Environmental enrichment is now commonly accepted practice for zoo, farm and laboratory animals. But what about domestic pets? Do our pets need environmental enrichment?

Working as a training and behaviour counsellor, I see pets with many problems. Some are aggressive to their owners or other animals; some are fearful of noises or being left alone; and some are destructive, unresponsive to commands or develop extreme obsessive behaviours, such as tail- chasing, barking or shadow chasing.

In some cases there are deep-rooted, inherent reasons for these conditions but in many there is one overriding factor – boredom and lack of mental stimulation!

Bored and frustrated

Today’s pet dogs are all derived from original breeds that were selected for their ability to do a job of work, such as hunting, herding and flushing or retrieving game. Few were kept just for their good looks and personality! The modern owner who chooses to keep a dog as a pet or companion often overlooks these original traits and characteristics when choosing their new best friend, tending to opt for physical stamina and status or appearance.

This is further confused by the latest addition of ‘designer dogs, often purposeful cross-breeds that have been bred for ‘kerb appeal’ rather than any real desirable traits.

Many clients will boast about how their dog comes from excellent ‘working lines’ and will list the various achievements of their parents and siblings, whilst expecting their own pet to live in a two- bedroom semi and be happy with a walk to the park twice a day with the kids. The result is a generation of dogs that are living in homes where they are unable to display their natural behaviours and many end up bored, frustrated or downright psychotic!

Cats too

Increasingly cats are also facing similar problems. With the continued trend towards ‘house cats’ who are never allowed to venture outdoors, many individuals spend long periods of isolation, denied the opportunity to exhibit normal hunting or social behaviours. Unfortunately cats are often kept by owners who “don’t have time for a dog”; yet do they really have time for a house cat?

Of course, these owners are well meaning and usually have their pet’s best interests at heart (they want to keep them safe), but they simply haven’t realised how little their cat has to occupy it each day!

There is much, however, that can be done to make our pets’ lives more interesting and consequently less likely to develop behavioural problems;

Food an undervalued resource

All animals need food! But unlike their wild or feral cousins, our pets’ food usually comes for free, twice a day in a bowl. One of the simplest ways to occupy and mentally stimulate dogs, puppies and cats is to throw away the bowl and start making them ‘learn to earn’.

Food can be delivered throughout the day through food dispensing toys, such as Kongs – a well stuffed toy can keep a dog occupied for hours teaching him independence from his owner, appropriate chewing behaviour and encouraging learning. There is now a huge range to suit all sizes, ages and breeds of dog and cat, but with one common factor – they all deliver rewards, encouraging the pet to go back time and time again.

Pyramids and treat balls are another quick and easy way to enhance and prolong mealtimes. As the toy is pushed around with nose or paws, it randomly delivers small amounts of dry kibble thus encouraging the user to keep playing.

For more ‘owner interactive’ ways to feed, there is now a range of mentally stimulating and fun toys in the Nina Ottosson range that test the pet’s ability to problem-solve, as well as encouraging physical dexterity to find the food. All the toys are graded in terms of difficulty and come with a free user DVD to teach owners how to teach their pets.

There are vast arrays of cat toys available: climbing and scratching posts can encourage play and exercise, especially if sprayed with catnip; whilst natural materials (such as feathers) suspended from wands go some way to replacing hunting behaviours. Again, food hidden around play areas will help keep cats more content.

Work their brains

Many owners resort to more and more physical exercise in order to curtail their boisterous dogs. Whilst physical exercise is undoubtedly important for all dogs, it often does little to overcome these problems. Quite simply, the more exercise the dog has, the fitter he or she becomes and the more exercise will be required in the future, and so on…

If, however, we work our dog’s brain, we can achieve a contented and truly tired dog who is more likely to settle and offer calm behaviour rather than one who constantly demands attention with nuisance behaviours.

Clicker training is an excellent way to improve general control whilst offering a form of mental stimulation that is, in my opinion, unrivalled. What’s more, clicker training does not require a large amount of space or even physical energy on the owner’s part; it can, simply be ‘armchair dog training’.

This form of interaction between dog and owner allows the dog to use his or her brain and redirect its behaviour into a positive and desirable action. Don’t just stick to traditional ‘obedience’ commands, teach fun tricks or truly useful behaviours such as ‘close the door, fetch named objects or ‘hunt the car keys’, to name but a few.

Clicker training is not just for dogs. Cats are massively inventive when given the opportunity to learn, as are pet rats, rabbits, parrots and even chickens!

Whichever way we choose to occupy our pet, the activity will pay dividends in the long run; because the expression, ‘The devil makes work for idle hands’ is never more true than when applied to our pets.

Clicker training is an excellent way to improve general control whilst offering a form of mental stimulation



Fiona Whelan

Fiona started her career working with horses, spending five years working as a riding instructor and judge with a special interest in the rehabilitation of difficult horses. She then went on to work for the RSPCA as a re-homing coordinator and later as Branch Secretary for Mid-Lincolnshire. During this time she extended her interest into other species particularly canines. After studying Animal Science and Kennel and Cattery management at De Montfort University she opened her own training and behaviour establishment in Lincolnshire which she ran for seven years before joining the Animal Behaviour Centre team in February 2002.

• VOL 25 • No3 • March 2010 • Veterinary Nursing Journal