(Are Not All Created Equal)
Enrichment is a popular term these days in the dog training and dog care world. And for good reason. At its most basic, environmental enrichment refers to a variety of techniques and interventions that are intended to enhance the physical and emotional well being of animals who live under human control.
Early studies of environmental enrichment focused primarily on captive animals in zoos and on food animals confined in agricultural settings. In recent years, researchers have expanded their scope to study enrichment for dogs living in shelters, other types of kennel environments, and even in-home situations. While a variety of approaches have been examined, there are little data comparing dogs’ responses to different forms of enrichment in the same setting. In other words, will the same set of dogs respond better to some interventions than others in terms of stress reduction and relaxation? And, if so (as expected), which types work the best?
Recently, researchers at the Guide Dogs National Centre in Warwickshire, UK paired with colleagues at the School of Science and Environment at the University of Worcester to ask a group of dogs what types of enrichment activities they enjoyed and how stress-reduction benefits might differ among the different activities (1).
This was a pilot study designed to explore the relative effectiveness of seven different forms of enrichment when used with dogs in training to become assistance dogs. The dogs resided at the training center during the day and returned to volunteer homes at night. When not being actively trained, the dogs were housed in indoor pens. The study examined the effectiveness of enrichment for promoting relaxation, reducing alerting behaviors, and reducing stress-related behaviors. They studied 10 dogs during an 8-week training period. The enrichment activities were: (1) Bonding time with a familiar human; (2) Play time with a known dog; (3) Play time on a play station (tunnels, slides, platforms) with a human handler who provided encouragement; (4) Tug and fetch play with a familiar human; (5) Exposure to a bubble machine that was blowing bacon-scented bubbles into the room; (6) Provision of a stuffed food toy; (7) Provision of a food puzzle game. The dogs’ behaviors in their pens were recorded and measured before and after enrichment periods.
All of the enrichment activities significantly enhanced relaxation and reduced alerting and stress-related behaviors to some degree. However, there were distinct differences among the activities in terms of the dogs’ responses:
- Play Date with a Friend: The activity that was a clear winner in terms of enhancing relaxation and reducing stress was playtime with a dog friend. Having time to interact and play with another dog resulted in the largest improvement in relaxation behavior and reduction in alerting, and was ~ 2nd best at reducing stress.
- Novelty and Exercise: A close second was the play station that included tunnels, ramps and platforms, along with a human friend to act as cheerleader. This form of play was best at reducing stress-related behaviors and moderately enhanced relaxation.
- Food Enrichment: Although all of the dogs appeared to enjoy the food toys and were successful at removing food treats, providing a stuffed toy or a food puzzle had the smallest impact on relaxation, alerting or stress-related behaviors when compared with the other interventions.
Take Away for Dog Folks
First, it is important to keep in mind that this was a pilot study that included a small number of dogs. The results should not be interpreted as conclusive, nor should they be used to definitively rank enrichment tools for use with dogs.
Broadly speaking, the results suggest that dogs may benefit most from enrichment interventions that are social or active in nature – such as playing with a dog friend or enjoying the encouragement of a human when exploring. Interventions that are novel and that provide opportunities for physical exertion may also be highly effective and desirable to dogs. Conversely, food-related enrichment toys such as stuffed toys and food puzzles may provide less benefit in terms of stress-reduction and relaxation.
So, what might this mean in practical situations for our dogs who live with us? I have written about food-delivery toys previously, both in this blog and in “Feeding Smart“. An earlier study found that food-delivery toys effectively increased daily walking activity in dogs living in homes. However, the change in activity was small, only about 20 minutes a day, and was confined to the space in which the toy was provided. In that blog, I questioned the mental and emotional value of such a small effect for dogs. Similarly, this new study suggests that while food-toys are enjoyed and used by dogs, these devises may not be as effective as they are often assumed to be as enrichment tools. An effective approach to enrichment for dogs may be to provide a range of activities, focusing on those that are social and physical in nature and that allow dogs to engage in a wide range of their natural behaviors.
Interested in Enrichment for Dogs?
Opportunities for play with doggy friends, interactions with humans, and opportunities for novel and enjoyable experiences may be best!
(Though, being science, more research is needed, of course)
Cited Study: Hunt, RL, Whiteside, H, Prankel, S. Effects of environmental enrichment on dog behavior: Pilot Study. Animals 2022;12,141:doi.org//10.3390/ani12020141.