighbors who insist on never, ever closing their blinds ever can improve their environment. It may seem like common sense, but believe it or not some people don’t give their dogs that opportunity.

While watching a dog training reality show on Netflix, Iris saw one person who locked their dog in a room all day and was dumbfounded as to why his dog had behavioral issues. So the dog trainer locked the owner up in the room with nothing to do for a few hours to drive the point home, and they quickly changed their tune. The poor dog was just going crazy from being in solitary confinement all day!

The last thing we’ll say about environmental enrichment is that it also involves introducing your dog to new environments (Kelly, 2019). We don’t mean you have to take them to the Cayman Islands, but if that’s your jam, a) we’re jealous, b) can we come? and c) you do you. Keep it simple so you don’t overwhelm yourself. Take your pup on a hike, bring them with you to the brewery if they can handle that much stimulation, or take them fishing with you if they need something more calming. They’ll just be happy to be involved.

Introducing them to places they’ve never been also helps them learn to be comfortable with new people and environments. And, in our experience, many dogs are happy to do so, andjust want to be with their person. Not only that, dogs are a great social lubricant – they help make friends, brighten someone’s day because they get to pet your dog, or help educate others. On the last point, we can't tell you how many times Sammy has won people over from the "pitbulls are vicious" false narrative simply by being her goofy and sweet-as-honey self.

Chudeau (2018) defines occupational enrichment as providing animals with “toys and activities that promote exercise or solvable challenges'' (para. 4). Kelly (2019) and the Center for Animal Welfare Science (2016) define it as physical activities such as competitive sports likeRally-O andCanicross, which are essentially the same thing, as both are mentally and physically stimulating. 

Another way to think about this type of enrichment is giving your dog a hobby to stimulate their bodies and/or minds. One possibility is to give them a toy, like you would with environmental enrichment, except the toy doesn’t serve as an outlet for mindless activities like chewing. Rather, it makes them think and use their problem solving skills.
Puzzle feeders are a great way to do this. Teaching your dog tricks can also work their brains. However, puzzle feeders and many tricks don’t really lead to much physical activity like going to the dog park or hiking would. If you want to work their bodies and their minds simultaneously (and have ample free time), activities like agility training or competitive sports, like the ones mentioned above, are excellent for this.
Dogs are highly social creatures, and they need opportunities to engage with other animals to meet this need – especially other dogs and people. You can do this by taking your dog to a dog park, enrolling them in doggie daycare, or simply meeting new dogs and people while out on a walk. (But be sure to check with other owners first that your pups can have a meet and greet.)

However, it’s not to be confused with socialization, which is a bit different.
You can think of social enrichment as going to your town’s pancake social at the VFW and catching up with friends and meeting new people. While socialization is where you learn to not take your pants off at the aforementioned pancake social and run around with them on your head. In other words, socialization is learning how to act in social situations, or as Michael’s mom used to tell him when he was younger, “Stop acting like you’ve never been in public before!”

There you have it, the five types of enrichment: sensory, foraging, environmental, occupational, and social. For the most part, we think they’re pretty intuitive, and many of them overlap, making them pretty easy to implement. And by doing some level of enrichment on a daily basis, you’re helping your dog lead a happier, healthier life by decreasing boredom and the problem behaviors it can lead to. 

If you’re strapped for ideas on adding more enrichment to your dog’s life, we highly recommend Shay Kelly’s book,Canine Enrichment: The Book Your Dog Needs You To Read. It’s a quick read, incredibly insightful, and has more than enough ideas to keep your dog stimulated. The author also has a Facebook group you can join, where people share all sorts of brilliant enrichment ideas they’ve come up with.


Center for Animal Welfare Science (2016, March).Implementing environmental enrichment for dogshttps://extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/VA/VA-13-W.pdf

Chudeau, K. R. (2018, July 12).Enrichment is in the eye of the beholder. https://theethogram.com/2018/07/12/enrichment-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder/

Kelly, S. (2019).Canine enrichment: The book your dog needs you to read. Amazon Digital Services LLC - KDP Print US.

Palika, L. (n.d.).Improving Dog Behavior: Environmental Enrichment. Embrace Pet Insurance. https://www.embracepetinsurance.com/waterbowl/article/environmental-enrichment

The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement (2017, June).Animal enrichment best practices. https://cdn.ymaws.com/theaawa.org/resource/resmgr/files/exhibit_a_dog_enrichment_dai.pdf

Wells, Deborah. (2009).Sensory stimulation as environmental enrichment for captive animals: A review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118(1), 1-11.