My #1 Tip for Behavior Problem Prevention

If I told you that there was an ethical method that prevented many behavior problems in domesticated dogs…would you use it?

The Animal in the Zoo

I was introduced to this thought exercise in a podcast by Sarah Stremming. You can find her Cog Dog Radio podcast here. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to while I’m driving around picking up dogs!

Imagine you go to the zoo, and you see an animal in its enclosure. For the sake of this blog post, let’s say that it’s a bear in small pen at a roadside zoo. The bear is living in a space about the size of two elevators combined. The enclosure dirty cement walls, a gravel floor with some sawdust on it, and a water bowl in the corner. The bear paces in small circles for much of the day, occasionally eating hot dogs that visitors purchase and toss to him.

When you picture this bear, how do you feel?

If you said that you felt sad or sorry for the bear, most people would agree with you!

What might help the bear (and you) feel better?

While the hot dogs are better than nothing, many people would say that giving the bear more variety in his diet, a healthier diet, and more creative ways to eat and search for food would be helpful. Many people would say that a larger enclosure with a habitat similar to where a bear might live in the wild would also be a great idea: maybe some rocky outcroppings, trees, water, etc. Other people might say giving the bear some more meaningful interactions would be good, whether that involves another bear, good relationships with caretakers, etc.

While I remember seeing a bear in a sad roadside attraction growing up, this type of enclosure would be seen as extremely unprofessional and cruel by most working in the fields of modern zoology and ethology. These days, reputable zoos go to great lengths to provide enrichment for the animals in their care. For the sake of this post, let’s define enrichment as an activity that provides mental stimulation for animals.

Enrichment involves providing these animals with something to do other than pacing or standing there: it can involve creative ways of delivering food, training exercises (for fun or for cooperative care), clever ways of getting animals up and moving, and even changing the enclosure itself to provide species-specific opportunities to interact with the environment. Check out this ideas of how zoos are providing captive cheetahs with enrichment through balls, cheetah popsicles, and even ziplines or lure coursing that get the cheetahs chasing pretend prey.

Rather than the barren cages of the old days, rhinos and giraffes are provided with grasslands to roam, otters are provided with rivers and slides to swim in, etc. Much of this enrichment is species-specific. For instance, an anteater may be provided with a PVC pipe through which they can eat ants with their long tongue like they would when foraging in the wild. Giraffes may be given opportunities to forage for and eat leaves up in high places (often from happy tourists), mimicking what they would do while browsing trees on the savannah. The last time I saw a bear in a zoo, he was living with a companion (his brother), and the bears had some live fish in the ponds of their enclosure to swim practice their hunting skills.

Providing regular, species-appropriate enrichment is expected of zoos and aquariums in today’s world. Zoos recognize that for a captive animal, providing enrichment is important for their welfare and health.

This begs the question: why are we not having the same discussion about the dogs in our care?

The Dog in your Living Room

If you’re reading this blog, you probably like pets a lot. In fact, really anybody who bothers to get in contact with me for behavior consulting services clearly loves their dog.

That doesn’t change the fact that many of dogs I see who sit at home alone most of the day (or are ignored most of the day while their owner is on calls working from home), eat two meals out of a bowl, and go for two short walks around the block a day are often a dogs who are bored and/or frustrated.

Dogs are social animals who, if kept in a zoo, would be encouraged to do species-specific activities like scavenging, chewing, sniffing and exploring, and interacting regularly with other members of their species. When we think of dogs from this perspective, it is no surprise that some of them have a really hard time adjusting to a “captive” life in a home environment.

Now, we must add the fact that humans have selectively bred many breeds of dogs for specific tasks, like herding, hunting, or protection. So, some breeds of dogs have a strong drive to perform certain behaviors. For example, that blue heeler is likely nipping at the kids’ heels when they run in the yard because of its strong drive to herd. That German Shepherd is likely barking at everything out the window because they were bred to be highly alert and responsive to their environment. If dogs with strong drives are not provided breed-specific outlets, that can further increase the frequency of behaviors that many owners find undesirable.

For a long time, we have been conditioned to think of dogs as our instant companions. You purchase a puppy from a breeder or adopt a dog from a shelter, and it is expected that this dog will immediately gel into your lifestyle and become your loyal sidekick. So rarely do we think about what the dog’s needs are, and how we can meet those needs.

So rarely do we think about what the dog’s needs are, and how we can meet those needs.

Changing the Conversation: What Enrichment Needs do our Domesticated Dogs Have?

Let’s start by looking at a non-dog related example of striving to meet the needs of a pet animal. For some time, I owned pet sugar gliders. My eldest sugar glider, Kirby, lived to 13 years of age and just passed away at the start of the pandemic; rest in peace little guy! Before I brought home my sugar gliders as a recent college grad, starry-eyed about all things zoology, I researched their species and their care thoroughly. I learned that they are arboreal (tree-dwelling) species who enjoy jumping and climbing. In the wild, they eat sap and other sugary foods plus insects. They live in colonies with other sugar gliders. They are nocturnal, and make a wide variety of noises.

Given this information, I purchased a tall enclosure for my sugar gliders filled with perches, branches, hanging boxes, and hammocks to mimic their wild environment.

Their daily playtime where they got to come out and run around was at night, since they are nocturnal, and when they barked at night, well, that was to be expected. I bought and let them chase and eat insects. I made sure I had two sugar gliders, since they are social animals. My set-up and care for the sugar gliders was based on the biological needs of their species.

Now, back to our canine companions. Oftentimes, people know that they will need to walk their dog, feed their dog, groom their dog, and take it to the vet for its basic care. But they forget about other “dog” needs. For instance, how will you meet your dog’s need to search and scavenge for food? How will you meet your dog’s need to chew and use its mouth? How will you meet your dog’s need to sniff and explore?

Examples of behavior problems I frequently consult about that can be addressed (at least in part) by providing more enrichment opportunities include barking, chewing on things around the house, jumping on and mouthing humans, counter surfing, digging holes in the yard…and that’s just the beginning.

Certainly, not all behavior concerns in dogs are related to enrichment, and not all behavior problems can be prevented or solved by enrichment. But I do feel that enrichment is the most overlooked area of dog care, and that so many problems could be prevented before they start by changing the culture and conversation around dog ownership to make enrichment just as important as walks, grooming, and vet visits.

OK, I get it, I need more enrichment for my dog! Where do I begin?

For some great enrichment ideas to get you started, check out:

Pro tip: if you’re a busy person, it’s great to get your enrichment ready on the weekend, store the puzzles or activities up high (or in the freezer, for some food items), and just pull them out during the week as needed for your dog!

At the end of the day, not all behavior problems can be prevented or solved by enrichment. But, enrichment certainly goes a long way towards improving dog welfare, preventing behavior concerns, and having a happier dog. Have fun, and be sure to reach out and comment about any new enrichment ideas you try with your dog after reading this post!

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