Enrichment is inclusion

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.

Is it worth your while?

I am very fortunate to have the privilege of working with very eager learners at home who love their training time and spring to life when I invite them to work with me.

So yesterday I walked over to my lurcher who was on his bed, keeping a lazy eye on the goings-on in the kitchen, and I cued a sustained nose target to my hand. I was holding a piece of frozen meat behind my back, ready to give it to him the minute he plasters his muzzle into my cupped hand. It’s a behaviour he loves and it has always paid out for him.

But he didn’t do it. He stared at my outstretched hand and, in no uncertain terms, put his head back down and took his eyes away. It reminded me of that awkward scene they use in films where one person offers an enthusiastic high-five and the other just leaves the first hanging with their arm in the air, just to show the viewer who is and isn’t the cool kid in the movie.

At that instant, rest was worth more than a potential treat to my dog. It wasn’t a sign of disrespect. It wasn’t a sign of him taking over leadership in the house. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what that cue meant. It wasn’t because I was a lousy trainer (which I am but that’s a different topic!). I had simply asked for more than he was willing to offer right then and there.

It doesn’t matter if I think meat is the most important thing he should be interested in. It only matters what he thinks and that can change from one instant to the next, depending on what else is happening. It’s easy to forget that the perceived value of a reward depends on the receiver and not the giver.

Then I started thinking about instances in my own life when I wished I’d said no as clearly as he did. How about when I agreed to take on some extra work despite everything else on my plate, resulting in immense stress and sleepless nights for me? Or when I had nervously laughed at a joke about me because I didn’t know how to say it wasn’t funny? Or when I had agreed to a social evening out even though all I wanted to do was stay at home in jammies?

All those moments in retrospect were not worth my while either but I was too afraid or didn’t know how to say no. That is not a position I would ever wish for those in my power if I can help it.

I want to be more like my animals. Brutally honest. Clear on what is worth their while and what isn’t. And able to communicate that in a nonviolent manner to whoever is asking.

I would not want to change that about them. I want my lurcher to tell me I’m asking too much of him. I want my cat to look away when I try to pet her to tell me to stop. I want to create as much opportunity for a genuine two-way communication in that partnership. No false promises. Just a good deal of offers and opt-ins peppered with the odd no-thank-you in both directions.

So I laughed at my lurcher’s desire for rest and walked away last evening. He gave me that sustained nose touch without thinking twice today when I didn’t even carry a treat on me. I went and got him one anyway because who wants to do something for someone else without it being worth their while?

Not the dog I adopted

Life with dogs is a constantly evolving blend of management and training. As trainers, we have a profound assessment of our dog’s view on everything in their life. We mould our dog’s life around everything they love and minimise everything they do not. If we cannot eliminate the things they can’t cope with, we work on changing how they feel towards those things, step by step, day by day. It takes weeks, months or years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We sometimes think about giving up.

I’ve always thought I had a profound understanding of what makes my dog tick and what will tip him overboard. Dogs running 10 metres away? Beanie goes back on a lead or he’d run over to torment the other dog to play with him. Evening out with work friends at a non-dog-friendly restaurant? Beanie stays with a dog sitter or neither of us have a good time. My boy cat storms into the lounge, fixated on giving Beanie all the rubs and rather-painful-but-playful nibbles? I call my cat away within seconds to give Beanie space before he loses it at Moo. Moving something that looks like a stick from one room to another? Show Beanie where to wait before walking past him at a distance. Every dog is different. I have a database of knowledge of specific procedures for specific circumstances for every single dog or cat I work with from the RSPCA to my own home. Our lives work like clockwork because we know exactly how the other behaves.

But I lose sight of the changes over time.

“Train the dog in front of you.”

This is such a profound statement that has taken new meaning for me lately. It has always meant that I must meet the dog where they are at their skill and emotional level in that context. In reality, it has typically meant lowering or letting go of my expectations and starting afresh. Recently it has meant recalibration and letting go of a dog that I used to expect in order to create a richer world for the dog I now have.

I forget that there was a time when Beanie had to go back on a lead about 100 metres away from a running dog before he’d teleport to that dog. When I couldn’t leave him alone for 3 minutes, no matter who stayed with him, to run a supermarket errand. When the mere sight of one of my cats walking towards him metres away was enough to make him growl and stand up. When he would freeze in the middle of the corridor in an impasse because I was carrying the vacuum cleaner from one room to another.

I used to focus so much on management and slow, structured training at his pace that outside of minute attention paid to criteria and very technical deconstructions of antecedents, I lost sight of the big picture. I spent all my effort in keeping him in the spectrum of “normal” and not over-threshold that I have no clue when he actually became increasingly normal in increasingly challenging situations. Maybe he’s ageing. Maybe it was the training. Maybe he’s just settling down. Maybe it’s just sheer luck. It’s probably a combination of all four.

Life has been very different lately with lots of travel, change, long working hours, unexpected vet visits, planned workshops and new environments. Lots of things intentional or otherwise that would not have been OK for the dog I adopted three years ago. I have prepared for the worst in all those situations but my dog has been stellar in every single situation, much to my surprise and that of those who see him through my eyes. I realise there is less need for management now, less cocooning, less stress for me. I can move the goalposts and let go of the dog whose life was so carefully structured. I am learning to live with the dog I now have and redefine our boundaries.

It has opened up whole new experiences – enjoyable, memorable and filled with learning for both of us. His world is now bigger, as is mine. It’s still not the world of the most sociable, well-adjusted, confident dog. He is still changing his views about many things, some for the better and some not.

I suppose this is why we put days, weeks and months into changing behaviour. Why we keep logs in notebooks and in our heads. Why we don’t just avoid all triggers and cocoon ourselves, as tempting as it might be. It is to grow the world for our dogs and for ourselves. It is to make more of the world more enjoyable. I am never going to stop being that hovering, over-worried, over-planning guardian but I can finally change my opinion of what is normal for Beanie and expand our bubble wider. I can sign up to more workshops, volunteer at my vets and my local rescue, walk through a sudden herd of sheep and not worry about whether Beanie will cope. I have enabled him to learn and he has done the same for me.