Ok, it’s slightly dramatic but the question that comes up almost weekly in my enrichment group, Canine Enrichment, is this,
Will allowing him to tear up boxes to get the food out just teach him to destroy everything? (In many of the enrichment activities shown in the group, food or toys are placed in boxes for the dog to find)
I must have answered this a thousand times by now (poetic exaggeration). NO it will not. Dogs are absolute masters at watching and noticing everything we do. They know when our behaviour might pay (they get a treat) or when it never pays.
If the dog sometimes (and it doesn’t have to be very often) gets a few morsels off our dinner plate when we take the dishes out to the kitchen for washing, what happens? the dog eagerly follows us to the kitchen the minute we stand up with the dirty plate in our hand. I’m sure everyone has seen this behaviour, its very common.
However, who has a dog which tries to break into the plate cupboard the minute our back is turned? almost nobody. WHY? Because dogs quite easily understand context and patterns of behaviour and all the cues we are giving off. They easily understand when we are preparing a box for them (to destroy) just as they know when we are preparing their meal. They see our pattern of behaviour, they know there’s a chance of something good, they are up and interested; they know the game is on. They don’t get the same signals at other times. They understand the context.
In many years of giving my dogs cardboard boxes to destroy, never have they attempted to access a box not meant for them. This of course doesn’t mean that a dog will not destroy things which you wanted to keep. It means only that using boxes in enrichment is not teaching them to destroy all boxes, just as letting them walk into your house isn’t teaching them to walk into all houses.
I also remove the box once the food or toy has been found. The game is to find the items in the box, the game is not the destruction of the box. This allows a clear focus and objective rather than the general destruction of boxes for no reason. Of course though, it is prudent to keep valuables (or boxes you want to keep) out of the dogs reach so that accidents can’t happen.
As with everything in life, there are some risk factors to consider; are there any toxins on the box? will the dog eat bits of box? is the glue safe? You should also supervise at all times.
So, will enrichment turn him into a destruction monster? NO.
Now that’s it, I’m never answering that question again 🙂
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read