Canine Enrichment

It’s all about Mental Stimulation!

Those who know me, know I spend a lot of time on social media, probably way more time than I should. I have noticed that a theme that constantly comes up on fora is Australian shepherds and their seemingly endless energy. I found this strange initially. While Australian Shepherds as a breed are known to be highly energetic, I never found it to be particularly true with my own dogs. In fact, I always said that I do not think they require much more exercise than any other medium to large breed. At first I thought that perhaps it was the lines my dogs were bred from that made all the difference but eventually realized it had nothing to do with it. 

The reason why my own dogs do not seemingly require as much exercise as other dogs is because they get a lot of mental stimulation. Canine enrichment in fact is all about enriching a dog’s life, making time count. It is all about keeping the brain busy, tiring them out mentally and ensuring they are too tired to think about ways of getting themselves into trouble.

While exercise seems to tire dogs out, there is only so much exercise you can give, especially to puppies. Too much exercise, especially in the same session may cause strain on their developing joints and potentially causing future joint problems. It is therefore, contraindicated to force a puppy to exercise for a long period of time in the hope that it will tire him out. I am sure most of you have tried this, and I am sure you realized it does not work, aside from being dangerous in the long run. 

Canine enrichment focuses on different activities which encourage the puppy to use its brains. In the wild, dogs are forced to work for their food, adults in the pack teach puppies how to hunt and scavenge for food. At home, they simply walk to their feeding bowl and the food magically appears. We have to therefore provide the opportunity for them to work for their food. The question is, how do we do this? The possibilities are endless. You can start by feeding the dog through a “slow feeder” or stuffed inside a toy such as a KONG ® toy. If you want to make it particularly challenging, you can freeze the food. It will take longer to take out and therefore keep the dog busy for longer. If you feed raw, large bones will keep your dog busy for a while. 

There are several toys you can build yourself to use for canine enrichment or you can resort to ready made puzzles and games. Honestly, I think there is much more fun in being creative and using recyclables to create new toys. Snuffle mats, made out of scrap cloth or old clothes cut into strips make a great enrichment toy. You can also fill a plastic bottle with some kibble or treats, puncture a few holes around and let your dog work out how to take the kibble out. You can make toys out of toilet paper rolls, old muffin trays and old tennis balls. The possibilities are endless. All you need is some imagination or possibly an account on Pinterest. Plenty of ideas you can copy or modify to suit your needs.

Another way to enrich your dog’s life is through clicker training. Clicker training involves using a marker to teach new behaviors and tricks. Dogs love learning new tricks, especially if this involves yummy treats. Use this in your favor, and hit two birds with one stone. Teach a dog some useful stuff like how to load the washing machine, how to grab a beer from the fridge or how to clean up his own toys. I will go into more detail about clicker training in my next blog.

Canine enrichment is a science which is still evolving. New topics arise daily. I encourage you to run a google search about it to have the latest updates. Plenty of blogs as well as facebook groups online that deal with it. Do not be afraid to try different things out to find out what works for you and for your Australian Shepherd. 

Puppy playing with kong toy