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CHASING AWAY THE BLUES: A Guide for Keeping Your Dog Happy and Content this Winter

Published on
11 Jan 2022
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CHASING AWAY THE BLUES: A Guide for Keeping Your Dog Happy and Content this Winter 


Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

A dog lying on a bedDescription automatically generated
Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

Embarking on the journey of at-home enrichment might sound like a daunting task if you’re unfamiliar, but at its core, it’s about engaging your dog’s mind to tire them out mentally, making those indoor moments more satisfying. We’ve all had those moments of getting home from work and your dog is bouncing off the walls even though they’ve had a walk already. If your canine buddy is brimming with energy that you can’t seem to shake, with some simple routine changes, your little one can be just as fulfilled indoors without you having to invest unruly amounts of time or money. So, let’s dive into some strategies to sweep away their winter depression and ensure they are happy and content all year-round.

What is Enrichment Anyway? 

It sounds like a complicated concept, so I reached out to Emily Anderson, fear-free dog trainer and owner of Mischief and Manners, to help clear up some confusions around the subject. She explained to me that enrichment is anything exhausts your dog mentally, making their physical exercise all the more rewarding. It can be anything from food puzzles, training sessions, foraging, or scent games. The key is to find activities that tap into your little one’s natural behaviors and help alleviate their instinctual urges. 

When I asked why it works so well, she explained that brain stimulation makes the physical exercise that follows even more impactful in fulfilling your dog. It’s the same for humans, too. Have you ever had a desk job? You’re probably exhausted at the end of the day, even though you haven’t done any physical exercise. 

Enrichment is similar. Research shows that 20 minutes of enrichment for your dog equals 1 hour of physical exercise. “In the winter, I don’t walk my dogs as much as I would ideally like to because it’s miserable for me,” Anderson tells me over a zoom call. She says that the key is figuring out the balance of physical exercise and mental stimulation. “There are things you can do inside that are just as good to exhaust their brain that will help calm them down if you can’t get that physical exercise.”

Enrichment can be anything that takes mental energy for your dog to do. Anything from foraging to seeking, and even learning new tricks are all types of enrichment. The key is to focus on behaviors that come naturally to your little one. If they love chewing, try a Kong. If they like to forage, finding stuff they can safely tear apart can be helpful. If they are food-motivated, food puzzles are a great option. “Just see what your dog likes,” Anderson encourages. 

I wanted some more information as to why enrichment is important, so I also spoke with Dr. Leslie Sinn, veterinarian and trainer at Behavior Solutions. “Dogs are sentient beings, just like we are,” Dr. Sinn says. “If all they’re doing is standing around staring at a wall 24/7, the quality of their life isn’t all that great. Dogs don’t have a lot of choice. And the thing that increases stress and makes life harder for all of us is lack of control, lack of choice, and lack of ability to be able to engage in have some level of mental stimulation,” she explains.

How to Get Started 

Okay, now that we know the basics, let’s figure out how to start implementing enrichment into our dog’s day. Luckily for us, we don’t have to break the bank to make some fun enrichment for our dogs! An old shirt or towel filled with kibble will work to get your dog up and engaged. You can use egg cartons and put kibble in them; cut a hole in a jug, fill it with treats and let your dog roll it around; fill toilet paper tubes with paper and kibble; or buy a food puzzle from a local pet store or online. 

A great way to start is to pick a day of the week when you’re not working and prep so you always have something on hand. “I do peanut butter and yogurt, but you can do what your dog is into,” Anderson says. “I will mix a huge bowl and fill 10 or 12 Kongs at a time. And then my freezer is stocked for the whole week, so [I] don’t have to worry about it.”  

Is it Worth it? 

Dr. Sinn explains that doing more interactive enrichment, like teaching them interesting tricks, builds your connection with your dog. Just like with children, you can’t expect them to bond with you if you don’t engage with them. “You can practice and interact with them positively and reward those interactions, which helps you to destress and improve your relationship with the dog,” she says. “It also gives you a way to redirect them if they’re starting to get a little bit wound up or overly excited or anxious.”

It turns out, the time you spend on enrichment now could help redirect and prevent destructive behavior. I never thought about it before, but if you teach your dog to associate positively with you through enrichment, it is much easier to build connection with them and help gently ease them toward other behaviors. Anderson says that dogs are usually destructive because they feel anxious or bored. If the case is that they don’t have enough stimulation, taking away the things they are destroying and restricting their access won’t solve the problem. “Say you’re teaching a kid not to color on the wall,” Anderson says. “You can’t just say no, don’t do that. You have to give them a piece of paper and teach them where it is okay to color.” She says that dogs are the same way. “Their intelligence is equivalent to a two- or three-year-old. Dogs [are] like toddlers that don’t speak our language, and we expect so much out of [them].

For example, if your dog tends to dig, instead of telling them not to make holes in the yard or keeping them inside more, give them a sandbox or a box full of loose dirt and reward them when they use that instead. 

While it may seem like giving your dog more things to dig, chew, or tear is training them to do it more, Anderson says that they already have innate behaviors and urges that can’t be suppressed. Merely trying to squash them will only make them worse. Giving the dog healthy outlets for their instincts prevents them from damaging things you care about and makes them feel more connected to you in the process. If you’re worried about your dog getting into what they’re not supposed to or getting confused about when is the right time, she recommends setting up your environment for success. 

“Try to give them these things in a particular context where they understand that they’re allowed to do it because you’re giving it to them, versus counter surfing and stealing stuff and then tearing it up,” Anderson says. “I can’t think of a dog I’ve ever met that when we started doing enrichment like that it made them want to tear more things up. The behavior was already there. If you give them an outlet for that, you can target that behavior toward somewhere they’re allowed to do it.”

Dr. Sinn explains that dogs need enrichment not only to have more stable energy levels and connect better with you, but to be happy and fulfilled in their lives. “With dogs, providing them with some kind of enrichment activities, from a basic humane standpoint, will provide them with a better quality of life, but also provide them with distraction, provide redirection, and allow them to successfully address some of their underlying needs as a dog like sniffing, chewing, searching, and seeking that kind of thing. It generally makes them easier to work with, which was a good reason to do enrichment.”

It’s tough to manage your dog’s energy, especially in the winter. And it is even more difficult if the only outlet they are getting is physical exercise. It’s impossible to keep up! “I don’t want people to feel guilty for not being a good dog owner and feeling like they’re not doing enough,” Anderson says. The trick is to work smarter, not harder. “You feed your dog once or twice a day, so using those opportunities to feed them in a puzzle toy or snuffle mat, that is already making their routine more interesting and making enrichment part of their day.”

“People focus on the basic things like food, water, and vet care,” Dr. Sinn contemplates. “As you know, there’s a lot more to our lives than food, water, doctor care, and exercise. As we’re starting to make our dogs feel more like members of our families, we’re becoming more aware of the rich and varied lives that they can lead and trying to address those needs rather than simply having a dog.”