Environmental Enrichment: The History & Impact for Your Dog


Environmental enrichment resulted from maltreatment of animals in zoos, but this disheartening beginning has led to vast improvements in animal welfare. Learn about the history and what you can do to provide a positive environment for your dog.

The History

In the 1960s concern grew about animal behaviors in zoos. Why weren't these lions and tigers and bears acting as they show on those nature shows? Instead, zookeepers and the public saw animals pacing back and forth, mostly lying down, and generally doing nothing.

The animals in zoos at that time, were not behaving like animals. As a result, researchers started studying captive animals in zoos and found that their small barren environments were the problem. After our own year plus of lockdowns, it is not hard to imagine how these animals may have felt.

To remedy the problem, the first step was to provide an environment more aligned with the animal's natural habitats. For example, providing monkeys with rope to climb and elevated platforms to eat on as a replacement for vines and large trees. For lions, this could include grass to lie on, a larger space to roam, and a watering hole. When researchers changed the barren cages to more species-appropriate environments, they saw drastic changes in the animals' behaviors. Monkeys were climbing, lions were swimming, and animals began exploring instead of pacing. As a result, animals were getting more exercise and the public was happy to see animals acting more naturally.

This changing of spaces to reflect their natural habitates is referred to as environmental enrichment. These early changes lead to laws that created guidelines for environments, making this type of enrichment a requirement for the welfare of captive animals. That, in turn, opened up a whole field dedicated to understanding animals' health and wellness need.

What is Environmental Enrichment When it Comes to your Dog?

Environmental enrichment is simply your dog's space. Dogs adapt well to living harmoniously with us, so we often forget they are animals living in a human-centered world. Walking on a paved street with cars whizzing by or going inside buildings with man-made materials and items can feel a bit strange and even scary. Having positive experiences in these different places helps build the dog's comfort level and confidence!

How Can you Make your Space more Dog-friendly?

Safety. Just like you child-proof a home for a child, dog-proofing your space provides a safe environment to explore and play. This means clearing reachable areas of hazardous items your dog might chew on and being aware of what your dog could knock over and break.

Bed placement. Watch where your dog likes to sleep. Is it someplace dark or in the sun? Cooler or warmer? Away from people and noise or right in the center of the activity? Their natural resting spot is usually a good place to put their bed.

Safe Space. Most dogs will crave a place to be alone especially if they are feeling uncomfortable or scared. This can be a cozy nook or an open crate they can come in and out of as they choose.

Toys. Provide toys for your dog, especially ones that mimic what they would find in nature. This also enriches their environment.

While our dogs are typically more adaptable to our environments than zoo animals like a monkey or lion, it is still helpful to be aware of its impact. This awareness and simple adjustments to our homes can lead to positive changes in your dog's behavior and well-being. Learn about the other types of enrichment and activities to do with your dog!

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