Depending on the person you ask (or more likely, the website you visit), you’ll probably get a different answer to the question of what enrichment is. And from our research, they’re not wildly divergent, just a little unfocused. So we’re here to officially set the record straight. Okay, maybe not officially. More like unofficially, since we’re not certified dog trainers or behaviorists. We’re just people who have too much time on their hands and read a lot.
Anyway, we can’t just talk about enrichment before laying some groundwork first. We need to start by talking about dogs as dogs, not as pets. There are almost one billion of these critters roaming the earth, and less than one-quarter are actually domesticated. So contrary to popular belief a four-bedroom, mid-century modern home with all the bells and whistles isn’t a dog’s natural habitat. In fact, domesticated living is an exception for how dogs really live, definitely not the norm (Coppinger & Feinstein, 2015).
Sure, dogs adapt quite well to domesticated life. But generally speaking, the homes we all live in aren’t great environments for dogs. We hear you thinking, “I don’t know what home you live in, buster! Mine is nice. It’s got a great TV and accompanying sound system, gets great sunlight all year long, and even has an open-concept kitchen!” Now, before you fire up your email to send us a strongly worded email, just hear us out when we say people homes bore the living daylights out of dogs. They’re simply not designed for them, and they definitely don’t provide them with safe, healthy outlets for intrinsic behaviors like chewing, scavenging, sniffing, and so on. If this weren’t true, the pet product industry would have died out a looooong time ago.
For dogs, domesticated living is somewhat akin to being on a 14-hour flight to, say, Kuala Lumpur with absolutely nothing to do. During this flight from hell, you may wander up and down the aisles, look out the window (if you’re lucky), go to the restroom, and eat when the food comes around. But otherwise, you are bored out of your freakin’ mind and start looking for new, interesting ways to entertain yourself, even if they’re not particularly beneficial to your well-being. We have it on good authority that this is how Peep-flavored Pepsi came about – someone was on a trans-Atlantic flight and in the in-flight entertainment went out and thought, “What if…”
Fortunately for you, your imaginary flight was only temporary, albeit a bit long. But if you’re a dog without anything to do at home, you’re reliving that 14-hour flight 24 hours a day, every day. And redesigning your sectional with their teeth is a dog’s equivalent of Peep-flavored Pepsi. Totally appropriate behavior, just the wrong outlet.
With no ability to do the things that make them dogs (or anything for that matter), they become bored. As we alluded to above, this can lead to behavior problems like excessive barking, restlessness, or worse, chewing up the Beanie Babies collection you were just about to cash in for your retirement payout.
And we all know how that story plays out. We get angry. We get frustrated. We lament to ourselves, “What's wrong with my dog? Why can’t they just be normal?” This is massively unfair to the dog. The reality is they’re probably completely fine, just looking for ways to entertain themselves, even if the behavior isn’t beneficial to them (Burns, 2017). That’s not to say all behavior problems stem from boredom. So you should always speak to a certified trainer or behaviorist if you're concerned.
And if boredom-induced behavioral problems weren’t bad enough, under-stimulation is bad for brains of all types. Like real bad. In the late 18th century, Italian anatomist, Michele Vincenzo Malacarne, noticed that birds living in enriched cages developed larger brains than birds living in normal cages. Charles Darwin – or as we call him around our home, “Charlie-D” – noticed the same thing in rabbits (Sampedro-Piquero & Begega, 2017). If severe enough, sustained periods of boredom can lead to apathy, and even brain damage the way it can in prison inmates. Boredom really is the most subtle form of animal cruelty.
We didn’t write that to scare anyone, just to show that mental stimulation isn’t a luxury for dogs. It’s a necessity, just like it is for people. And it’s up to us as caretakers to provide that stimulation through environmental enrichment, because dogs have absolutely no choice or control over much of anything, especially when it comes to finding ways to satiate behaviors they’re programmed with (Burns, 2017).
One might conclude that enrichment is about preventing boredom, which isn’t wrong. But it’s not completely right, either. Limiting enrichment to such a definition is a bit restrictive, because enrichment is much, much more, and isn’t just reserved for dogs. In fact, it’s for all animals – including us humans.
So what is enrichment then? Well, we’re partial to the definition from the celebrated behavior consultant, Shay Kelly (2019), “Canine enrichment is the act of providing low-risk activities in which the dog wants to participate. It’s giving dogs something interesting to do. It’s lighting a spark. It’s giving them an engaging and fulfilling life” (pp. 3 – 4). We like that definition because it encompasses the totality of enrichment. It doesn’t place the onus on a specific toy or activity. Rather, it’s a holistic approach, or way of living, where we set up our homes and other environments in a way that provides them with choices, consent, and safe, healthy outlets for their intrinsic behaviors.
When you think about it from that standpoint, you can quickly begin to see how taking care of a dog has many parallels to raising a child (although the latter is significantly harder). In broad strokes, parents attend to their kids’ needs, help them grow, learn, satiate their curiosity, and so on. But most importantly, parents are just there for their kids by giving them attention and being interested in them as a living, breathing person.
And that’s probably the biggest takeaway to enriching your pup’s life: just showing up for them, the way you would for your own child (Kelly, 2019). Yes, we need to provide them with opportunities to be a dog through enrichment, which don’t require a huge time commitment. But dogs simply like being around the people they adopt – whether that's supervising you as you cook dinner, sitting next to you on the couch (as you pet them, of course) while watching Rahul crush it on the Great British Baking Show, or simply going to Target with you for the third time in one day because you forgot to make a list.