Enrichment is one of those big things now. And I love it. It’s wonderful to see the average pet owner casually use the term to refer to a stuffed Kong, generic shops putting up a corner sign labelled ‘Enrichment toys’, vets recommending enrichment to stave off boredom for crate rest dogs and pet shops thriving on selling increasingly diverse puzzles, toys and treats to enrich the lives of our companion animals. I do hope most houses have a snuffle mat or use scatter feeding in some way. I love scanning through Facebook posts showing off creative toys ranging from kibble in an old bottle to very expensive thought-provoking contraptions that seem like they are best solved by a second-grader.
But it also makes me uncomfortable. Is the term enrichment predominantly taking the form of just toys and food?
I’ll admit that I don’t own any fancy puzzles. I do own numerous bath mats that turn into snuffle mats every evening. I have lickimats, a ping pong ball and a very long shoestring for the cats. I scatter treats at least once daily. My lurcher and two cats are DIY raw-fed, which means they have chunky, crunchy and chewy pieces of meaty bones to work through on a regular basis.
Their enrichment also takes other forms. I hold out almost every single thing I pick up in my hand for my shadow of a lurcher to sniff and decide how he feels about it. I work from home at least once a week to keep him and the cats company (and to reduce time spent at dog daycare!) in an otherwise busy week that hurries past faster than I can keep track. I go for walks with all three. I sit on a hill with my lurcher, watch him track the world and then snooze. He looks asleep but his nose is doing overtime, taking in and deconstructing every single scent in the air. I consciously abandoned all my old hobbies that were not dog-friendly. I replaced them with trips to cafes and walking holidays. I call ahead and ask for a quiet table. I go elsewhere if it cannot be guaranteed. I work with my lurcher and the cats on at least one structured training session almost every day.
I’m certainly no exemplar because they still nudge me, whine and miaow when they’re bored. They do get bored. It’s not always convenient for me.
Food toys, puzzles and chews have their place. But they shouldn’t take the place of human attention. They shouldn’t be the default means of keeping an animal busy. The goal of enrichment is not about tiring a dog out until they fall asleep and don’t need our company. The purpose of enriching activities is, quite simply, to make the lives of our companion animals richer than it already is. Toys and puzzles are no substitute for inclusion.
Now the last thing I would want to encourage is for dogs to be thrown into environments that do not bring out the best in them in the name of inclusion. I’d hate for a noise-sensitive dog to be anxiously sat at a busy cafe, a dog-reactive dog mingling at a dog daycare or a frustrated greeter to be thrown into a house party. It doesn’t have to be a walk if that’s not your dog’s thing. There is an undoubted place for those food toys and puzzles.
But enrichment is doing things together as much as possible, however mundane, however isolating. Enrichment is exciting, like a chase game or a boat ride. It’s slow, like a walk from lamppost to lamppost at 5 metres a minute with rain looming on the horizon. It’s a roll in fox poo or a soak in a puddle (hopefully in that order). It’s shredding cardboard boxes in a game of tug. It’s a “hello!” when rising from the sofa to a surprised cat followed by a few ear scritchies. It’s an over-exuberant game that involves making an idiot of yourself and you hate to admit to anybody else that it encourages your dog’s ‘bad habits’ for fear of their judgement. Enrichment is learning a useless trick, getting a belly rub or having a snooze on the sofa.
It’s about making the time. Enrichment is inclusion. Inclusion is enriching.