Multisensory Enrichment for Shelter Dogs
I have worked in the animal industry for over 18 years. I currently work at the Arizona Humane Society, where my original title was canine welfare specialist. My role is to provide mental and physical stimulation to the dogs in our care. We get a lot of medically challenged dogs, as well as hoarding cases. The dogs with medical issues tend to stay longer because of their recuperation time, and are limited in the types and amount of physical activity they can do, so in-kennel enrichment is critical for them. Hoarding cases can be lengthy and drawn out in courts, and these dogs are generally severely undersocialized and may not walk on a leash or go out of their kennels, so again, in-room enrichment is key.
Enrichment enhances the quality of dogs’ lives while they are at the shelter. It reduces stress, anxiety, and boredom as well as promoting the human-animal bond. Enrichment should be incorporated into animal care staff duties as well as volunteer duties.
It does not take a lot of resources or money to provide daily enrichment. For example, we recycle empty latex glove boxes from our medical department. We also use empty Kleenex boxes, toilet paper, egg cartons, paper towel rolls, and plastic Tupperware. We also use ice cube trays and cupcake tins. I look at household, food, and storage items so differently now—everything looks like an enrichment tool to me! And I try to encourage others to look at it that way as well.
One key point to remember about enrichment is this: It is not enriching if it’s the same type of activity or stimulation every day. Enrichment categories are:
- Taste (feeding)
Sound is important because it soothes the dogs, masks outside noises, and can help the dogs become habituated to human voices. We play classical music, books on tape, white noise, and even use toys that make noise.
Smell can stimulate, or it can calm. I use lavender, vanilla, chamomile, almond, coconut, and peppermint scents, diluted in a spray bottle and sprayed on bedding or towels.
I also sprinkle dried spices like cinnamon, cloves, and ginger on the kennel floor or blankets for the dogs to investigate. Animal scents like duck, pheasant, quail, or squirrel can also be stimulating for dogs; I will spray these on towels or bedding, or I will stuff a paper towel roll and spray an animal scent on it.
I will blow bubbles to provide visual stimulation, and even use liver or peanut butter scented bubbles for a multisensory experience. Here these puppies are playing with the scented bubbles in their kennel:
I use paper towel rolls, egg cartons, Kleenex boxes, Kongs, puzzle feeders, PVC tubing—just about anything I can find that I can safely stuff some food in!
Chicken and beef broth are versatile additions to my toolbox: I use them to help enrich the taste of biscuits or dog food. I also use the broth and put it in puzzle toys, ice cubes and freeze for “pupcicles.” I will use a muffin tin to make frozen treats and string them up in the dog’s kennels:
Or, I’ll soak a tug toy in some chicken broth (sometimes I’ll freeze it, but not always), and then string it up in the kennel, like this:
Other high-value treats I have used include meatballs, sardines, pumpkin, canned wet food, baby food, blue cheese, and yes, even fruits and vegetables! Here is a dog exploring a stuffed puzzle toy on a rope:
Another form of enrichment is training. This helps with getting the dogs physically moving, mentally stimulates them, gives them some social interaction and can also help improve their behavior so they can have more positive interactions with potential adopters.
I do behind-bar training, which means getting the dog to do behaviors while they are in the kennel and the handler is outside the kennel. In the first video the dog is just learning to grab treats with paws from behind the bars:
This puppy is learning “leave it” from behind the bars of his kennel.
I incorporate some training outside and inside the dog’s kennel too. I teach tricks, platform training, and some basic obedience. In this video, we’ve used pipe cleaners to make a soft, flexible bar for the Chihuahua to jump over:
Cones you might see on the football practice field can be used as props for the “shell game” with a volunteer, which is fun way to encourage scent work:
Coming from a background of years of experience with behavior modification and training with sheltered dogs, I am now devoting more time to enrichment. In my professional opinion, enrichment is a form of behavior modification. Tricks, platform training, and puzzle toys build confidence in shy dogs because they help make positive associations to things the dogs may be nervous around. They can even help dogs who are nervous with people: People now predict good things.
Keep in mind, it’s not really enrichment if it’s the same type of enrichment every day. My motto is, “Low cost enrichment with high-end results!”
Mik Moeller, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, is a certified dog trainer, author, and well-known speaker. He worked at the San Francisco SPCA for 18 years as a behavior specialist, where he developed successful programs for volunteers, and shy dogs. He also co-founded the Dog Walking Academy at Dog*tec with Veronica Boutelle. Mik is now based at Arizona Humane Society.