The Revision Guide for Student Nurses (Part I)

Environmental Enrichment For Dogs


Basic needs
A dog's environment should be designed to satisfy locomotor and investigatory behavioural needs. Many dogs are highly motivated to:

  • search
  • dig
  • use prey directed behaviour (finding, chasing, biting)
  • chew

Ignoring these needs creates the risk of the dog choosing inappropriate outlets. This is especially true for younger dogs or dogs that have spent periods in quarantine or other kennels.

Chewing is very important to most dogs; in fact the only game that a normal dog will play on its own is destroying things by chewing them up! If a dog chews the furniture some people may try to discourage the behaviour by removing all chewable things including the dog's chewy toys; the effect is usually to make the problem worse.

It is much better to provide suitable outlets that you can redirect the dog to rather than try to suppress the behaviour completely.

Also, do not assume that dogs will occupy themselves with these games when alone. They are social animals and will generally do more when another social companion is around than they will on their own.


Re-directing a dog's basic needs
A dog's normal behaviours can be redirected into specific planned activities. Specific methods include:


  • Scatter feeding: scatter part or all of the dog's ration of dry food on the lawn (or in the park if there are no other dogs).
  • Hide the food bowl.
  • Use an activity ball to feed the dog instead of a food bowl.
  • Use two or three hidden bowls with wet food in, placed in different parts of the house and garden.
  • Put small amounts of food around the garden inside containers such as buckets (on their side or upright) or suspend feeders from trees.


  • Redirect this to a more suitable location in a park. Most dogs will mimic digging behaviour displayed by the owner. Simply make an excited digging action on a patch of earth whilst saying 'dig, dig, dig'. The majority of dogs will learn to dig on command this within a few minutes.
  • Submerge an empty bucket in the soil. Put a small dog chew in it and lightly sprinkle with earth. Show the dog so that it removes the chew. Repeat daily, each time increasing the depth of earth until the bucket is ¾ full. You could also put a rock on the top or experiment with other ways of burying things.


This involves a lot of different behaviours including: finding prey, chasing, catching/killing and chewing. All of these can be satisfied individually so that overall motivation to hunt is reduced.


  • Use an activity ball.
  • Throw-fetch games.
  • Throw a ball, toy or frisbee back and forth between two people (let the dog get it occasionally and give the dog a treat for success).
  • Hanging toys (not too high!). Hang an activity ball on a rope so that jumping and bashing it will release food. Do the same with inverted coconut shells with wet or dry food inside. Tie string around the middle of a plastic bottle with food in.
  • Toys for shaking and biting. These can include squeaky toys, ones with legs that flap, and rag toys that flap about.
  • Provide good targets for chewing or oral displacement: Nylabone (drilled and filled), rasks/jumbones as part of daily diet and / or rag toys (smeared with food).

Use your ingenuity to develop new ways of using dog toys and different feeding methods to create interest and variety in the dog's life.


The effect of social interaction
It cannot be overemphasised that dogs are social animals and need social play. Moreover, they will often not play unless there is some sort of social facilitation; the presence of a person or another dog. Activity balls and other food searching games can sometimes overcome this by providing positive reinforcement through food rewards. However, many dogs will not play with such toys whilst on their own. They require a competitive or co-operative element. Even another dog may not satisfy this. Usually, owners therefore need to be present in order to stimulate and enhance play.

© Jon Bowen 2000