Tripping the Light Fantastic

Isn't it just a source of joy watching dogs doing things they're passionate about - things they were literally born to do, from an evolutionary standpoint? From play wrestling to frisbee chasing to digging deep holes, you're probably thinking: yes, as long as it's not in my living room or in the middle of grandma's heirloom peonies.

Bless their furry little hearts, dogs have adapted to life with us by curtailing many of their instincts, as nonsensical as our rules may seem. But when they have opportunities to really bust a move like Bruce and Griffin are doing here, you can almost hear their heartstrings pinging. (This is a vacant lot, by the way - not my yard. I love my boys but Mother Theresa I am not.)

In training circles from zoos to humane societies, giving animals the chance to indulge their inherent drives is called enrichment. Enrichment is all the buzz these days among dog owners, too. And for good reason. Dogs who regularly get a chance to indulge their inherent drives are happier, calmer, and less troublesome all around.

In fact, enrichment is so powerful it's a front-line strategy for fixing behavior problems like chewing, digging, leash frustration, and play biting. I am not exaggerating. Ask any trainer. It's critical for behavioral health.

Wondering what I mean by inherent drives? Think of all the skills Fido's feral ancestors needed for survival. Finding, catching and eating critters. Scavenging through garbage. Courting mates, making allies, and defending their stuff. Practicing all these skills through play. The list goes on.

Contrary to what you might have heard, cutting loose and indulging these drives is not addictive. As in: "If you let your dog dig, he's going to turn into a digging machine and never stop." That's like saying that if you ever indulge your social drive and go to a party, you're never going to stop partying. Maybe true for some, but for the rest of us - give me a nice quiet day at home after an all-night do. Drives are hydraulic, like eating and drinking. If you've just recently done it, you want to do something else for a while. 

The good news is enrichment doesn't have to be expensive or complex. And I'm not talking anarchy here, turning your house over to the dogs. I mean: instead of saying no to all of your dog's deepest desires, simply figure out when and where you can say yes.

  • Were you ever told that a stable relationship with your dog requires him to walk next to you at your pace on the sidewalk without sniffing? Or do your daily walks give Fido a chance to put his nose in full gear and linger down invisible scent trails?
  • Do you have a designated digging zone in your yard? Or is there a sandy spot at your local dog park where you could bury a prize or two and encourage your dog to find it?
  • If your dog likes other dogs, does he get regular opportunities to get his ya-yas out with friends and keep his social skills polished?
  • Does your dog eat all his food out of a bowl, in one sitting? Or does he get to problem-solve and spend creative juices searching for it?
  • On hot, cold, rainy or just lazy days, do you have a few tricks up your sleeve for fun scavenging activities or homemade puzzle games?

Do tell!