What do you like to do in your free time? Going out with friends, watching TV, surfing the internet, reading a book, cooking, playing sports... we can choose from many options available to distract us.
Just like us, our pets also need to try new things to keep them stimulated and entertained. As explained by Carolina Jardim, dog trainer and founder of Turma do Focinho, "In nature, our pets would spend most of the day looking for food and exercising various natural behaviours during this search" . But unlike us, they have no control over their lives and routines.
Then, it's up to us to ensure our pets' physical and mental well-being. One way to do this is through environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment is nothing more than providing activities and experiences that enrich the environment in which your pet lives, allowing them to exercise their natural behaviours (such as sniffing, hunting, digging, chasing, chewing, etc.) and try new things.
In this blog post, we will explain the five types of environmental enrichment for dogs and give examples of each of them, so that you can improve your pet's quality of life, promoting their well-being and making them feel more confident.
1. Sensory Enrichment
Sensory enrichment focuses on engaging a dog's different senses, allowing them to explore the world more fully and comprehensively.
Unlike humans, who are more visual beings, dogs' main sense is smell. That's why activities that allow your dog to sniff are an excellent form of environmental enrichment.
Examples of sensory enrichment activities:
- Sniffing: let your dog sniff during walks and absorb all the information in the environment. This activity not only stimulates the dogs' brains but also releases dopamine, helping them to relax after the sniffing session .
- Scent Games: there are various options of scent games you can do, such as hiding treats or toys around the house and encouraging your dog to look for them, or making different aromatic herbs available for your dog to sniff (always check the types of plants or herbs that are toxic to dogs before promoting these activities!)
- Sound Therapy: soothing music or nature sounds are great ways to create a relaxing environment for your dog, especially when you have to leave them alone for a few hours.
- Toys: there are several options of toys that have stimulating noises for dogs (such as squeakers and plastic noises), keeping them more interested in playing.
- Training with verbal cues: when we teach dogs new tricks and behaviours, we usually use gestures. Increasing the difficulty of their training by replacing gestures with verbal cues only is a great way to stimulate your dog's hearing and strengthen the bond between you.
- Texture Exploration: provide different textures for your dog to experience, such as grass, sand, or different types of flooring.
- Toys: there are dog toys made from many different types of materials - plastic, rubber, vinyl, plush, nylon and ropes, among others. Interacting with objects of different textures also stimulates their sense of touch.
- Brushing: brushing your dogs also helps stimulate their sense of touch and, in addition, enhances the connection between you and has health benefits.
- DOGTV : nowadays there are TV programmes created for dogs, which show colours, movements and sounds designed especially for puppies.
- Training with gestures: dogs are great at reading our body language, so using only gestures to teach new tricks and behaviours is a good way to stimulate the dog's vision.
- Food variety: offering different foods from time to time is the best way to stimulate your dog's palate. Even for dogs that eat dry food, you can include this variety with treats, both natural and industrial (always check which foods are appropriate for dogs!).
2. Social Enrichment
Dogs are social animals that thrive on companionship and interaction. Social enrichment focuses on providing positive experiences between the dog and other dogs and also with animals of other species (including humans).
Remember that your dog does not need to be friends with everyone. Sometimes good socialisation involves just making your dog feel comfortable around other animals and people without necessarily having to interact with them.
Examples of social enrichment activities:
- Doggie Playdates: arrange playdates with other dogs in a safe and controlled environment, allowing your furry friend to socialize, run, and play with their peers.
- Pet-friendly outings: take your dog on regular outings to dog parks, pet-friendly stores, restaurants and cafes where they can enjoy new sights, sounds, and smells while enjoying human interaction (please see our tips for frequenting pet-friendly places with your dog).
- Dog Walks: regular walks are also an excellent form of social enrichment, as there's a good chance you'll meet other people and animals along the way.
3. Cognitive Enrichment
Cognitive enrichment aims at challenging your dog's mind, keeping them mentally sharp and engaged. Dogs possess remarkable problem-solving abilities, and the more they are stimulated, the better their skills will be.
Examples of cognitive enrichment activities:
- Puzzle Toys: there are many options of interactive toys or puzzle feeders that require your dog to work for their food. These toys stimulate their problem-solving skills and keep them engaged for longer periods.
- Training and Tricks: teaching new behaviours and tricks provides mental challenges to your dog and reinforces the bond between you and your furry companion. Varying the types, methods and difficulty levels of training is a good way of keeping your dog mentally stimulated.
4. Physical Enrichment
Physical enrichment provides opportunities for your dog to engage in physical activities that cater to its breed, age and energy levels. Regular exercise is essential for a dog's overall health and mental well-being.
Examples of physical enrichment activities:
- Daily Walks: take your dog on regular walks, allowing them to explore new environments, encounter different scents, and experience the world beyond your home.
- Dog Sports: there are many different sports to practise with your dog, such as Agility, CaniCross, Flyball etc.
- Homemade obstacles: create some physical obstacles in your house now and then. There are endless options, such as setting up an "agility course" (you can use cones, broomsticks, chairs and other items) or using boxes for your dog to jump, climb or go inside - get creative! These activities stimulate the mind and body, increasing your dog's confidence and coordination.
- Interactive Playing Sessions: engage your dog in interactive games such as fetch, tug-of-war, or frisbee, encouraging them to chase and retrieve objects. It's a great way to keep your dog physically active and mentally stimulated.
5. Food Enrichment
Food enrichment focuses on providing stimulating feeding experiences for your dog. As explained above, in nature dogs would spend most of their time foraging and hunting for food. Food enrichment makes the dog work to eat, encouraging their natural foraging behaviour.
Remember to monitor your dog's food intake and choose appropriate food enrichment activities based on their individual dietary needs.
Examples of food enrichment activities:
- Food Puzzle Toys: invest in interactive puzzle toys designed to dispense treats or kibble. These toys require your dog to work for their food, engaging their problem-solving skills and providing mental stimulation.
- DIY Food-Dispensing Toys: get creative and make your own food enrichment toys using household items. For example, you can stuff treats inside a Kong toy and freeze it, create a homemade treat dispenser with holes in recyclable items (boxes and plastic bottles), and hide treats inside old towels or clothes, among others.
- Scavenger Hunts: hide small portions of your dog's food in various locations around your home or outdoor space, and encourage them to use their nose to find their meals. This activity utilises their natural foraging instincts.
- Training with Food Rewards: use small, tasty treats or the dog's own food to reinforce positive behaviours and teach new tricks. This not only provides mental stimulation but also strengthens the bond between you and your dog.
Using Carolina Jardim's analogy, environmental enrichment is like a train , each carriage representing one type of environmental enrichment, we "are the train drivers and our dogs are on our side, as passengers, who will experience this whole journey".
Ideally, you should try to integrate a little of each type of environmental enrichment into your dog's daily life, always varying the stimuli and activities. If in doubt, invest in good walks, a super complete activity which, in itself, already involves physical, sensory and social enrichment (and if you take treats and use part of the walk for training, you'll add food and mental enrichment too, completing the whole train!). Another simple change is giving at least one of your dog's meals in interactive toys or training sessions. Those activities will bring great benefits to your dog's general well-being.
Remember that every dog is unique, so we need to adapt the quantity, difficulty and intensity of enrichment activities to each dog's individual needs, prioritising their safety and enjoyment.
 Carolina Jardim. Vamos falar sobre BEM-ESTAR? Available at: <https://www.turmadofocinho.com/vamos-falar-sobre-bem-estar/>
 Dog Trust. The Importance of Sniffing for Dogs. Available at: <https://www.dogstrust.ie/whats-happening/blog/sniffing-blog#:~:text=A meandering%2C sniff session on,opportunity and time to sniff.>
 Dog TV. Understand the Science behind DOGTV. Available at: <https://www.dogtv.com/science>