The Science of Canine Enrichment: Insights from Research and Rehab

by | May 12, 2021 | Small Animal Rehabilitation

Canine enrichment is about so much more than fun toys and activities our clients can do with their dogs, or reducing fear in our patients or even preventing boredom. It is really about meeting our dogs and patients where they are, understanding what their needs are, and doing what we can to meet them.

In a podcast interview with Ashley Foster, we speak about what this might look like in our practices and in our clients’ homes. One of the key learnings I took away from this interview is that overstimulation can be just as much of a problem as a lack of stimulation.


Some insights gleaned from a research article

A Review of Environmental Enrichment for Kennelled Dogs, Canis familiaris, by Deborah L. Wells.

Environmental enrichment can fall into one of two categories: animate or inanimate. Animate enrichment includes social interaction, and inanimate incorporates toys, cage layout and furniture, as well as auditory and olfactory stimulation.


Animate Enrichment

Interaction with other Dogs

Research has shown that kennelled dogs spend most of their time in the area of their kennel where they are able to view other dogs, thereby fulfilling the desire for social contact, and adding a level of enrichment to these environments.

Ashley Foster discusses how this insight might apply to different environments. Some dogs have a need to ‘watch the world go by’; as long as they can see other dogs and activity, they are comfortable.

We can help them to meet this social interaction need in many ways, depending on their situation and ability. If they are on crate rest, putting the crate in an appropriate place where they can see activity is a great way to achieve this. If they are older geriatric patients who have lost mobility, placing their bed in an appropriate place, or taking them to sit in the park instead of for a walk, can help to meet this need.


Interaction with People

Studies suggest that human contact can be more impactful on the wellbeing of dogs than contact with other dogs. The presence of a person has been shown quite consistently to impact the behaviour and physiology of dogs, leading to increased animation and activity levels. Kennelled dogs have a reduced heart rate after they have been handled by a person, and dogs that are allowed to remain close to people display fewer fear reactions.

Stroking, in particular, has been shown to have a positive effect on the physiology and behaviour response to stressors in dogs. Short periods of general handling also lead to a reduction in stress behaviours such as chewing in kennelled dogs.


Inanimate Enrichment


Toys are commonly used to provide stimulation, comfort and environmental enrichment. The research into its value in kennelled dogs, however, is inconclusive. Some studies indicate that toys promote exploration, increase activity levels and reduce the occurrence of unwanted behaviours, while others show that toys have no effect on the behaviour of kennelled dogs.

Toys that can be chewed or make a noise seem to elicit the most interest and exploration. Dogs will generally acclimatise to and lose interest in a toy quite quickly, and for this reason toy rotation can be beneficial.


Kennel Furniture

Kennel furniture can be included in the kennel to add complexity and interest to the dog’s environment. This might include a platform to give them height and increase their field of vision, and an enclosed area that allows the dog to sleep or hide. The simple addition of a bed can increase the dog’s comfort in his kennelled environment, and using his normal bed or blanket from home can provide some familiarity in a stressful environment.


Auditory Stimulation

The effect of music on people has been deeply studied and the effects are well known. The effects have also been studied on various animal species, including, recently, dogs. The addition of classical music can increase behaviours suggestive of calm and relaxation while heavy metal music increases behaviours suggestive of agitation, such as barking. Human conversation and pop music were found to have no effect.

Ashley Foster highlights that we need to consider the effect that auditory stimulation can have on a dog, as the addition of music to a busy, noisy, smelly practice might lead to over stimulation of the patient.


Olfactory Stimulation

Preliminary studies have shown that dogs react to the scent of lavender in a manner that suggests relaxation, while scents such as peppermint increase the dog’s activity.

Ashley Foster speaks about the incredible impact that olfactory stimulation can have, and her dream of incorporating a ‘sniffing room’ into every practice. With a sniffing room, the first 20 minutes of any consultation are set aside for the dog to safely explore the smells, and thus familiarise themselves with the environment.


How does this apply to Rehab?

Ashley Foster chats about the many different ways that we can incorporate this knowledge into our rehab practice. This will include the way we design our consult rooms, the ‘model’ of our treatments from start to finish, the way we meet our patients’ needs – whether they are young and energetic or geriatric and slow  – and the way we help patients recover from surgery and adjust to restricted activity.


Crate Rest Activities

Dogs can often be on crate rest for an extended period, which can be really hard for owners to manage, especially when the dog is an active, high-drive dog!  You want to be able to give your owner a few simple, engaging activities or games to do with their pets to keep them from becoming bored – a stressor in itself.

Games and enrichment activities should be played in addition to the social interaction and tactile stimulus the owner provides on a daily basis. This should include spending time with the dog, stroking, grooming and cuddling, as well as performing more specific things such as massage, passive range of motion, and the prescribed exercises for the patient.

Some of my favourite games to play include:

  • Targeting. Teaching a dog to target, or touch, your hand or an object is super easy, and super useful! As well as being engaging for the pet and owner, targeting can be incorporated as a part of the rehabilitation program, encouraging different head positions in different postures, from a down, to a stand, to standing on an uneven surface, or with the front feet up. Use this exercise not only to encourage focus, but to increase mobility and strength during all your exercise progressions. It’s a great exercise, flexible and progressive. And because it is easy to train, it is great to boost the owners confidence – love it.
  • Head Positions. You can teach different head positions, such as head down, or head up. This again can be used as a progressive weight shifting exercise.
  • Take it, Leave it. Teaching a dog to take an object and to release it on command is very engaging for the dog.
  • Give Paw. This exercise is both a fun activity and can form part of the rehab program. It can be performed from a down, a sit or a stand, progressing as the dog progresses through his program.
  • Find the Food. This can be done in so many ways. A snuffle rug, a slow feeder or a muffin tray can be used to hide food. A muffin tray can be used on its own with food, or with some tennis balls, placing a ball over the food to increase the challenge.
  • Frozen Peanut Butter. Peanut butter can be placed on a flat tray or in a hoof, a kong, or a mug. This allows the dog to slowly lick out the peanut butter, keeping them entertained.
  • Food Dispensing Toys. Breakfast and dinner can be fed in a toy that needs to be pushed around and tipped to get the food out, providing great engagement and making them work harder for their meals.

It is important to take the treats for these games out of the daily food ration – with decreased physical activity, the last thing we want is for our patients to pick up weight.

I recommend a listen to the full Ashley Foster interview on canine enrichment, especially if you deal with owners of dogs spending extended stays in kennels, or frequently advise owners whose dogs need to recuperate at home. There is nothing more disheartening than a bored, depressed dog; just like their human counterparts, our dogs need mental stimulation and plenty of interaction with their humans.


Listen to the full interview with Ashley Foster: 



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