The Value of Enrichment

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An Interview with Rachael in the Kennel

By Elizabeth Nelson, Berkshire Humane Society
Printed in the Summer 2018 “Humane Tales” Newsletter

During her time as a volunteer and part-time Canine Adoption Counselor, Rachael Carlo has learned a lot. She is an undergraduate animal science major on the pre-veterinarian track at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her budding talent and expertise has been a boon to the shelter. Recently, Rachael has taken on training and exercising shelter dogs with challenging histories and personalities. She is a big proponent of canine enrichment, which is defined by the ASPCA as “additions to an animal’s environment with which the animal voluntarily interacts and, as a result, experiences improved physical and/or psychological health.” Between training and enrichment, Rachael and our staff help these long-term dogs cope in the shelter environment while waiting for their people.

To start, what are some of the reasons a dog might have a harder time getting adopted?

Usually it’s due to behavioral issues. One of the main things we see are dogs that are too hyper, they have too much energy, and no one ever took the time to train them and channel that energy. Also age and medical reasons.

The majority of dogs surrendered are between 8 and 18 months old.

That’s right. That’s the teenage-adolescence phase when they really start experiencing a rise in energy and hormones, and they’re big enough now that they can actually do damage to the house or when they jump on people. Lots of nipping, biting, grabbing.

What are some of the most common behavioral issues that the canine staff deal with?

Mostly it’s general unruliness: jumping, pulling on the leash, barking, reactivity.
We see a lot of dogs that weren’t socialized early on, as well as some aggression and fearfulness. A lot of undesirable behavior comes down to socialization and basic obedience that people fail to provide.

Talk about the types of training staff provide during basic care.

To start, walking on a leash. We want to make sure that anyone can hook a dog up and not get pulled over. Also basic obedience like sit, down, stay, not jumping, getting along with other animals, and not reacting when they’re on the leash. We reinforce a lot of automatic sits, so that the dogs will sit instead of performing a naughty behavior like jumping on a guest.

You can really see the evidence of that training after a dog has been here for
a couple of weeks.

Yeah. Definitely. Usually, obedience will improve, even while some behaviors and states of mind might get worse. We see a lot of anxiety in shelter dogs. We work hard to establish a healthy, dependable routine that meets all of their needs. Still, a shelter is not a home. Some regression is normal, but they usually begin to improve again with a little time.

We had a dog named Marley who was here for a very long time. He was naturally kinda nuts, but pretty stable behaviorally. After two months he turned into a little ball of anxiety—pacing, drooling. There can come a point when stress starts to stack up.

We keep a close eye on all the dogs, especially in their kennels because that’s where they spend most of their time and where they might exhibit atypical behavior like spinning, tail biting, becoming more fearful or aggressive, drooling, pacing, digging in their blankets, destroying everything, or barking non-stop.

What are some of the ways you combat the stress?

Pretty much every day, the dogs are fed out of a slow bowl so that they practice finding their food. We also give them stuffed Kongs which gives them 30 minutes where they can just zen out and chew on something. We fill them with wet food and treats.

For the high energy dogs, we take them out to the pen for running and play time. Some of the lower key dogs enjoy having a volunteer sit with them and just hang out, giving them extra attention. We place some dogs at the reception desk or in the back office to give them a break from all the stimulation in the kennel.

We also practice training them. We do a lot of recall games and automatic sits. We’ll put out new and different obstacles in courses so they can gain confident walking on different surfaces and around different things.

On Wednesdays, the dogs work with Lisa, our lead Family Dog School instructor. She has a wealth of knowledge that is really specific to shelter dogs. She teaches us tips to help the dogs show really well when they come out of the kennel, and a lot of those skills stick with the dogs even if the new owner doesn’t exactly keep it up. That’s extremely helpful because a lot of owners might not come back for training, or they might not understand the importance of training.

Aside from behavior issues, what else makes it harder for people to adopt a more challenging dog?

Mostly it’s the long-term commitment. A lot of people want a dog to just be a buddy and hang out with them, which is understandable. But a high-energy, active dog can be a two-hour commitment each day to make sure they get the training, exercise, and enrichment they really need to be healthy and happy. It’s a much bigger commitment than most people are looking for, and a lot of people don’t have the skills—or the desire to learn—that are needed to take care of a more difficult dog.

What do you want people to know about long-term shelter dogs?

That a lot of them snap out of it when they are finally placed into a home. That once they get the quiet time and one-on-one exercise, enrichment, and training—when they get the chance to bond with a person—they turn into really, really
great dogs.

Any specific dogs come to mind?

I remember Jasmine. She needed a lot of basic obedience and a lot of energy outlets. Right now we’re working with Gronk, who is our new long-term guy. He’s my project, and he is definitely one who needs to be out of the kennel every single day. He needs to be worked and he will play fetch for hours if you let him.

What advice do you offer to dog owners about enrichment they can provide their dogs at home?

It’s a wonderful tool for owners, and it really helps provide value to the dog’s life. Even if you don’t have a harder dog that needs intense exercise, the stimulation that enrichment provides can break up a dog’s day. Examples are a new toy or new type of activity, going to new places, seeing new things. Puzzles are great for dogs that are super smart and need an outlet for their intelligence. 

One of the things I love to do is hide treats around the house and then let my dog go out and sniff around to find them. Snuffle mats are really great. If you don’t want to buy or make one, you can chuck kibble into the grass and you get a free snuffle mat. If the dog enjoys grooming, that’s also a great activity. 

Sometimes people pass off enrichment as being over the top or even a bit looney, but if they actually try it with their dog, I think they would discover how much value it can add to their dog’s life.