The Professional’s Perspective

The Pro-spective page is given over to the professionals so that they can share their thoughts and experience with Pawsters and their humans everywhere.

Is your dog dying of boredom?

How home enrichment boosts the health and wellbeing of our canine family

This article was first printed in Animal Therapy Magazine Issue 10 Autumn 2017 pp 18-21. Reproduced with kind permission from the editor.

by Kate Mallatratt A Dip CBM, PPG, Canine Behaviourist

WHEN canine behaviourist Shay Kelly set up his Canine Enrichment group on Facebook this year, little did he imagine it would explode to over 20,000 members in just three months. Dog lovers unite across the world to share ideas on how to keep their dogs happily entertained and find creative ideas to defy boredom. Kelly’s philosophy behind the group is simple, “I have long considered that dogs are easily forgotten when it comes to enrichment and many lead a life of boredom. This would be unacceptable for zoo animals, so why is it acceptable for dogs? I want to promote a better life for dogs and for enrichment to be considered the norm.” Judging by the popularity of the group, today’s pet guardians are more aware of the need to relieve the tedium and monotony that encroaches on many dogs’ lives.

Dying of boredom
In his article “Lonely pets’ brain cells are dying from boredom” Jonathan Leake, science editor of The Times, cites boredom as one of the “subtlest forms of cruelty” and explains that lack of stimulation damages the brain through neurone atrophy eventually causing cognitive deficits. Although boredom in pets can only be measured subjectively it appears that contributory factors are the lack of opportunity to express natural behaviour, such as hunting for food or carrying out the job for which they were bred, as well as having little control over their environment. Humans find boredom maddening and prisoners describe it as a “a torment and a monster that takes over them.” In dogs, excessive boredom may be associated with stereotypical behaviour for example pacing and displacement activities such as chewing or barking to relieve stress. Recuperating dogs will benefit from enrichment activities that provide relief from the monotony of crate rest and restricted exercise.

Home entertainment
The knowledge that enrichment is beneficial for dogs has seen a rise in the number of interactive feeders on the market. The best known is the KongTM that first became available in the 1970s, created by Joe Markham. His German Shepherd Dog adored chewing on a hard rubber car part and Markham replicated this as a chew toy. Today the KongTM Company offers a wide variety of interactive toys to suit every age, size and shape of dog, recognising their different needs.

Research shows dogs are neophiliac and for optimal enrichment toys should be rotated – preferably with calmer activities interspersed with high energy ones. Enrichment does not always need to involve complex puzzle toys either – foraging for treats thrown in the garden might look simple but requires excellent focus and concentration and, with olfaction engaging as much as one eighth of the dog’s brain, seeking food is satisfying and calming. But for enrichment to be beneficial for health and wellbeing it must be enjoyable for the dog and meet the dog’s individual needs.

Downside of enrichment
Introducing an interactive feeder by leaving a dog to figure it out for himself is an approach that should be met with caution as it may lead to frustration. This is a common negative emotional response to puzzle toys that are too difficult or have a low rate of reinforcement. One Cockerpoo owner noticed her dog was showing signs of frustration when an interactive toy dispensed treats infrequently but on switching activity to foraging he immediately became engaged and quiet. There is a perception that frustration is needed for learning resilience and while it may fuel new behaviour, frustration is not necessary for optimal learning. The behaviour associated with frustration may become linked to an enrichment toy if say a bark precedes the food tumbling out, and the bark is then reinforced. With repetition, this may become learned behaviour associated with the feeder and become generalised so the dog barks for other food.

Case Study

4-year-old English Springer Spaniel Rio is almost completely blind. He has advanced progressive retinal atrophy and was rehomed by Rachel Davies through Dogs Trust in August 2016. Rachel helped him negotiate his new home by leaving the grass longer around walls and trees as natural markers, and placed objects around potential hazards such as a tyre around a washing line post. Through playing games, Rachel strengthened Rio’s other senses and built his confidence. Due to neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself and grow new neural connections after injury and disease – his other senses became heightened.

Rio’s toys were chosen for easy recognition: either for sound (rattle, squeak or rustle) or texture (soft fabric, hard rubber, rough hessian). Each toy is named and Rio recognises them by their unique smell. Rachel observes Rio using toys as markers, strategically placing them to help awareness of his environment, and he carries a soft toy as a “bumper” if uncertain about a new location. Rio can even play catch. Rachel explains, “I use one of his big soft toys and say ‘ready’ before throwing, so he can anticipate and catch it in his mouth or paws – or both. This is his favourite game – perhaps it gives him a sense of normality and memories of his sighted days.”

Rachel was keen to learn about other ways to enrich Rio’s home life. With his acute hearing, we discussed how Rio might enjoy listening to relaxing music. Research demonstrates that classical music has a calming effect on dogs and I recommended Rachel reads Through a Dog’s Ear to learn more about music therapy and sound. Rachel reported that meditation music was having a positive effect by helping busy Rio to relax.

Rio is fed moist food and kibble from a bowl. Mealtime enrichment was recommended: a slow-feeder bowl or stuffed KongTM for moist food, and foraging feeder for dried food. It was also suggested he might enjoy the sensory experience of digging in a sandpit.

I recommended Rachel introduces clicker training to Rio. This will practice several skills: increase auditory awareness by listening for the click, improve object location by finding and touching targets, and help proprioception, balance and co-ordination by following a scent on a target stick. For example, rubbing cheese on the flat end of a fly swat acts as a lure to help Rio locate and touch it with his nose. Other recommendations are paw awareness work such as stepping onto yoga blocks or balance pods, and twists and turns and figures of eight – all of which can be taught by following a target stick with a mesh tea ball infuser secured at the end to hold a food lure.

Thanks to Rachel’s mindful support of his needs and her ‘can do’ attitude, Rio leads a rich and active life.

Aside from frustration, enrichment toys evoke different emotional and instinctive responses. Interactive feeders that encourage chasing may be overstimulating for some dogs if they constantly trigger the innate eye-stalk-chase-bite (grab-bite, kill-bite)-eat motor pattern and maintain high arousal levels. On the other hand, those dogs who need more exercise, movement and stimulation will benefit from this type of enrichment.

At the other end of the spectrum is chewing and repetitive licking, which is stress-relieving and pacifying, and releases feel-good endorphins.

Health benefits
Dogs on rehab, with visual or auditory sensory impairment and senior dogs who are hard of hearing and/or have deteriorating eyesight will benefit from foraging, which is usually more pacifying than many interactive treat dispensing toys and offers a high rate of reinforcement. Seeking may calm dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction and fabric foragers can be sprayed with relaxing scents such as Pet Remedy or Adaptil for additional support.

Not only do interactive feeders enrich mealtimes, they may provide health benefits by improving the appetite of finicky eaters and aid digestion by slowing down those who bolt their food. Veterinary surgeon Dr. Hannah van Velzen was concerned about her mother’s 14-year-old wirehaired Daschund’s eating habits. Trui would either graze or wolf down her food, often resulting in vomiting. On introducing a slow feeding bowl Trui’s appetite increased and she ingested food better. And veterinary nurse Emily Plowright noticed her dog’s confidence increased after introducing mealtime enrichment at home. Not only does George prefer working for his food, she observed an increase in his curiosity and willingness to explore new environments.

Dogs on rehab often have special considerations such as restrictions on the type of weight-bearing exercise they can tolerate, and enrichment products placed on the floor may be unsuitable. Some interactive feeders can be raised to allow for a natural stance with even paw-weight distribution and simultaneously give the benefit of gentle weight-bearing exercise and muscle flexion and extension when foraging. Static enrichment toys can also keep a dog stationary and distracted when changing dressings, inspecting wounds and administering medication, and while undertaking husbandry tasks such as grooming and nail clipping. To ensure the dog’s comfort, he should be familiar with the interactive feeder before carrying out any such tasks.

Aside from products that can be purchased, there are countless ways to enrich the home environment that aren’t costly. Scatter-feeding kibble around the garden, wrapping treats inside a folded towel, playing hide and seek with biscuits around the house or throwing a handful of food into a cardboard box filled with shredded paper are simple yet cost-effective ways. The only limit is your imagination!

Of course enrichment at home need not involve food. Many dogs love a massage, adore being groomed and relax when listening to classical music, and outdoor enrichment may comprise digging in a sandpit, splashing in a shallow pool and sniffing scented plants in the garden.

The success of Kelly’s Canine Enrichment group is doubtless due to the delight owners feel at seeing their dogs lead more fulfilled lives. And as I spoon my dogs’ food into the 12-holed cupcake tins that are their new dinner bowls, I wonder if Kelly ever imagined he would change the lives of so many dogs.


Blind spaniel Rio with toy

Kate Mallatratt is a founder member of International Canine Behaviourists and is a member of Pet Professional Guild for force-free training. She is the author of Home Alone – and Happy! and worked in television as an assistant animal trainer for Plimsoll Production. Kate holds an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour Management and specialises in errorless learning, a concept she incorporates into problem prevention, behaviour modification and enriching the home environment for the family dog. Kate has owned and trained dogs for many years and runs her behaviour and training business, Contemplating Canines, in East Devon, UK.


Facebook: Canine Enrichment Group (run by Shay Kelly) support group for enrichment ideas
Facebook: Canine Enrichment Joy (run by Sophie Red Reilly) catalogue of enrichment demonstrations
K9 Connectables* offering a 10% discount to ATM readers with code K9therapy until end February 2018
Kong Company –
Kyjen dog products:
Nina Ottosson interactive toys:
PickPockets*: offering a 10% discount to ATM readers with code ATMOCT17 until end November 2017
Ruff Shop: – offering 10% discount to ATM readers on first order with code ATM10.
Snufflemats*: offering a 10% to ATM readers discount with code ATMSOCT17 until end November 2017
Orbee Tuff*:
Outward Hound slow feeder mat*
Zogoflex Toppl Treat*:

*Particularly suitable for brachycelphic dogs


Bekoff, M (March 2007). The Emotional Lives of Animals. New World Library, Green Press Initiative, Canada.
Leake, J (August 2017). Lonely pets’ brain cells are dying from boredom. The Sunday Times, 20 August 2017.
Kasperowicz, D & White, J (June 2017). Beyond the Bowl – enriching your dog’s life through food and mental stimulation. Kasperowicz & White – Woof & Co.
Markman, A PhD (2012). What is boredom? The key factors underlying boredom. Available from: <https:// ulterior-motives/201209/what-is-boredom> Psychology Today 25 September 2012.
Reber, S R, Allen, R & Reber,(2009 4th edition). Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. Penguin Group, Registered Office London, UK.
Graham, L, Wells, D L, Hepper, P G (2002). The Influence of Auditory Stimulation on the Behaviour of Dogs Housed in a Rescue Shelter. Animal Welfare 11 (2002): pp385-393. Summary available from http://www.throughadogsear. com/research.
Kaulfuß, P & Mills, D (2008). Neophilia in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition.
Animal Cognition Journal, July 2008, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 553-556. Springer-Verlag.

Canine Enrichment – Pro-Spective

If your walks with your dogs are wonderful, carefree affairs, lucky you! You might logically think therefore, that such a happy dog would not need canine enrichment activities!

However, all dogs benefit from different outlets for their natural canine behaviours and engaging all their senses. The bonus of providing your dog with canine enrichment activities is that you will ALWAYS tire a dog out quicker by engaging their brains, rather than their legs!

For puppies and adolescent dogs canine enrichment is as much about socialisation as anything else and as such, they need to be introduced to the enrichment activities thoughtfully and be carefully supervised to ensure that they do not experience any fear in these new activities.

Puppies have 2 fear periods, the first being around 8-12 weeks, and a second period during adolescence, 6-14 months, depending on the breed and the individual dog. So allow pup to approach their new activity in their own time, giving gentle praise and encouragement. Certain canine enrichment activities also aid puppies’ development of proprioception skills – learning about their bodies’ strength and dexterity in motion, as well as challenging them mentally … and all of this leads to a relaxed and sleepy pup!

For dogs that are sick or recovering from an injury or operation, canine enrichment activities can provide interesting low energy, gentle, but much needed engagement to prevent boredom and frustration of being unable to go on their regular walks. And for our aging canine friends, engaging in appropriate canine enrichment will bring so much joy to their lives.

Every dog progresses through puppyhood, hopefully to a ripe old age. Most will have at least one operation in their lifetime and unfortunately many will have a period of sickness and so becoming familiar with how you can provide enrichment activities is worthwhile for every owner with their family dog.

And then there are the thousands and thousands of dogs suffering with fear, frustration and aggression. These dogs are often referred to as ‘reactive dogs’ as their reactions to seemingly normal situations are more extreme than you would witness in a happy, confident and well-socialised dog.

Some of these dogs are fearful of other dogs or people, some of noises, tricycles, beards or plastic bags, of wind turbines, pushchairs, darkness or kids in the park … it could literally be anything that triggers their fear response. Some may cower and tremble, and some may put on a show of lunging, snarling and barking to ensure that the scary thing comes no closer. And some of these dogs are truly wonderful off-lead and can play beautifully with other dogs, but when on lead, they become so upset at not being able to engage with other dogs, that they spin, lunge, snarl and bark in frustration.

Maybe this sounds familiar? Maybe you know from experience how stressful walks can be, not only for your dog, but for you too. And maybe you shy away from taking them outside and now feel guilty for the lack of walks they have, and in severe cases, there may be some dogs that are literally housebound. Please do not feel guilty. The activity in which your dog engages has to work for your dog! And so whilst behaviour rehabilitation (with the guidance of a suitably qualified professional) can help many reactive dogs, canine enrichment activities are a critical tool for ALL owners of reactive dogs.

Canine Enrichment is a wonderful tool for the owners of ALL dogs. Enrichment activities add to a dog’s life by offering the opportunity of engaging all of their senses. It needs to be something with which the dog voluntarily interacts in order to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Enrichment includes things like changing their environment (e.g. a tunnel in the garden), or new things to touch, taste, hear, see or smell; objects that require the use of paws, noses, heads and mouths. Activities to share with their doggy friends or interactive activities to do with their owners (such as playing with toys, skill drills and trick training), all of these catering for a dog’s social needs and sense of belonging and bonding. Natural behaviours like exploration, licking, and rolling will be triggered, challenging them mentally as well as physically.

When choosing your activities, it is important to consider your dog’s breed, age and personal quirks! Terriers like to be on their feet for example and have the famous terrier bite-shake, so will often seek activities involving paws and ragging; Labradors and other food motivated dogs will enjoy anything to do with food; working dogs will favour scent work … but by introducing activities that do not naturally fall within their preferred behaviour traits, your dog is challenged and motivated to develop new skills. It can be a wonderful shared adventure with your dog, using products bought from reliable sources, or simple or imaginative homemade solutions – it does not have to cost the earth. All of these types of activities will enrich your dog’s life, no matter their age or needs, when done positively and in a dog’s favourite context, play!

The Pawsitive Enrichment Company provides you with carefully sourced products. These are tested and reviewed transparently for you to see via their Facebook page. Several of the Pawster Testers are reactive dogs, spending much time confined to the home. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to keep a collie or a pointer or a husky indoors for 3 weeks? But trust me, canine enrichment is the only way to survive! The Pawsitive Enrichment Company also generously include ideas and examples for homemade canine enrichment activities, to ensure that this wonderful gift to your dogs (and other pets) is available to all.

I have found that integrity and quality are at the heart of The Pawsitive Enrichment Company, as they seek to fulfil their mission: ‘Enriching the Lives of the Pets We Love’.

Niccy Crampton

Institute of Modern Dog Training

Founder, Reactive Dogs (UK)

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