The benefits of appropriate challenge for our dogs

We talk about enrichment in the dog world all the time. How important is it, really? It turns out that it's very important! In fact, the very definition of enrichment states that it improves animal welfare and wellbeing. Today I am going to focus on the topic of cognitive enrichment, which Clark defines as "an appropriate cognitive challenge [that] results in measurable beneficial changes to well-being" (Clark, 2011).

 In the wild, animals face a variety of challenges on a daily basis. They must find food, water, and shelter as well as avoid danger. In many cases, access to food—and possibly water—changes on a regular basis.

Food sources may move or be seasonal.

There are also the challenges of accessing or capturing the food once it's been located. In addition, animals are moving through a dynamic environment that may change with weather or season. If they are a social species, they are also engaging with other members of their species. (Shettleworth, 2010) In many cases, they may even be interacting with members of other species. Feral dogs have to contend with humans, of course, but also other animals, such as free-ranging cats or birds that may be competing for the same food course.

When we get pet dogs, we put them in a box.

They have access to the outdoors, but generally only on our terms and that access is often very limited. Outdoor access may be restricted in terms of time, range (only on leash, or only in the fenced yard), or both. In addition, pet dogs are often punished or prevented from engaging in species-typical behaviors such as barking, digging, running, rolling in gross things, and playing with other dogs.

Finally, they have very limited control over many other aspects of their life. If you compare this to the experience of a wild animal, I think it's easy to imagine how the life of pet dogs—who are, in effect, captive animals—can quickly become a major welfare concern.

Animals evolved to cope with challenges on a regular basis. Put another way, they evolved to respond to stressful situations. There is some speculation among researchers that not experiencing these stress spikes is a welfare concern.

Confused? This is where the idea of stress inoculation comes in.

Yes. Chronic and extreme stress are very bad. But no stress is not necessarily good either. We know that chronic stress is bad, but under stress, or 'hypostimulation', is also problematic and may cause animals to lose their ability to appropriately respond to challenges (Sapolsky et al. 2000, Meehan and Mench 2007).

 Challenge seems to increase positive emotions

This isn't just my personal opinion. There is a lot of evidence to support these claims.

For example, dogs that learned on their own to open a pen door in order to get access to reinforcement, showed signs of positive excitement (pulling to get into the room, increased tail wagging) (McGowan 2014).

This was not seen in dogs that had access to the same reinforcer, but had the gate opened for them. In fact, these dogs showed some signs of frustration. The dog study was based on research originally done in cattle, which showed very similar results (Hagan and Broom, 2004).

This phenomenon is called the "eureka effect." It occurs when animals independently solve a problem without prior training or demonstration. In these cases, animals appear to display positive emotions (Hagen and Broom, 2004, McGowan et al. 2014, Perkins, 2000).

Research on pigs has shown that increasing the complexity of the food delivery systems also appears to have a positive impact on welfare.

The pigs were fitted with collars that transmitted a signal to open a box and give them access to food. However, the collars would only work if a tone had just played that indicated that it was that particular pig's turn to eat. They had to learn which tone was "theirs" and that the tone indicated they had access to food. Then, food was presented at random intervals throughout the day, instead of at scheduled feeding times (Ernst 2005).

The pigs that took place in this experiment showed reduced fear and excitability and even healed from wounds more quickly in comparison to the control group (Ernst et al. 2006, Puppe et al. 2007). The researchers concluded that the cognitive challenge of the task improved the welfare of the pigs. I also think that this set up gave pigs an increased sense of control and this probably impacted the results as well.

These studies suggest that finding ways to increase the challenge in our dogs' lives may very well make them happier! There have also been studies that have shown that increasing enrichment can make animals more optimistic! That is, they are more likely to expect reinforcement than punishment in new or ambiguous situations. 

It seems clear that if we want to improve the wellbeing of our dogs, then we need to prioritize offering them enrichment in the form of appropriate challenge.

How can we provide our dogs with appropriate challenges?

How can we increase the challenge in our dog's lives?

First, it's important to understand that 'challenge' doesn't mean frustrating animals to the point where they give up or become distressed! We want to provide a puzzle of some kind that is difficult, but not impossible to solve.

Commercially-made puzzle toys are a popular option and they can, indeed, provide cognitive challenge. However, once the animal has mastered the puzzle, it can no longer be considered a challenge. That means we need to get more creative.

Hiding food and toys around the house and yard can serve as an excellent challenge so long as we have a variety of hiding spots and continue to find new ones. (Again, if you keep hiding the items in the same 3 or 4 places, the exercise becomes less and less of a challenge.)

One of my clients puts treats in one box, then hides that box, as well as several empty boxes around the house. The dog then needs to locate the boxes, open them up, and find the box with the treats. This is a wonderful exercise and she says her dog loves it and it's a great way to keep her busy and calm her on a rainy day. The sports of nosework and tracking can also provide the dog with an ever-changing puzzle to solve.

However, if you are overwhelmed by training your dog to search for and find items, simply going for a walk in a new place can be an excellent option for enrichment!

If at all possible, my strong preference is to get them into a natural area, such as a forest, field, or natural body of water. This gives them a dynamic and variable smorgasbord of smells, sights, and sounds and allows them to practice natural tracking and hunting behaviors. Even if they don't catch anything, the very act of engaging in these behaviors appears to be very reinforcing.

These are only a few examples of how we can provide challenge and improve enrichment for our dogs. What ideas do you have for providing your dog with increased challenge?

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