You only need to read the definition of the word enrich to know that enrichment is something that we all add to our lives on a daily basis to make it…well BETTER. And it’s the same for your dogs! There are many different forms of enrichment, when talking about animals, but I have broken these down into 4 main components – food, social, training and life. Today I am specifically looking at food as a form of enrichment for your dogs.
Hands up those of us who go out during the day, or night, for a period of time and leave our dogs at home? Ok, I can’t actually see you but I am going to assume if you are reading this and you own a dog you have your hand up. We have dogs to enrich our lives but we still need to go to work, run errands, have a social life and all the other things we do as human beings and for most of us that means leaving the dog at home. Next of all how many of you feed your dogs their daily meals out of a bowl? I thinks it’s safe again to assume most…what if we could use the food your dog consumes on a daily basis to enrich their lives? Even if it’s not necessarily to keep them busy while you are out (although that is the point I was trying to make earlier) but just as a way to turn what was a few minutes of pleasure into something that can last a lot longer.
Working in various kennels in various states and cities it was always the norm to feed the dogs in the kennels and shelters out of bowls. It wasn’t until I met a man, working for RSPCA Queensland, named Justin Palazzo-orr who challenged this that I saw a whole other side to what we can do for our dogs with food. I mean think about it, we bred these domestic animals from their cousins, who are wild and would spend most of their day hunting. Moving from place to place tracking prey to kill or finding old, abandoned carcases to snatch a meal from. Not once, ever, did they go to the same place at roughly the same time and consume a set amount of nutrience from a metal, porcelain or plastic vesicle. What if we could replicate some of what wild dogs go through to get their food and incorporate it into our dogs life to make them more active, busy, challenged and ultimately more enriched by the experience?
Just as a small example, I too use to feed my dogs out of bowls. I have 2 Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross breeds that are very, very food motivated. I would put them in a “sit stay”, place their bowls down, ask for eye contact and then give them the command to eat. I timed them once…45 seconds it took my male dog to consume his food and start wandering over to my female dogs bowl to try and “help” her finish. Then, after attending a seminar with Justin I started “scatter feeding” my dogs. Just one very simple form of more enrichment based feeding for dogs. So now I fill their cup with the allocated amount, still ask for the “sit stay”, still ask for the eye contact but now I throw the food into the air (outside of course) and it flies through the air and scatter taking up about a 3 meter square space. My dogs knew the minute the food left the cup it was hunting time. There would be kibble in the garden, in the grass, in the dirt, the water…everywhere! And they love it. I then just walk away and go and have a shower or make a cup of coffee, come back and they’ve still got their heads down trying to find that last, elusive piece of kibble they just know is around here somewhere!!
There should be a few rules placed around enrichment and especially food based enrichment and those are things like – keep it safe, introduce the enrichment, make it more challenging and always take care when using food based enrichment in multi-dog households. It’s important not to give the dog something too challenging to start with as even the most food motivated dog will quickly become bored if they are not receiving the reward for their work…the food! Having said that once they get use to the degree of difficulty this should be upped to ensure the dog is being challenged and it’s not becoming too easy.
Some examples of food based enrichment is stuffing, freezing, hiding or dispensing.
Stuffing refers to things like Kong toys, especially designed rubber hollowed out hive shaped toys that you can stuff full of food and sticky stuff so the dog has to lick it out.
Freezing can be as simple as taking a Chinese food container and putting some kibble in it and then filling with water or low salt stock and freezing it. Pop it out and during the warmer months this is going to be hours of fun for most dogs.
Dispensing is one of my favourites as coming from an animal welfare background we were always looking for the most cost effective ways of introducing food based enrichment. Take an empty 2 litre milk bottle and rinse, remove the lid and ring from the top and discard. Cut 2 – 6 holes around the walls of the bottle and place your dogs kibble inside. This one you will need to vary the difficulty and introduce how it works to your dog so they get the hang of it. Start with lots of big holes and end up with only 2 that are just bigger than the kibble. You can also stuff the opening with something to prevent the kibble coming out too easily.
Working in kennels now has taken on a whole new light when it comes to meal time…and the options are only limited by my imagination. I think we owe it to our dogs to enrich their lives as much (or part of the way even) as they enrich ours.