Stimulate Them!

Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity.  It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time. 

An Amur tiger cub enjoying bubble enrichment at the zoo. Amur (Siberian) Tigers are critically endangered. Less than 40 exist in the wild. Zoo breeding programs are helping the species to survive.

While working for a decade as an Enrichment Coordinator for various animal sections at the Audubon Zoo, I learned that physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the plant.  Squid, poison dart frogs, mice, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, parrots, ferrets, anteaters, cats, and pigs all need daily mental and physical stimulation!  Think of any animal, and I assure you that it needs daily stimulation.

Life is very stale and very boring without enrichment.  Imagine sitting on the couch in your home. There are no windows. You cannot leave the house.  No one ever visits you.  You have no radio, T.V. iPhone, or internet.  You have to eat and drink the same thing every day.  What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, then a week, then a month?  This kind of mental stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures.  In fact, it’s downright deadly.

All animals need enrichment, which is a fairly simple but important concept.  Enrichment improves or enhances the environment for an individual animal and stimulates the animal to investigate and interact with their surroundings more.  At the Audubon Zoo, I would enrich an animal’s environment by making changes to structures in their enclosures, present novel objects and scents for them to investigate, change how we presented food to them, and much more.

We encouraged them to forage, hunt, and handle their food in ways that are natural to them in the wild. (The Shape of Enrichment has a great sample article of this kind of enrichment.)  These tools were used on a regular basis at our zoo to alleviate boredom.  Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.  Giving animals more choices prevents boredom!

 

animal enrichment_pets_DIY puzzle toys
Offering an animal more CHOICES prevents boredom and other unwanted behaviors!

Coordinating Enrichment for Exotics

As an Enrichment Coordinator, it was my job to ensure that every animal in a particular section had species-appropriate enrichment provided for them every day.  This could be anything from planting geographically appropriate plant species to encourage a critically endangered female Blue Iguana to forage on her native country’s plants to prepare her body for breeding season, to providing a Boomer Ball for our Miniature Donkey in the Children’s Zoo to keep her from becoming bored and harassing the goats, sheep, or visitors!

 

The video below is an excellent example of how we could use a Boomer Ball in a captive zoo environment.  This demonstrates the fun and importance of mental and physical enrichment, with a focus on Choice, Change, and Complexity.

Otters Playing with Boomer Balls at the Philadelphia Zoo

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


What Captive Otters Can Teach Us About Our Pets

Right about now you might be asking, “So what does an otter playing with a ball, underwater, at a zoo, have to do with my pet at home?”  Well, that otter is a perfect example of  what I encourage all of my clients to do with their pets, in their homes, every day: mentally and physically challenge them!   Every one of you has the ability to have this much fun with your pets at home!  I am going to explain how you can do this, why enrichment is so important for your pets, and how it improves your life as well.


How Enrichment Helps

Environmental enrichment, when used properly, can positively address many behavioral issues. This can be anything from “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors that result from the all too common problem in homes: boredom and/or frustration.

In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.


What is Enrichment?

Enrichment can be defined as:

A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history.  It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare .   (Association of  Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] Behavior Scientific Advisory Group 1999, excerpted from Disney’s Animal Programs).

Behavioral enrichment is defined as “the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.”

Simply put, enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.

More simply put:  Add a little creativity, fun, and stimulation to an animal’s life!

Environmental enrichment for pets (also called behavioral enrichment) is a means to enhance a companion animal’s surroundings. It serves to enhance their life through means in which the animal is presented with novelty in his/her environment. The animal is given opportunities to learn. And the animal is encouraged to engage in natural, instinctive, species-specific behaviors.


Why Enrichment Is Important

Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs. 

Behavioral enrichment and environmental enrichment are necessary components of life in captivity.  Enrichment improves the welfare of all animals.   All animals in captivity need environmental enrichment whether they live in a zoo, shelter, laboratory, sanctuary, or your home.  It’s one of the 3 Key Elements That My Work Is Based Upon.

Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn.  This directly relates to your pets at home!  Bored animals are easily frustrated, and frustration can lead to destruction.  You can avoid boredom and destruction by enriching your pets!  Enrichment is one of the keys to enhancing your pet’s life.  It is also one of the easiest tools to implement on a daily basis.

Enrichment at Home Serves To:

  •        Curb boredom and restlessness of an animal
  •         Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
  •         Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
  •         Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion

 

Types of Enrichment 

Enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories.  All of these can be used at home with your pets:

  • Food based
  • Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
  • Novel objects
  • Social
  • Positive Training
  • Foraging
DIY pet-enrichment-puzzle-feeders_dog_cat_parrot_turtle
Food, sensory, novel objects, and foraging enrichment are all shown in this image of pets in homes. Can you identify each one?

The Key to Successful (and appropriate!) Enrichment 

As I mentioned earlier, enrichment is something that can, and should be, incorporated into your animal companion’s life every day.  The image above is a great example of how easy it is to do!  However, the key to successful (and appropriate) enrichment for an individual animal is doing a bit of research.  Your homework is to understand your pet’s natural history.  This means that you need to learn about the history of their species, or background and history of their breed.

For example, did you know?

  • The Italian Greyhound was bred to  hunt rabbits.
  • The Dachshund was used to hunt badgers.
  • The main reason cats were bred and kept around homes was originally for hunting vermin.
  • The Bengal cat breed originally came from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats.
  • Although cats are carnivores, they still have an occasional craving for live green plants.

All of this matters!  

The breeding history and the natural history of animals affects our pet’s today – even if only on a small level at times.  Your domestic house cat still has a strong predatory instinct, so she needs to hunt every day.  Your cockatoo may live in a metal enclosure in your house, but he/she still has the innate need to chew, fly, and forage.  Your couch potato dog might have a lineage that was bred to swim and retrieve.  We must provide opportunities for animals to do things that are in their DNA.  We can provide simulated hunting, chewing, foraging, and seeking in our homes.  This is what enrichment provides.  It’s important that we take the time to put the pieces of their breed /species puzzle together.


 

Ask yourself:

  • What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
  • Are they nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal?
  • Do they like to climb, hide, or fly?
  • Do they enjoy chewing, foraging or digging?
  • Do they need to soak or bask?
  • Do they hunt, stalk, ambush, or chase?
  • What does this breed of cat do really well, naturally?
  • What does this breed of dog do on his/her own that might be a peek into their genes?
  • What was this breed of dog, cat, horse, etc. originally bred for?
  • What behaviors does this species do naturally in the wild?
  • What kinds of food are found in their country of origin?

Exploring the breed- and species-specific background for each animal in your home is where we should begin thinking about how to provide appropriate enrichment for them.

The video below is an example of how hedgehogs naturally behave in the wild when they have the opportunity to make their own choices.  Why does this matter?  Well, if a hedgehog owner knows how hedgehogs naturally behave, then they can then provide this kind of stimulating environment for their hedgehog in the home!  The same concept is true for your dog, cat, parrot, or turtle!  When we learn about how our animals would behave naturally in the wild, we then have the tools to help them thrive and live long, healthy, happy lives with us in our homes!

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


How You Can Provide Enrichment at Home! 

Most people have limited resources available to enrich the lives of their animal companions, which results in a huge lack of appropriate enrichment with most household pets, especially exotic animals.  Making a few changes to their daily routines can greatly enhance the life and longevity of your animal companion! They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.   

 

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your pet’s life!

One thing I learned very quickly while working at the zoo was that funds were limited.  If you wanted to do a lot of enrichment, you had to get creative and do it yourself.  This now carries over into our home, and also when I am working with a family that has a very limited budget.  I teach my clients that anyone can make enrichment toys out of almost anything, and in the process you get to recycle in a super fun way!

Every night we give our dog Hocus Pocus (and the cats) some sort of enrichment challenge to do.  Below is a video demonstrating a very easy one for her, but the point is to not just “give a dog a bone”.  Make them work for it!  Dogs are natural foragers, so allow your dog to utilize his/her natural instincts!  Be as creative as you want to be!  This kind of enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation, and in the process they learn that being alone is a Very Good Thing.  Bonus: it gives you time to do whatever you need to get done while they are having fun!



 

Here’s another suggestion: The old school (“traditional”) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.  Enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors!  The video below is a great example of providing simple mental and physical enrichment for a very smart and energetic dog.

And here’s another easy example that we do with our dog, Hocus Pocus every night!


Below are a few more examples of simple, easy enrichment that we use in our home on a daily basis.  Each of these are examples of natural behaviors that the animal would do in the wild if they were given choices.  Click the links to see each short video:

Make toys, or buy feeders that “feed” your cat’s natural hunting instinct!
The BoomerBall "Herding Ball" is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It's also great for horses when 3.5" holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.
The BoomerBall “Herding Ball” is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It’s also great for horses when 3.5″ holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.

What Science Has Shown Us

Results from a study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more.  These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward.  The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.

Now let that really sink in for a moment …. What does that tell you?

 


 

In the video below, Chopin, the Moluccan cockatoo, is being challenged mentally and physically to utilize his natural foraging and problem solving skills to retrieve a high-value nut from a puzzle feeder.  We used this kind of enrichment for Chopin to reduce aggression, frustration, and boredom.



 

I encourage everyone to learn what their animal enjoys doing.  Discover their natural behaviors. Learn the history of the breed, and the natural history of the species.  Once you understand these things, you can challenge the animal to move out of their stale comfort zone and step into the space of Who The Animal Really Is.   Enrichment allows us to bring out the inner “House Panther” in a lazy cat.  Enrichment transforms destructive dogs into mentally healthy canine companions.  It changes frustrated parrots into relaxed, feathered friends.

Daily enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming, but the more creative you get, the more fun your animals will have!  Make it a FUN challenge for you and them!

TIP: Be there with them as they discover their new toy.  Encourage them every time they make a small success!  Don’t just leave them alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder.  You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.”  You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress!  The same is true for our animal companions.  Encourage them.  Praise them when they make small progress, and even when they are just trying to figure it out!

enrichment

What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals?  Please share in the comments below!

 

Hugs and Hostages

Image

 

I will be the first to admit that sometimes I want to hug our dog and cats (and other animals) like the Abominable Snowman in the bit from “Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters” cartoon.   But I don’t … because I know they don’t enjoy it.  And I would not enjoy it if someone did that to me.

Sometimes a hug to our animal companions is more like holding them hostage.  Obviously they aren’t really our “hostages”, but we may be unknowingly forcing them to interact with us in a way they would not choose on their own.

If you don’t believe me, have someone take a picture of you holding your animal hostage (I mean, hugging and squeezing them) and then look at the expression on their face.  Before you do this, make sure you know the stress signals that dogs, cats, birds, horses, (insert any species here) display when they are uncomfortable.  Then look at the picture and be really honest.  Ask yourself: Are they truly enjoying it, or are they tolerating it?

If I found out that a person I loved to hug only tolerated my lovey squeezes, I would put an end to it (mainly because I would feel weird now), because I wouldn’t want to push myself onto someone that didn’t want my affection.  Most people don’t want to hear this, but animals are no different in that way.  A lot of animals really don’t want to be manhandled and coddled.  Most of them will offer and solicit affection on their terms.

Instead of forcing ourselves onto an animal, allow them to come to you for affection and attention.  If you discovered that your animal companion really didn’t enjoy your hug-a-palooza, would you continue to force it on them?

cuddling pets
A humorous take on hugging the you-know-what out of your companion animal

 

 —> Please take a moment to check out this brief but comical and insightful post, You’re Making Me Uncomfortable!” to understand how hugs can affect dogs. <—


It’s not in a dog’s nature to show affection by hugging.  Many dogs don’t really enjoy being petted or hugged.  They tolerate it.  Many very tolerant dogs, who allow the “kidnap cuddle”, can go from tolerant to intolerant very quickly under “the perfect storm” conditions.  We must become dog aware and teach others how to do this as well, especially children.

Studies have shown that dogs who bite children involved “familiar children”, who “were most commonly bitten in relation to food or resource guarding and “benign” interactions such as petting, hugging, bending over, or speaking to the dog.”

Dr. Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist, provides insight into why dogs in general don’t like hugs, but also how we can tell whether or not our own dogs enjoy them.

 

no_hugs1
Children are, by far, the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured. Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs. Many bites happen when children are hugging their dog and holding him/her “hostage”.

 

Although some dogs are not reactive about being kissed and hugged, these types of interactions are potentially provocative, leading to bites.  In a study we published in a journal called Injury Prevention, we looked at dogs that had bitten children and found that most children had been bitten by dogs that had no history of biting.  Most important here, familiar children were bitten most often in the contexts of ‘nice’ interactions — such as kissing and hugging with their own dogs, or dogs that they knew. ~ Dr. Reisner, Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services

 

Next time, you go in for that monster love hug, ask yourself:  Is your dog (or cat) really enjoying your hugs?  Or is he/she just enduring it because they know it will be over soon?

Next time you see your child (or someone else’s child) going in for the monster hug to the family dog (or cat), please stop the child and show them safer ways to love an animal.

Let’s encourage our pets and other companion animals to offer affection and attention (that we so deeply appreciate), on their own terms.


Note: This is a judgement free zone! All comments and feedback are welcome! I deeply understand that most parents and guardians are doing the best with what they have, and what they know how to do. This post is only meant to help and educate families living with pets.

Learn more about dogs, kids, and hugs at Family Paws.

  One of my dearest friends and her dog Cara, displaying what it looks like when the person AND the dog are enjoying a hug.
One of my dearest friends and fellow dog agility trainer, hugging her dog Cara, displaying what it looks like when the person AND the dog are enjoying a hug.

“Recognising our own mistakes helps us to empathise non-judgementally with others and helps enable us to understand their issues.” ― Jay Woodman


Recommended Reading: You’re Making Me Uncomfortable

 

Holy Moly Hormones!

“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.” 
― Paulo Coelho

These are a few behaviors that parrot guardians often see during The Season of Hormones!

It’s that time of year again! … Spring is here. The hormones have kicked in. Get Ready.

Many of you know the scenario: One day your affectionate parrot is a content, happy member of your family, and the next minute he or she is acting like a psychotic monster attacking everyone and everything! Hormones are on the rise, feathers are flying, and beaks are gnashing!

These Jekyll and Hyde personality changes are often due to “mating” season (AKA Spring to us humans).  Bird hormones tend to kick into high gear as their bodies prepare for ‘breeding season’. Don’t be mad at your feathered friend. They can’t help it, and their behavior only serves a greater purpose for them in the wild: Hormones dictate breeding success in birds.

Some animals produce more offspring than others. Hormones like prolactin and corticosterone can exercise a crucial influence on the behaviour of birds in the breeding season and therefore on their reproductive success. ~ Princeton University researchers

In the world of birds, the arrival of Spring means one very important thing: it’s time to get their bird breeding on!  Mating is how their species survives!  So strap on your patience pants, and maybe a harness for yourself, because this is most likely going to be a bumpy ride!

For many parrot guardians this is a very trying time of year. Here’s are two things that you can do to get through this without losing your mind – or a finger: be patient and compassionate.  This is a difficult time for your feathered friend as well.  Their hormones are changing to prepare for breeding. This affects their bodies, and their moods. Remember how awful your hormonal years were?? These changes can make them more irritable. You can expect more screaming, biting, more destruction, and more unpredictable mood swings. Again, you must be patient; this won’t last forever.  It will get better if you know how to help them.

Read on to discover some of the common signs of hormonal behavior in birds, and how to help your feathered friend cope with these hormone surges, so you can have a safer, healthier home environment.

It’s very important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a hormonal parrot, so we don’t merely label them as “crazy” or “mean”. Remember that every behavior serves a purpose to that animal.  It’s up to us as their guardians to be the detective and help them cope in our human world.

What To Look For:

• Eye pinning (pupils dilating and constricting)
• Wing flapping
• Tail fanning
• Trembling, with wings dropped low in a ‘begging’ posture (he/she is asking you to feed him as a mate)
• Panting when touched outside of the head and neck area
• Regurgitating for you or for his/her toys
• Increased appetite
• Lifting the vent while cuddling (if female)
• Mounting your hand by gripping your thumb (if male)
• Head-bobbing, hopping/bouncing, or making ‘heart wings’ for you
• Plucking or barbering feathers
• Territoriality over the cage, room, you, or a family member
• Excess aggression; including biting, screaming, and beak-bashing

Hormones (triggered by weather changes, increased daylight hours and a variety of other factors) start coursing through the blood stream bringing about chemical changes in the body and some pretty odd behaviors.

Other companion Bird Hormone Surge signs to be aware of:

Note: Depending on the species, age, and individual animal, nesting behavior can last from a couple of weeks to a month or more.

 

If you are seeing any of these behaviors, read on to learn a few tips to help a hormonally charged bird:

  • Gently avoid encouraging amorous advances from your feathered friend.
  • Be more aware of your bird’s body language; aggression can be avoided if you are paying attention to their signals.

 

Please note: “Serious physical and psychological problems can develop if pet birds remain in reproductive hormone behavior for prolonged periods. Such birds are considered to be in chronic reproductive status (CRS), and owners should seek the assistance of their avian veterinarian and/or a parrot behavior consultant to help resolve this situation.”

 

fearless

Sited Sources:

http://www.birdchannel.com

 

The Problem with “NO”

Tuesday’s Training Tip: The Problem with “NO”

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling an animal “no,” except that it doesn’t give them enough information. Instead of saying “no!”, show them what you want them to do instead. Animals don’t generalize; their behaviors are very specific, so we should be specific. For example, when the cat jumps on the counter, the dog jumps on a person, or the bird chews on something inappropriate, rather than saying “NO!” to the unwanted behavior, ask for another behavior such as “off”, “sit”, or “give”.

“No” is not a behavior. We should be asking for another behavior instead of the one that we don’t want to see.

Be clear in what you want them to do, rather than what you *don’t* want them to do. You will see faster results and everyone will be less frustrated!

Be Careful What You Wish For

Be Careful What You Wish For