Probably the easiest way to provide enrichment for pets is to have them working for their food.
We don’t really like food bowls and believe they contribute to lots of problems so reducing or eliminating their use generally does good things for pets and their people.
During this project, we are not going to get religious about any of this stuff. You do what works for you and your dog – you are here, adding enrichment to your dog’s life and we are delighted to have you…even if you do have several food bowls stashed!
Food Based Enrichment
Animals come with installed motor patterns that relate to feeding behaviour. All dogs have inbuilt predatory behaviours that are found in wild canids including tracking, stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, dissecting & chewing, caching and consuming.
Food bowl feeding limits a lot of this, so providing enrichment is important; feeding is more than just eating, after all.
Using food for #100daysofenrichment
No matter what diet or type of food you feed your pet, food can be used as part of our enrichment program.
It is preferable that you use your pet’s daily ration, for the most part. This helps to control calorie intake and makes sure that your pet is eating a balanced diet.
Higher value foods will generally be higher in fat, protein and calories – that’s what makes them yummier. A small amount of higher value foods may be required to build motivation and help pets learn behaviours they need for challenges.
If you are watching your pet’s weight closely or your pet has dietary restrictions, there are things you can do to boost the value of regular food:
- our favourite are training mixes; this can be adapted to suit the individual’s needs
- warming food, to just about body temperature, can help increase motivation to eat it
- getting the pet working for food can increase its value as it becomes harder to get…#100daysofenrichment will help!
- making sure the challenge is appropriate to prevent frustration and giving up
- playing with the animal can raise arousal just a little, increasing their motivation to eat
While kibble is often an easy to use, versatile food type for many enrichment applications, all food types can be adapted too.
- Kibble and dry feeds – used as is, soaked and softened, mashed into a paste, grilled, frozen in water, low-sodium stock or other flavouring
- Meats and meat mixes (e.g. raw and home prepared diets) – cut up into small pieces, boiled or baked, mashed into pastes, frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats for small individual treats
- Wet feeds (e.g. canned foods) – feed in smaller portions from a spoon, lining enrichment devices, frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats for small, individual treats
If we are to add other foods to our pets’ diets, we must make sure they are safe and that the individual can tolerate them.
My dog has a very varied diet, consisting of a limited number of proteins, and in an average day he will have kibble, raw and cooked foods as part of his normal diet. He can tolerate a wide range of foods and this is likely associated with some genetic predispositions as well as careful introduction to a range of food as a youngster.
But again, this relies on you knowing your pet.
If you are adding foods, you need to take care, as additions can increase calorie intake and change the nutritional balance of the pet’s diet. This is particularly important with young, growing animals, those with dietary or environmental sensitivities, pets with specific dietary needs and so on.
As such, additions may not be possible and, at the very least, if you are adding stuff, you will need to adjust the pet’s diet to compensate.
Examples of foods that might be useful for #100daysofenrichment:
- spreadables for lining and freezing like pate, cream cheese, soft cheeses, yoghurt, peanut butter
Use very small amounts, really as tantalisers, as these will generally be quite high calorie.
Make sure to use peanut butter that is just peanuts, rather than with lots of sugars and sweeteners, some of which can be dangerous to dogs, e.g. xylitol.
Pates are usually LOVED by dogs but must be used in small amounts as most will contain onion and garlic powders. There are some brands that do without and in general, fish pates tend not to have these additions.
- good quality kibbles, commercial wet foods, some prepared raw diets like nuggets
- various meats – to reduce calorie content choose leaner cuts and boil then skim the fat to prepare
- tinned fish – probably the best addition as they provide a more well rounded nutritional profile (for the most part), and especially when added to a kibble diet, are usually cheap and can be an effective flavour enhancer in even small amounts
- edible chews – commercial or “natural” dried chews and treats
- commercial treats and biscuits
- fruits and vegetables – take care and make sure they’re safe for dogs.
Small pieces of carrot, apple (seeds removed), small amounts of mashed banana, cooked broccoli, frozen peas, water melon, blue berriers and raspberries are often favourites, safe and well-tolerated by the majority of dogs
- cereals such as rice, pasta and so on are unlikely to be a high value or adequately nutritional addition, unless as part of a balanced diet
Throughout #100daysofenrichment we will be adding in lots of enrichment activities that are not primarily food based. You might add in food rewards, for example, but we have lots of activities that involve other categories of enrichment.
We loosely base our approach on the Shape of Enrichment categories: social, cognitive, habitat, sensory and food. Each week I have tried to cover as many of these as possible and also develop enrichment devices and strategies that incorporate as many as possible, in one, to get more enrichment bang for your buck!
Most people, when thinking of enrichment, think food based and Kong toys, and while these are some of our favourites, there are gaps, especially for lots of pet dogs. Food based enrichment and food dispensing toys alone will not plug those gaps and a more rounded enrichment experience is needed.
Within the enrichment literature, as limited as that is for dogs, active (enrichment interacts with the animal) and socially based enrichment strategies seem to be the most beneficial and welfare friendly. As such, providing dogs with outlets for social contact is important and for pet dogs, or dogs destined to be pets, that must mean social contact and interaction with humans.
So, what does that mean for dogs who are home alone while their owners work and commute all day? What about dogs in ‘rescue’ and kennel accommodation?
Different categories of enrichment are super important for these dogs too, while also maximising the time humans can hang out with them; we want to make sure it’s quality time, and not just quantity.