Environmental Enrichment for Puppies and Dogs

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB on Dec. 26, 2012

Jack is a 1-year-old Labrador retriever. He is shiny, black, and full of energy. He is bouncing around my exam room wagging his entire body and soliciting attention from everyone. Each toy that I pull out is immediately picked up by Jack. He throws it up in the air and pounces on it as it falls to the ground. Eventually, he takes the time to lie down and tear the toy to bits.

So, why write about Jack? He seems pretty normal right? Well, he was adopted last Christmas by a retired couple. They also have an older Labrador retriever who is, of course, "perfect." Jack's destructive nature made his owners pick up the phone and make an appointment with me. Whenever destructive behaviors are bad enough to make an owner call me, I always want to rule out separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is extreme stress and distress when the dog is virtually or actually separated from the owners.

But, that is not Jack's problem. Jack is happy to pick things up and destroy them right in front of his owners. If he is lying down, he just rolls over, grabs a chair leg in his mouth and starts chewing. This all began as a normal behavior when Jack was a puppy. Because the owners were used to living with an older dog, they had forgotten what it was like to live with a puppy. Puppies need lots of stimulation, and Jack needs 2 or 3 times the stimulation that an average Labrador Retriever puppy would need. Because Jack was not well exercised, didn't go to training classes, and did not have near enough toys, he learned that the best way to expend his energy is to find something in the house to chew on. A secondary payoff that he hadn’t anticipated was that the owners would give him loads and loads of attention just for grabbing their things and running off with them. Now, Jack is not only destructive, he's also a thief.

To set Jack back on track, we focused on enrichment, supervision, boundaries, ignoring negative behaviors, and reinforcing positive behaviors. This week we'll talk about enrichment.

Jack's owners said the same thing that 99.9% of all owners say when I begin to talk about enrichment: "My dog has lots of toys."  And I always say the same thing: "I'm sure he does. However he has slobbered, torn up, and rolled around with every single one of them already so they're not very interesting anymore."

This reminds me of a night when my husband and I were getting ready to go out. My husband stood behind me as I stood in my closet staring at my shoes. I turned back to him and said, "I just don't have any shoes to wear." As he looked down at all of my shoes lined up neatly in boxes with pictures taped to the outside, he exclaimed with disbelief, "What? Look at all those shoes!"

To my husband, I had lots of shoes. But to me, they were old, worn, and very uninteresting. Dogs feel the exact same way about all those old toys sitting in the toy-box. To combat that boredom, follow the suggestions below.

1. Feed your dog all of his meals — yes I mean every morsel of kibble — out of food toys. The pet supply companies have finally caught up with the current behavioral recommendations and as a result offer innumerable numbers of food toys. This takes a very small event — eating dinner — that usually takes 5 minutes and turns it into an event that could last an hour.

2. Get your dog out. An excursion in the car, in the basket of your bike, or just down the street will enrich your dog’s life and mentally wear him out.

3. Schedule doggie play dates. There is nothing like off-leash dog play to wear a dog flat out. Be careful about taking your dog to dog parks. It is much safer to simply schedule play dates with friendly dogs.

4. Rotate your dogs’ toys so that your dogs have 3 toys per dog in the household per day. Keep the toys out of rotation for 5 days. Continue to leave your toy box full.

5. Purchase some puzzle toys. Puzzle toys are toys which test your dog’s intelligence by making finding treats more challenging. Take the treats you would've given your dog for being cute, break them into quarter inch pieces, and put them into the puzzle toys. Think your dog is smart? Try one of these puzzle toys.

6. Find your dog's preference and go with it. I told Jack's owners to go to the local pet supply store and to online websites and buy as many different types of toys as they could find. Then, they were to watch Jack with the toys so that they could determine his preferences. When I first adopted Maverick, my Labrador retriever puppy, earlier this year I did exactly what I had instructed Jack’s owners to do. It became apparent that while Maverick generally liked pretty much all toys, his preference was for very hard toys. Now I make sure to have many hard toys around the house for him.

7. Have a reasonable expectation of your pet. Jack's parents were very distressed by the idea of rearranging their lives, their feeding schedule, and their home for Jack. Outside of medicating Jack — who remember is a completely normal dog — I don't have a way to change who he is. On some level, Jack's owners will have to commit to keeping him very enriched, most likely over the course of his entire lifetime. They can swim against the tide and eventually become exhausted, negatively affecting the bond that they have with their dog, or they can accept the level of care that Jack requires and go with the flow.


Next week, we will talk about boundaries and the level of supervision puppies like Jack need.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Hisom Silviu / via Shutterstock

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB


Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB


Dr. Radosta is a board certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service since 2006.  She is a well known...

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