Enrichment has become a buzzword lately, and for very good reasons. Enrichment adds so much to our dogs’ lives, giving them mental stimulation as well as physical and allowing them to carry out normal and natural dog behaviours. This has massively beneficial effects on their well-being and happiness.
As enrichment has become so popular and more widely known, it can start to feel as if there is an ever-increasing pressure to keep providing more and more. There are lots of amazing enrichment toys and activities available for purchase, and it can sometimes seem as if we are not meeting our responsibilities to our dogs if we have not bought them the latest revolution in enrichment activities.
These toys can be expensive, however, and, if living on a budget as many are now, there just is not an opportunity to buy these things. It is all too easy to feel like a failure, a bad dog guardian and that we are not meeting their needs.
The truth is that enrichment does not have to be expensive. It really is all about the experience rather than the price tag and – with a little thought and imagination – we can provide quality enrichment without a big price tag.
The ‘sniffy walk’
The sniffy walk (or sniffari as some people call it) is fantastic for our dogs. Even better, it requires no special equipment or anything other than some time to go out to explore with your dog. I refer to this as exploring rather than a walk because walking is not the primary focus here, sniffing is. Find somewhere that your dog looks interested in investigating and then just let them sniff.
Everything on this exploration is done at their pace. They choose how long to sniff at one particular spot, when to move on, and how far you go before sniffing again. You can combine the sniffari with letting the dog lead the walk, so the dog gets to decide where you go (so long as it is safe to do so).
It is not about distance here; it is all about letting the dog do this most natural dog thing. On one memorable occasion in a twenty-minute sniffy walk with my dog, we moved about10 yards in total.
Homemade food puzzles
Food-based enrichment is perhaps the most common form thought of when talking about enrichment. This category also probably has most of the higher-priced equipment. Food-based enrichment really does not have to be expensive, and it can be a lot of fun. Two favourite budget examples in our house involve making use of household recycling and cookware.
To make use of recycling, gather empty cardboard boxes. These can be from deliveries, empty cereal boxes and so on. Packing paper used to fill out delivery boxes, newspapers, toilet roll tubes etc. can also go inside the boxes, with little bits of food scattered throughout the paper and boxes. We can vary the difficulty – start with some simple folded paper inside a single box and then work up through different combinations until boxes are inside other boxes – use your imagination to fit the difficulty with your dog’s ability and frustration levels. Then there is also the joy for many dogs of destroying the boxes afterwards! Take care if your dog is likely to eat the cardboard - supervision is always the best idea for safety.
Another DIY option involves using a muffin tin and something like tennis balls. Place a few pieces of food in the sections and put a ball on top. Depending on your dog’s confidence, either have food in every section that has a ball on or, if they are very confident and not prone to frustration make things a little more difficult by leaving some gaps under the balls empty.
For many dogs, interacting with their humans is an enriching experience. This could be in the form of interactive games such as tug (homemade tug toys made from a simple plait of strips of old fleece are a favourite here) or, if your dog enjoys coaching, learning new cues and practising ones they know already is great mental stimulation and can be a fantastic bonding opportunity. Cues do not necessarily need to be useful; we can coach our dogs in fun things – if the dog is enjoying the activity and the process, we can teach them anything that comes to mind.
Often what follows enrichment sessions in this house!
When it comes to enrichment, imagination can be far more important than money for giving our dogs the mental stimulation and added interest to their day that they really need.