One of the issues which is often raised in my Canine Enrichment Facebook group is that people feel that their dog doesn’t understand what to do or just isn’t interested in the enrichment item.
What are the reasons and what can we do to help the dog?
Lack of motivation
Technically, motivation is the willingness to commence and maintain behaviour toward (or away from) stimuli in order to meet physical and/or psychological needs or desires. Simply put, dogs need to want to do it; it needs to be giving them something they need or want.
Imagine that the dog is fed freely from a bowl. He may even be fed a little too much because the owner never weighs the food and overestimates how much is required. If you then place 2 pieces of kibble in a puzzle toy, does the dog have a need or desire to try to get them out? It depends on the dog! A typical Labrador might still be motivated to get them out but your typical Chihuahua might not be too bothered because he has had all he needs and doesn’t have the greedy lab genes (I’m stereotyping somewhat in order to set a clear example).
Feed less from bowls and more through interaction and enrichment. It doesn’t need to be difficult. We’re not trying to frustrate the dog but spark an interest. Even just rolling kibble like marbles and allowing the dog to chase them can be very enriching; all that chasing, catching and winning, exercising the dog’s coordination skills. Or perhaps food wrapped in a tea towel which allows the dog to bring that fantastic nose into action as he pinpoints each piece. Generally speaking, dogs really don’t need food bowls.
Lack of understanding
The dog may not have any idea how to access the food. Imagine you give a Kong Wobbler (pictured below). The dog sniffs it but can’t see the food (this concept may be new if he has always been fed from a bowl), maybe he nudges the wobbler a few times but nothing happens. At this point why would he carry on trying? He doesn’t know he can make the food come out. Dogs can smell food in many areas which they can’t access, for example within the fridge or in your food cupboards, maybe the empty snack wrapper in your pocket. Dogs are easily able to detect those scents but they learn to ignore them because accessing the food isn’t an option.
We can show the dog that he can access the treats, by making the game very, very easy and then slowly increasing the challenge until we reach the intended goal. Maybe leaving the lid off the wobbler to get him interested, then balancing it on top, then screw it on. Read more about this here
The dog’s history
The dog may never have learned that his interaction or investigation can pay dividends. He may have been chastised in the past for investigating items, for example sticking his nose in a shopping bag. He may have learned that although the human is great and gives lots of good stuff, the human can also be unpredictable and scary (maybe yelling when frustrated). Dogs with such a history may be less willing to investigate new things (even if we say it’s ok).
Try to avoid that all-too-human impulse to chastise (it comes with unintended consequences). Reward any small steps and always allow the dog to feel safe. Start off easy and build his confidence slowly.
There could be a health reason why your canine friend isn’t engaging. Look out for any changes in his normal behaviour; you know their normal behaviour better than anyone else.
If in any doubt you should get him checked over by your veterinarian.
Some activities just don’t suit some dogs. Some generally more timid dogs may be quite nervous of a toy like the Kong Wobbler because they bang and clang as they are knocked around. My West Highland Terrier (Miss Daisy) isn’t interested in doing any heavy chewing, so her Kong has quite loose food inside which comes out easily. Mr B, on the other hand, could quite happily chew frozen or very compact Kongs one after another all day long (that’s not a recommendation).
Mr B loves messing about in water, so a play in the stream is perfect enrichment for him. Miss Daisy has no interest in water and trying to get her into a stream would be more aversive (and stressful) than enriching. Give her somewhere to dig and she is as happy as a double rollover lottery winner.
Consider what your dog likes because not everything will be enriching for every dog. Considering the breed and what they were bred to do can be a good starting point in finding activities which may fulfil strong desires.
EDIT: After publishing the above blog, I received a comment suggesting that I was forcing the dogs to do things or starve. It’s a reminder that, no-matter, how clear you think you’ve been, somebody will misinterpret it. So just for clarity, my dogs’ food is weighed out into containers for each day and that’s what they get, no-matter what activity we are doing. I just use it in interesting ways to enrich their lives and fulfil their needs.
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