When I was doing my Education with Turid, enriched environments were one of the first things we learned about. An enriched environment is basically an area that’s been set up to stimulate the dog’s senses- things to look at, sniff, touch, investigate, climb on, etc. The dog should be left to interact with the enriched environment without any input from the humans and be free to walk away when they want to.
I’ll admit, I was sceptical… it sounded almost too easy to be true. Would putting out random stuff for a dog to investigate really make a difference to their behaviour? Well, 18 months later, at the end of our course, we all had to present a project. Some of my fellow students had been working in shelters, and for their projects had put Turid’s methods into practice in the shelters, including the enriched environment, and recorded their findings. A lot of the dogs these people were working with had real issues- some were reactive to other dogs, some were reactive to people, some were just incredibly stressed or shut down. The changes they reported back were incredible. The dogs became calmer, and more focused and their behaviour improved.
So if I wasn’t convinced before, I certainly was then. Often, we’re reluctant to try the more simple things, especially for complex problems. We think ‘that won’t work for my dog’, and we don’t try, or we give up too soon. But if enriched environments can help shelter dogs, often some of the most stressed and ‘difficult’ dogs in our society, there’s no reason not to try them with our own dogs.
When to use an enriched environment
Dogs are naturally curious creatures, so really an enriched environment is a great idea for any dog. Putting out new things will pique their curiosity, and as they amble around investigating they’ll be using their brains and developing confidence. And of course, it’s interesting, in the same way as browsing your favourite shop or discovering a new place and seeing new things is for us.
Bad weather day? Dog on restricted exercise after an injury? It’s a great way to alleviate boredom! You don’t need to go anywhere, you just need to find new things to put in the same place.
Enriched environments are also particularly useful with dogs who are scared or stressed. It’s a great way of providing mental stimulation without subjecting them to walks or places they might find stressful or scary. Also, because there’s no human input once the environment has been created, the dogs’ confidence can grow. They’re making decisions and thinking for themselves. They have choice, an essential component for overcoming fear. They’re getting practice at encountering strange or new objects in a safe space, which they can leave at any time.
With dogs who are scared or stressed, they may initially have very little interest in investigating. They may constantly look to their owner for reassurance. They may find the enriched environment overwhelming and leave very quickly. That’s absolutely fine. Just try again a few days later. And then a few days later. You can time your dog to see if they begin to get more confident/more interested/more relaxed.
For dogs who are over-excited or lacking focus, environmental enrichment can teach them to slow down and begin to engage with their environment. Once they slow down, they can begin to think before they act. They’ll be using their noses, and sniffing slows the heart rate, calming them down (read more about sniffing here). As with fearful or stressed dogs, it may take some time before they’re relaxed enough to really engage with things. That’s fine too, stick with it!
Tips for creating an enriched environment
- Don’t use anything that could injure your dog;
- Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t want your dog to pee on or destroy (they don’t tend to, but if you suddenly have to leap up and try to get something from your dog you’ll be undermining the object of the exercise);
- Your enriched environment can be inside or outside;
- Your dog should be off-lead and free to move towards/away from things as they wish;
- Change things up each time you create an enriched environment. Things will lose appeal once they’ve been thoroughly investigated. Have lots of things to rotate, introduce new things when you can, or lend your items to friends so they come back smelling different;
- Don’t distract your dog. Don’t praise them, don’t stroke them, don’t call them away, just leave them to it;
- Let them leave once they’re ready to- no pressure, no targets. They may wander away and come back, or they may leave and lie down. Just let your dog lead
- All that investigating is more work than you’d imagine- when your dog is finished with the enriched environment, they’ll probably be very tired. Make sure they have time to rest!
Things to include
There’s no recipe for an enriched environment. Just use your imagination! Kids can be really good at coming up with novel ideas. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:
|Things that smell interesting||Things that feel interesting||Things that look interesting||Things that move/make noises|
Here’s a video of Seren, a 4 year old Duck Tolling Retriever, exploring an enriched environment (with thanks to Kirsty Grant for the video and Seren’s human, C. Holborrow!).
Have you any good ideas for things to include in an enriched environment?? Do leave a comment if you have!