Dogs are not “enriched” to death.
There is a Facebook post currently making rounds regarding how dogs are being enriched to death. As soon as I saw this post shared last night, I was flooded with thoughts regarding how we got here in dog ownership.
Dogs require enrichment in order to thrive, it is a pivotal part of behavioral wellness. Enrichment allows for animals to perform their natural behaviors, encouraging them to be more active, and increases their own control over their environment. Enrichment allows for dogs to decompress, and is only one component of welfare for dogs. This post suggests that enrichment is the reason why owners are seeking medication from their vets to help their dogs, which is so far beyond from the truth.
So why are dogs seemingly less able to settle now? This stems from a lot of different avenues, from dogs being inappropriately bred or inappropriately placed in homes, to dogs within sheltering being more dangerous due to a lack of behaviorally sound dogs entering the sheltering system.
I have said this for years, and I’ll say it again - pet lines of breeds need to happen in order for dogs to thrive in households. On the flip side, dogs that are being bred for work or for sports should NOT be placed in pet homes as they were not bred for the “function” of being a pet. Functionally bred pet dogs should be thriving as pets in the traditional sense of what that means: friendly, sociable with people and dogs, easy exercise needs, and the ability to function in different environments. Having said this, there are many breeds of dogs that you’d have to go so far away from the breed standard to make a pet line - and that’s where breeders NEED to draw the line and not allow for their dogs to end up in pet homes.
A good pet is not a conformation drop out, or a dog within a conformation litter that didn’t make the cut, if the rest of the dogs in that dog’s pedigree were not functional pets. A good pet is not a field line GSP in a pet home that has no intention of doing field work with that dog. A good pet is not a cattle line aussie raised on a farm, with no idea of what “pet life” is about, nor did any dog in its lineage.
I have seen more and more dogs that exist within the “aloof” category over the years becoming more dangerous, as that “aloofness” has translated over to fear based behaviors and overall unsociability. Aloof does not = unsociable. It should mean that the dog solely cares about its owner but can exist among all other stimuli (people & dogs) without an issue. And again, if this is a breed that is not supposed to exist among all other stimuli - these dogs should not end up in pet homes in neighborhoods.
So what am I getting at here?
The issue is not enrichment. Enrichment is not the death of dogs - how we are breeding and sourcing dogs to our communities is the problem at large.
It is not a problem that someone needs to use crate enrichment, because their puppy or dog has crate distress unless they have crate enrichment. It’s a problem that the puppy HAD confinement distress in the first place - this is not immediately “the owner’s fault”.
It is not a problem that people use gates, window films, and other forms of management within their home to help their dogs cope with everyday life - because their dog wasn’t “built” for everyday life. These owners are doing their absolute best to meet their dog’s welfare needs. It isn’t a problem that these dogs are being taught through training and management to call off of windows, if this is apart of the behavior modification process.
It is not a problem that certain owners allow their dogs to utilize their yards for “self-reinforcing” purposes, which often leads back to breed specific needs. If you have a dachshund, as an example, you’re well aware of the breed’s digging needs. And it isn’t a problem to give them a place to do so.
It is not a problem that people use a variety of tools outside on their dogs walk to both 1) manage that dog to be able to safely move around their environment, as well as 2) allow that dog to have more freedom on their walks. As much as I appreciate and utilize structured walks, dogs are not “bred” to walk in a straight line, and I will always opt for a decompression walk or long lined walk when I can, or when my clients can.
Yes, it is a problem when people over-do *anything* with their dogs, which includes enrichment, exercise, or training. But often I am not met with clients who do “too much”. I am often met with clients who do not functionally meet their dog’s needs at all - or are trying their best, but don’t understand how their breed(s) functions/what their specific dog needs.
I am often met with surprise when I tell someone that their dog needs more walks where they are able to fully move their bodies, outside of a neighborhood walk. I am often met with surprise when I tell someone that their dog that was functionally bred to do more “scavenging” type behavior *needs* to be given the ability to shred items in order for them to be behaviorally well. I am often met with surprise when I tell someone with their working line border collie that, no, they can not exist in the same way as the doodle next door.
Chronically unmet needs are the norm of what I see in most households as a certified dog behavior consultant that has worked with thousands of dogs throughout my years as a dog trainer both privately and in a group setting. Most of my clients assume that a kong a day is enough for a dog's enrichment needs to be met, which is far from the truth. Enrichment also needs to be novel, and giving a dog the *same* enrichment tools over and over again now just means that it is a part of a routine, and is no longer enrichment. Also, just to add this in here, enrichment is not just making it more and more difficult for your dog to eat food.
I have 3 working/sport line border collies, and they can NOT thrive with simply being told to do nothing, or be given nothing. They need functional things to do throughout the day in short segments in order to have their welfare needs met. This includes but is not limited to (and is rotated throughout the week): decompression walks to be able to freely move their bodies, agility sessions to be able to move their bodies, scent work to be able to utilize their nose/mental enrichment, trick training to utilize mental enrichment, beach time or hiking time to be able to get natural stimuli such as feeling different substrates: water, sand, stone, rocks, logs, dirt, and more. In the course of a day, however, my dogs spend ALL of their time relaxing because they are very aware that I will MEET their needs. They do not need things 24/7, because there is an understanding that I will be there for them. And when I’m sick or unable to fully meet their needs, they are completely fine because their buckets are normally full.
If someone thinks that behavior experts have turned dog owning into an emotional inconvenience because owners need to meet their dog’s needs, who we’ve brought into our homes as pets, when for centuries they were used solely to work - I’d suggest they really think about the full picture, and how we got here today: a world full of dogs that genetically are pre-disposed to not being a pet.
Behavior consultants and vet behaviorists are not ruining dogs by increasing their daily enrichment to meet welfare needs (since as I already said, usually their needs are NOT being met, and doing too much falls into that category too, as it usually isn’t the right type of enrichment), and people aren’t ruining their dogs by trying to help their dogs.
Balance is key, and enrichment is not and has NEVER been the issue.
Michelle Belio CDBC CPDT-KA FFCP