Why Kennel Enrichment Is So Important

June 3, 2013  

Tips to keep dogs mentally and physically active, both in a shelter and at home

By Kirstyn Northrop Cobb

I’ve worked in animal shelters for quite some time now and during that time, I have come to learn the importance of kennel enrichment. Not only is it super helpful in an animal shelter, but a lot of this stuff I do with my own dogs at home. So, check out this list of simple ways to help dogs in a shelter environment, or just in your own home!

Dogs are not meant to live in a kennel environment. Dogs are social animals and the isolation from living in a kennel can have very negative effects. Studies show that after just 2 weeks in a shelter, parts of a dog’s brain start to die off. There are so many little things that we can do to help.

First, we must think about what it’s like for the dog. Imagine that you were taken from your home and put in a jail where you don’t speak the language and you had no idea why. That is what all of these dogs are going through. Now, let’s look at the jail environment. We have all seen Silence of the Lambs, right? That scene where Jodi Foster is going through the jail and all of the prisoners are screaming at her, well, that’s what our dogs go through on a regular basis. Dogs scream at them every time they walk down that aisle. Eventually, they start to go crazy, too, and they start to do the screaming. It’s frightening and a repetitive, vicious circle. (Of course, in Silence of the Lambs, Jodi Foster leaves after only a few minutes. The dogs are in there for weeks, sometimes years.)

So, let’s focus on what we can do.

All 4 on the Floor. This is simple and easy to teach the dogs. And it will help to increase adoption. If you went into a shelter, would you rather adopt a barking, lunging dog (Dog #1, left) or would you rather adopt a smiling, polite dog (Dog #2, right)?

The second one? Yep, me too. So, let’s work on making all of our dogs the second dog. No treats for dogs that are jumping at the door. And if dogs are jumping at the door to go out, well, wait until they have all four feet on the floor. They’ll get it, and you’ll be amazed at how quiet the kennel will be once they all learn it. What about new dogs coming in? Well, the dogs are jumping and barking because it’s a learned behavior. They see the other dogs doing it, so they think that’s what they are supposed to do. If the other dogs aren’t doing it, they won’t either. Yes, in the beginning, this will take patience, but once you get there, the kennel will be a much more pleasant environment for the dogs and for people!

Calming music! There are many CDs made just to help calm dogs down. It should be played at all times.

Overnight entertainment. Now, imagine you were left along all night, locked in a space with nothing to do. How boring. Dogs that have toys and something to do and think about are happier dogs. Kongs can be stuffed and put in the freezer for use throughout the week. Nylabones are also always available. Something as simple as making sure that a dog has something to do overnight EVERY NIGHT can have such a huge, positive impact on these dogs.

Daytime brain teasers. In addition to Kongs and Nylabones, consider puzzle toys. If you have a dog out, or even in the time that you are walking dogs, throw some treats in a Bob A Lot and put it in a kennel with a dog. They will love the opportunity to work on getting the treats out. Do not leave toys like this alone with dogs overnight, but they will be okay for a short while during the time you are dog walking.

Don’t get into a rut. To keep the dogs thinking, switch it up every so often! Treat buckets are a fantastic way to make a dog happy during the summer and they are so easy! Because of limited freezer space, cups can be used. To make these toys, simply put some small toys or even treats in a cup and fill with water or diluted broth (veggie or chicken would be fine). Put a rope into the cup (leave part of it hanging out) and freeze the whole thing. Once frozen, remove the ice from the cup and either use the rope to hang from kennels or just put into runs. Dogs love them!

Hide and seek. For some extra added fun time, when in the play yard, play hide and seek. Take treats and hide them around the yard. Dogs love sniffing; why not reward them for their work and give them something to do at the same time?

Play groups. Did you know that a 15 minutes of dog-on-dog play is the equivalent of a two hour walk! Take advantage of this! Play groups are fantastic for dogs. They wear them out, keep them mentally active and most importantly, keep them dog friendly! Plus, what a great way to walk two dogs at once! The dogs love it, and we all know that a sleepy dog is a happy dog! Play groups are especially good during adoption hours, as people feel more comfortable with a dog if they see it playing.


Photo courtesy of Jerome Jackson.

A change of scenery. Take a field trip (see top picture). Despite all that we are doing, the kennel is still a stressful place. So, why not let them get away from it all, even if only for a little while? Plus, it’s a great way to get to know more about the dog, such as how the dog does in the car or if the dog likes swimming. It’s amazing bonding time and it gets the dogs seen by the public as well.

Yes, this is a lot to take in, but if we all work together, we can have happier, healthier dogs. Let’s do it for them. After all, isn’t that why we’re here to begin with?

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