Canine enrichment. This term can elicit some big feelings from people lately. I get it. I cringe a little when I hear it because I’m just waiting for someone to tell me about the newest food puzzle they’ve found. ARGH!!!

Food puzzles ≠ canine enrichment. These are not the same thing. Food puzzles might serve as a part of your dog’s enrichment, but it might not.

What is enrichment?

If you haven’t read Allie Bender and Emily Strong’s Canine Enrichment for the Real World, I highly recommend it. I also love their definition of enrichment:

Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs. 

There’s actually a lot to unpack in that one sentence. Sticking with the basics, canine enrichment is about providing our dogs with the means to meet their own needs. Every dog has a variety of different needs including, physical activity, mental stimulation, and breed-specific needs. I have 3 dogs: a 12.5-year-old pit bull, a 7-year-old spaniel mix, and an almost 4-year-old border collie. And their needs couldn’t be more different.

The girls (pit bull and spaniel mix) love sniffing, especially the spaniel mix. When we go on a walk, they do what my partner and I call “in-depth research” on everything they smell. The boy says “Hurry the fuck up! I want to move!” Sure, he’s super interested in girl-pee (he’s an intact male), but general smells are pretty boring compared to movement.

For the girls, food puzzles are awesome! Scatter some kibble in the backyard for dinner? Yes, please! That activity fulfills a need for them. They enjoy it. They look forward to it. This is one form of enrichment for them.

For the boy, food puzzles are dumb… for the most part. Scatter some kibble in the backyard for dinner? Damn it, mom, where’s the frisbee. While a food puzzle might occasionally meet a need for him, he has other needs that take priority. His need for mental stimulation combined with physical activity is very high. A food puzzle isn’t going to hit that mark.

What are my dog’s needs?

In order to create an environment in which your dog can meet their own needs, you need to identify what those needs are. Those short answer is that there is no short answer. Your dog has lots of needs. And maybe the environment in which your dog lives already provides for a lot of those needs. If you live in a more suburban environment with a herding dog, then it’s likely that environment falls short. And going for a sniffy walk does not replace herding.

Consider what herding dogs were bred to do: cause and control the movement of livestock, work long hours outdoors, work cooperatively with humans. The fact that your herding dog now lives in suburbia doesn’t negate those needs. They’re still there. And not having these needs fulfilled can lead to a lot of “behavior problems.” (In reality, the behavior is not the problem. But the only way that your dog has found to perform that behavior to fulfill that need might be.) All these characteristics we’ve bred for are needs that we now have an obligation to help our dogs meet.

Given what we bred herding dogs for, it should be no surprise that they have become our go-to agility partners, border collies especially. Fast movement with precision meets their need for mental stimulation with physical activity. Being able to focus on the obstacles while taking direction from a human checks off some boxes as well. But that doesn’t mean your herding dog needs to do agility. Mine doesn’t. Wish gets lots of time hiking off leash and playing frisbee (including freestyle) with me. The possibilities are endless.

How do I know if an activity is enrichment for my dog?

I cannot give you an easy answer to this question. What I can offer are three additional questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is my dog choosing to engage in the activity I’ve provided?
  2. Is my dog’s behavior changing for the better?
  3. Is this sustainable for you?

If you can answer yes to all of those questions, I’d say that you’re on the right track. If not, then make some changes and reassess. It’s a process. You might need to re-evaluate your dog’s needs over time.

That’ll do.