Providing dog owners with appropriate alternative options for activities and entertainment for their dogs during enforced confinement or restricted exercise periods due to surgery, injury or illness can help increase owner compliance, reduce the risk of further injury or relapse, and aid in the recovery of the dog.
My sister’s dog recently underwent surgery on both elbow joints. The veterinary surgeon’s post-operative instructions were to keep him confined to a small, penned area with no exercise other than toilet breaks initially, building gradually over a 12-week period to short on-lead walks of increasing distance and duration. With an extremely lively and exuberant adolescent dog, my sister, like many owners, found this period of restricted exercise exceptionally difficult.
Even calmer or older dogs can find extended confinement stressful, adding to the inevitable stress caused by surgery and time spent at the veterinary clinic as well as the potential pain and incapacity. Thus, recovery can be easily impacted and could potentially lead to a negative emotional state and subsequent behavioural challenges.
What is enrichment?
Enrichment can be defined as meeting all of an animal’s needs as closely as possible to how they would be met in their natural environment, in order to empower them to engage in species-typical behaviours in healthy and appropriate ways (Bender and Strong, 2019).
Enrichment, therefore, is an essential part of a dog’s everyday life but becomes even more important when they are unable to move about freely, exercising and exploring in a way they normally would on their walks or within their home or garden environment.
Studies have shown the provision of enrichment activities for dogs can have a significant positive impact on behaviour. Environmental enrichment provision for dams and puppies during pregnancy and early life can mitigate the risk of behavioural problems in adult dogs (Majecka et al., 2020). Duranton and Horowitz (2019) found that scent-work types of enrichment created a positive cognitive bias. It has even been demonstrated that the provision of enrichment prevented the transgenerational transmission of negative state behaviour symptoms in adult male mice and their offspring (Gapp et al., 2016).
It has even been demonstrated that the provision of enrichment prevented the transgenerational transmission of negative state behaviour symptoms in adult male mice and their offspring
Further, some of the benefits shown in kennelled dogs include decreased stress, anxiety and fear-induced aggression, as well as helping to promote stress resilience in general (Zilocchi et al., 2018; Willen et al., 2019). Given that an imposed confinement period will inevitably be stressful for most dogs, enrichment provision can help minimise that stress thus aiding recovery, improving welfare and helping owners through a difficult time.
Choosing enrichment activities
Care needs to be taken when deciding on enrichment activities for individual dogs. While “anything” might be considered better than nothing, enrichment, by definition, must be something the dog themselves finds enriching.
Meehan and Mench (2007) argue that while problem-solving is by its nature a source of a certain amount of frustration and stress, this is a necessary and useful part of enrichment. However, the animal must possess the skill and ability to effectively solve the problem.
Most commonly enrichment in pet dogs is provided in the form of some kind of food acquisition, often in the form of puzzle toys or feeders meant to slow the feeding rate. In particular, adolescent dogs may not cope well with frustration as higher levels of dopamine are released during the consummatory phase rather than the anticipatory one (Batson, 2021). Therefore many adolescents, as well as highly food-motivated dogs, may find challenging puzzles stressful rather than enriching if they cannot easily and quickly access the food. Further, very young, elderly or incapacitated dogs may simply be unable to physically manipulate feeders as needed.
Many adolescents, as well as highly food-motivated dogs, may find challenging puzzles stressful rather than enriching if they cannot easily and quickly access the food
Owners should try to provide feeders or food puzzle toys that are mildly challenging, but always at a level appropriate for the individual dog, and only if the dog has the cognitive, emotional and/or physical capability to use it.
It is also recommended that food-related enrichment be provided after the dog has recently eaten with at least a portion of their normal meal. Frustration can be increased by low blood sugar levels, so a hungry dog may get frustrated more easily. This would only serve to increase any existing post-operative and/or confinement-related stress.
Enrichment for recovery and rehabilitation
For dogs undergoing a period of post-operative confinement and exercise restriction, consideration of the type of enrichment activity is needed. Both static and/or slow and calm movement-type activities can be safe options, as directed by the veterinary surgeon’s advice.
The provision of static or slow enrichment also provides the opportunity to buffer against the ‘rebound effect’ from restricted freedom of movement
In young and adolescent dogs in particular, the provision of static or slow enrichment also provides the opportunity to buffer against the “rebound effect” from restricted freedom of movement. Rebound behaviours are normal behaviours that may be done to excess, due to a period of time when the dog has not been able to act out that behaviour as usual. (Hence my sister’s difficulty managing her adolescent dog who, used to cavorting around freely on his usual walks, wanted to bounce and drag his way out of the house on a short lead to go for a toilet break.)
Options for static and calming enrichment provision
Enrichment can and should be provided in various ways incorporating more than just food and food toys. Owners should be advised to use the much wider options available (Table 1) and consider all the dog’s needs and preferences. Providing a range of different sensory inputs and foraging opportunities offers a great deal more stimulation than simply the consumption of food, as well as the opportunity for safe and appropriate movement as part of the planned rehabilitation process.
|LickiMats or homemade versions such as muffin tins (using small amounts of low-calorie food such as natural yoghurt or cooked vegetables blended with salt-free chicken broth or a little tinned sardines)
|Bring walks home by collecting sticks, leaves, grasses, feathers, pinecones, sheep wool, etc. Place these on a non-slip mat in a large shallow box near the pen and allow the dog to rummage and sniff
|Music – classical has been shown to be the best, but provide variety to avoid habituation
|A novel item to investigate
|Longer lasting chews such as Paddywack, Himalayan chews or cow’s feet
|Ask human friends/neighbours of the dog to provide worn socks or a t-shirt, and/or a dog friend’s bedding or toys (this may also help buffer the lack of social enrichment opportunities during the recovery period)
|Radio (including talking channels) or audio books
|Something to lick – try different surfaces (smooth, rough) and observe for preferences
|Puzzle feeders/snuffle mats
|Provide scented cloths – these can be scented with different odours such as other animals (watch for overarousal), herbs, spices and hydrolats (natural waters collected from plants during the distillation process – a safer option than essential oils)
|Sit and read a book to them/with them
|Something to search for – food or a toy hidden in a snuffle mat or puzzle toy
|Dog TV – there are a number of options on YouTube now, for example
|Something scented – cloths, toys, clothes, etc
Types of enrichment other than food include olfactory, auditory, visual and tactile. Depending on how these are provided, other sensory processing systems including vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive may be being used at the same time.
Olfactory stimulation by the provision of scented cloths was shown to decrease both movement and vocalisation levels and increase the levels of sleeping behaviour in kennelled dogs (Binks et al., 2018). Kennelled dogs were also found to be more likely to interact with, and for longer, toys that had scent added to them. This scent provision also reduced stress-related behaviours while at the same time increasing exploratory behaviour (Murtagh et al., 2020).
In a review of nine studies, Lindig et al. (2020) found that exposure to classical music appeared to have a calming influence on dogs in stressful environments such as a veterinary clinic. Bowman et al. (2017) found that switching between genres helps to negate habituation and found that dogs appeared to enjoy reggae and soft rock, as well as classical music.
Veterinary behaviourist Amber Batson recommends the use of enrichment stations. These are stations such as a bowl, plate or box, located on the ground immediately outside the confinement area, and then again around every one metre or so on the path out to the toileting or exercise area. Each station would have items to investigate, sniff, lick or search for. Keeping the nose down like this, along with the “distraction” provided at the stations, can be very useful for helping dogs move slowly and remain calm on their way out to the garden or outside area. These stations can also be used to provide a form of controlled exercise as part of the rehabilitation process, and also for approaching/exiting the car for dogs who usually associate car travel with high arousal/excitement.
Enforced confinement and exercise restriction post-operatively or due to illness can be very stressful and challenging for both dogs and their owners. In particular, adolescent dogs may find it especially hard due to their decreased ability to cope with frustration. Appropriate and individualised static and slow-movement enrichment provision during this period can significantly decrease stress, frustration and boredom levels and help owners manage their dogs through a difficult time.