Social Groupings, Behavioral Conditioning, Physical Handling, and Relationships
In this 3-part series, we have been answering the question, “What is an enrichment center?“.
Enrichment is a concept that’s becoming more and more popular, but to truly offer enrichment, a well-thought out and mindful approach is necessary.
Whether you’re a dog day care owner who wants to offer enrichment, or a dog parent trying to understand the benefits of enrichment, it’s important to understand the criteria behind enrichment.
Now, we’re going to tie everything together by explaining the importance of social groupings, behavioral conditioning, physical handling, and relationships.
5. Social Groupings
In the wild, social groupings look very different than they do for companion dogs – dogs can hunt and mate (which is how social groupings naturally developed).
If we aren’t allowing for that, how do we meet this need for social grouping?
We have to carefully monitor groups and mindfully create conditions where the need for social grouping can be fulfilled. For example, grooming can teach a dog vulnerability because they are put in vulnerable positions, like belly down.
At Doglando, we’re continuously monitoring the social groups in our environment. This became especially important as we grew and added more dogs into our program. Now, social groupings are part of our core enrichment criteria.
In practice, this means that different dogs come to us on different days. If we have a dog who is very shy and fearful, they won’t come to Doglando on the same days as other dogs with similar shyness and fear, because this breeds fear within the entire group.
As a dog day care owner, you absolutely have control over these groups. Understand that groups of dogs can stabilize and bring out the best in each other… or the exact opposite can occur. Dogs learn proper play, impulse control, and cooperation when social groupings are approached with mindfulness.
Maintaining safety in groups of dogs
You should also remember that the main goal is safety. When we speak about the environment at Doglando one of the big things we stress is the importance of space. The amount of available outdoor space we have contributes to safety, because dogs can engage socially without feeling stressed, frustrated, or cornered.
When a dog wants some alone time away from the group, they have that opportunity, too.
We’ve never had a fight at Doglando, despite having so many dogs hunt, forage, and play together. The amount of space we have contributes greatly to this.
6. Behavioral Conditioning
Remember: 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.
Conditioning is learning. So, another aspect of enrichment is behavioral conditioning, which simply means anything an animal does that is observable, measurable, and unambiguous that was learned.
This is one of the reasons we suggest people enroll in training classes: We teach pet parents how to do the same things we’re doing with their dogs in enrichment, and as a result dog and human alike all “speak” the same language.
Turning training into life lessons for dogs
On Doglando’s campus, we maintain behavioral conditioning (especially behaviors that are considered “manners” and “obedience”) by making these things part of their life lessons. We want to give every dog that comes to us the ability to apply what they do at Doglando to the real world. That’s why we do:
- Crate exercises
- Preparation for veterinary exams
- Gate exercises, like waiting at the gate
All of the dogs voluntarily participate, too. They know the sequence of events and exactly what they have to do, and this voluntary offering of behavior is only possible through consistency.
I truly feel this last piece of criteria is one of the most important considerations when it comes to providing an enriching experience for our dogs.
You can’t have an enrichment center without relationships.
And, those relationships have to be maintained. The definition of a relationship includes the number of positive interactions amongst living beings over time, after all.
It’s not just your relationship with the dogs, either. Staff and client relationships are just as important.
On the client side, that’s why we have such a strict attendance policy. If a client only brings their dog(s) in a few times per year when they need boarding, that’s not enrichment. You need to give all learners (dog and human) ample time and ongoing opportunities to learn what enrichment looks like, and what a behaviorally enriched dog looks like.
Enrichment is an ongoing, lifelong process for everyone involved. Truly offering enrichment involves constant learning, mindfulness, adaptation, and maintenance of the relationships you’re working so hard to cultivate.
8. Physical Handling
Practicing physical handling is critical for animals in captivity. Experiences resulting in close contact with humans are atypical to an animal’s natural living conditions, but companion dogs will be exposed to touch and other forms of physical contact often throughout their lives. Including activities that put you in close contact with your dog helps prepare him or her for these inevitable scenarios.
Physical handling enrichment can encompass a wide degree of activities that include restraint. Some of the most common forms of physical handling and restraints we impose on dogs are:
- Putting on a collar and leash
- Collar grabs
- Touching different parts of their body during grooming and veterinary procedures.
Before a dog has these experiences it’s important that they receive physical handling enrichment. This can be accomplished through through games and activities that promote close dog-human interactions yield high-value reinforcers. Watch the short video below for an example.
Now it’s time to think about what you’ve learned throughout our Enrichment series!
In the comments below, share with us one way that you will practice Enrichment at your facility. List the type of Enrichment and what you’re experimenting with. If you have any questions, we’re here to answer those, too!