Defining Enrichment Centers for Dogs
“Dog daycare” hasn’t always been the most commonly used term in the pet services industry. Not too long ago, we called ourselves kennels.
As the industry evolved and become more popular amongst pet parents, people wanted something more marketable and less sterile: daycare, resort, and so on. As more competitors entered the market, differentiating ourselves with something “better” also became important.
Nowadays, you might see the term “enrichment” being used.
But what does enrichment actually mean?
At Doglando, we decided to use the term to describe the experience our dogs received and our commitment to providing that experience.
However, truly offering enrichment is a lot more difficult than you might expect. It all starts with recognizing that the environment is the dog’s first teacher. From there, you must mindfully structure your space.
When Doglando set out to become an enrichment center, we first looked at how the term enrichment was being used. We searched for a uniform definition, but it was surprisingly hard to find. Enrichment isn’t a commonly used term in the scientific community, and it’s hard to measure. Therefore, we expanded on guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and their categories of enrichment to create criteria for the dog training, dog day care, and dog boarding industries.
From there, we developed 8 pieces of criteria that help answer the question, “What is an enrichment center?”
1. Environmental Enrichment Devices
Environmental enrichment devices (EEDs) are objects that can be manipulated by the animal. These objects may be novel or pre-existing. Natural EEDs may include large and small branches, wood, wool, hay, and flowers. However, these items should be kept clean to prevent bacterial growth. Man-made EEDs may include pre made items like car wash roller brushes or strips, Boomer balls, tires, and Kong toys, or constructed items such as puzzle boxes, piñatas, and various PVC contraptions.
When we put dogs into captivity, we need to maintain their biological behavioral health. This includes natural, innate, maybe even genetic considerations for each dog. The things we give them can play a role in that, too.
Let’s look at fixed/modal action patterns. These action patterns aren’t taught, they’re biological. The animal will complete the actions whenever it comes into contact with a certain thing in it’s environment. For example, when a bird sharpens or cleans it’s beak, that isn’t taught, it’s biological. The bird will do these actions when it comes into contact with a certain thing, like a particular type of bark, in the environment.
That’s one of the reasons providing natural EEDs is so important. Synthetic materials, like Kongs, can have their place. They can help dogs mimic foraging and behaviors related to hunting (using their paw as a tool to hold down the food source, licking, chewing, tearing, shredding, to remove food source), but they need to have a reason and purpose.
Unfortunately, even with the best intentions to provide dogs with such experiences, we limit the full spectrum of their behaviors when we perceive their actions to be a nuisance (such as destroying a Kong).
When your intent is to offer an enriching environment, aim for natural substrates. We use plenty of toys, but we also use bark and real sticks. Kongs are stuffed with raw meat. Turkey necks are another favorite.
Aside from toys, how can you work natural, and not synthetic, substances into the rest of your environment?
We have sand at Doglando, plus jungle gym equipment. Dogs are able to crawl under the jungle gym and dig a space in the sand that fits their body perfectly. This taps into their natural desires to den, and also coincides with our next piece of enrichment criteria.
2. Habitat Enrichment
Habitat design is an important consideration for providing enrichment. Habitats should provide a variety of substrates, levels, and complexities. Considerations should be given to useable space versus total space, and ease of reaching or changing platforms, tiers, ropes, nesting/denning areas, feed/water dispensers, and crevices/crannies for EED/enrichment food hiding.
Before we dive into habitat enrichment, let’s define a few terms:
Behavior is anything we can see, observe, and measure. It’s also unambiguous. When behavior is reinforced, the animal will continue to engage in the interaction and the behavior will maintain itself or increase in consistency.
Behavior is influenced by coming into contact with the environment, which is why we want to create habitats that are reinforcing to the animal’s behavior. Let’s look at an example from our own facility:
Doglando dogs don’t dig in the grass because they already have the opportunity to fulfill this biological desire within their habitat. If a dog wants to dig, they have the sand.
The introduction of sand to our environment was well thought out: We observed the behaviors of our dogs and noticed that they all seemed to dig in shaded areas, underneath the oak trees.
From there, we decided to build a jungle gym surrounded by sand. The sand is a great spot to dig, but it has additional purposes, too. For example, it meets a physical need: the sand is low impact when a dog jumps off of the jungle gym.
Thinking about things from the dog’s perspective
To design an enriching habitat, get into the mindset of a dog. They have an innate desire to eliminate away from the areas where they play, sleep, eat, and drink.
Using the sand example, we noticed that the dogs preferred this area for denning. As a result, they eliminated away from those spots. We also observed that in the fenced areas, dogs have a preference to eliminate close to parallel or along the fence line. So, that’s where we laid down sod. They’d also rather eliminate on a natural substrate.
This is why we need to be mindful – if we don’t create habitats that allow for the expressions of innate behavior, our dogs become “stuck”. When they can’t remove themselves from the artificial environment you might notice anxiety, pacing, and other stress-induced behaviors.
Enriching games in your habitat
You can also play games to enhance the enrichment possibilities in your environment.
One easy game you can play to focus on habitat enrichment is hiding food. If the rest of your program is enriching, you’ll see the entire group of dogs interact and engage with the game. It’s not just about games, though. Your environment can also create opportunities to request certain behaviors through transitions. At Doglando, we have a specific set of sequences that we perform for different transitory actions, like going through the gate. We see an increase in taught behaviors, like waiting, because the environment gives us opportunities to request and then reinforce these behaviors.
Other important elements of habitat design
Your habitat should include a variety of different surfaces, too. Usable space is more than just flat land! Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Cement (like in our lagoon area)
- Unlevel surfaces
- Wobbly bridges
- Different elevations, like tunnels and above-ground jungle gyms with different levels
- Stones for climbing on
Habitats are complex in nature, but you can also have a lot of fun designing them!
How can you use these two enrichment concepts in your own doggy day care, or in your own home?
The presence of environmental enrichment devices and an enriching habitat are incredibly important when it comes to designing an enriching experience for dogs.
In Part 2 of our series, we’ll talk about sensory enrichment and food enrichment. Be sure to review that post to learn how these components also play a role in a canine enrichment center.
Now it’s your turn!
In the Comments below let us know one type of environmental enrichment device you can offer the dogs in your facility, or at home. What purpose would it serve? Similarly, how can you mindfully design your habitat to be enriching? We can’t wait to see what ideas you come up with! We’re here to answer your questions too.