Dial Up the Dopamine!

feeling-good

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good.

~Nina Simone


 

Backstory: In a recent post I discussed the implications and far reaching effects of fear . This post will be about the first tool that I recommend when helping pets and their people to effectively cope with stress and fear.

 


The Chemical of Feeling Good

Feeling Good is what everyone strives for. Whether it’s that much needed hug, a glass of wine, mediation, a pay raise, play, or the touch of a lover or loved one, we want and need to feel good.  Animals need to feel good too.  And they will behave and respond to their environment in ways that enable them to feel good, or at the very least, feel better.

Thankfully there are chemicals at work that help both people and animals to feel better.

One of these is Dopamine.

“It’s like one of those scenes from a feel-good Hollywood movie. Where everybody is happy and nobody’s hair fizzes in the wind. Where it doesn’t rain, your shoes stay comfortable all day, and everybody’s jokes are funny.” ― Randa Abdel-Fattah


Dopamine is a chemical in the body.  It’s one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in humans and animals. Dopamine helps regulate movement and emotional responses, It also enables one not only to seek out rewards, but to take action to move toward rewards.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses.

The chemical Dopamine helps to regulate:
-movement
-memory
-pleasurable reward
-behavior and cognition
-attention
-inhibition of prolactin production
-sleep
-mood
-learning

A single molecule in the brain can do all of this! Dopamine Is Powerful.

But so is food. 


Needed Nutrients from Food

Animal Behavior  (including people) is regulated by neurotransmitters and hormones. These substances have precursors – chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways.  For example, Tryptophan, is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter).

If we can make these precursors more or less available we can alter behavior.

One example is the presence (or absence) of Tryptophan in canines. Scientists believe that this may affect both aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamines; hormones produced by the adrenal gland. These may also affect aggression and stress resistance.  You can read more about that here.

The nutrition (or lack thereof) that we provide our animal companions affects not only their body, but also their mind, which in turn affects behavior.

The right kind of food can literally change an animal’s brain chemistry. This is an important first step in everything from training basic behaviors to addressing aggression.


Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also to help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. 


Using Food to Feel Better

We all know to feed our pets when they are hungry.  And most people feed their pets in the morning and night. But what if there was another, better, more effective way to feed them?

What if we fed our pets throughout the day (or night) when they need to feel better?

What if we used food to help them feel better in challenging situations?

What if we used food when they were afraid?

What if food could be a tool you could use to reduce their stress?

What if food appeared when that frightening fox dashes past the window?

What if food was present when you took him to the veterinary’s office?

What if it rained food when she is frustrated, confused, scared, or reactive?

What if food you knew that food was this powerful?

What if you knew you could wield this power to help them to FEEL GOOD?!

Food is that powerful. This is how we should use their food.

BOOMER


The Power of Food

Food can increase the level of dopamine in the brain!  This is why we recommended using FOOD when training, modifying behavior, and when we need to minimize an animal’s stress, fear, aggression, and anxiety.  If an animal is offered food before reaching a high stress level, while in the presence of a stimulus that frightens or triggers her, a positive emotional response occurs.

FOOD IS A TOOL.

Food is not a bribe. We are not teasing, luring, or bribing an animal to get them to do what we want. When we are using the right kind food, there are actual chemical reactions taking place in the brain and the body! Here is some of what is happening when food is used as a tool.

  • When you present a highly desirable food option to an animal you turn on the animal’s ‘seeker system.’  This dials down the emotion of fear.
  • Instead of feeling fear the brain begins to be overcome with the pleasurable feelings that food provides to an animal.
  • It also allows the animal to have a greater ability to focus on the good-feeling sensation and less on the negative emotion (fear, frustration, stress, anxiety, etc.)
  • This enhances an animals positive, focused attentiveness
  • In turn, it allows the animals to shift into a calmer state in their mind and body.
  • In this calmer, more relaxed state, learning and behavior modification can occur.

 

conscious companion_food in training_dopamine


When To Use Food

Visits to the vet. Walks in the park. Unexpected Visitors. Using the vacuum. Bringing a new baby into the home. New people in your apartment. Getting into the cat carrier. Moving. Staying in a hotel.  You name it; there needs to be high value food involved.

I honestly cannot think of when food would not be appropriate to use when working with an animal of any species. Whether you are working with a crocodile to station politely and practice self-restraint, or you are asking a cat to station on her cat tower instead of the counter, food is at the heart of it all.  One of my favorite opportunities to use food is at the vet’s office.  Whether we are at the cat specialist for King Albert’s acupuncture, or we are at the veterinarian waiting room for Hocus’ annual exam, you can bet that I have food on me.

Food should be used during any kind of family transition, or any situation that your animal companion finds challenging.  Food should be used in any situation where your pet might experience anxiety, stress, fear, and even aggression. Yes, you read that correctly. Food can (and should) be used to help a pig, parrot, cat, rat, horse, dog if they are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues.

Anxiety, aggression, frustration, and fear can be managed safely and positively by using food as a tool. Food can increase one’s focus, their attention, their mood, and more!  Food can change a crazed canine into a cool canine. Food can change a fearful feline into a confident kitty. Food can help a bird to not be so bashful.  Food is powerful. And we are not using it enough.

 

Food and Fear_cats


Food to Use

When use are choosing what food to use, think High-Value and practical.  If you are feeding your pet a high-grade pet food, sometimes this can be used as a behavior modification tool. We feed Hocus Pocus the Cadillac of canine food, so she goes bonkers for her kibble! The cats never get dry food these days, so when I break out the grain-free cat kibble they lose their minds!  These are the kind of food responses you want from your pet when you are using food.  If you aren’t sure if your dog or cat’s dry food will make the cut, you will need to experiment with foods that your pet will go nuts for. Some good foods to begin with are turkey, bacon, cheese, hot dogs, fish. etc. -anything they don’t normally receive, or anything they are super psyched to get!

One of my favorite on-the-go-food-treats is Stella and Chewies. These don’t crumble, and are not greasy. And the end goal is met: they are irresistible to the animals.


Pay me in food, human!

Studies have shown that dogs don’t want petting or soothing words as much as they prefer a primary reinforcer (food).  They prefer petting over soothing words, and they prefer food over petting!  I have found this to be true for cats as well. And for parrots and reptiles as well.

So where’s the beef ?  It needs to be used.

Food is a primary reinforcer for our pets! Primary reinforcers are biological.  Food, drink, and pleasure are the principal examples of primary reinforcers. We can use food as a tool with regards to its importance to an animal.

Using food as a tool is not hard, people.  It can be very easy.  Rather than dumping all the food in a boring bowl (ahem, we have talked about this before), it’s better to keep high-value treats (and food that they LOVE) handy.  This food should be hand around the home, convenient in your car, and easily pluck-able from your purse or pocket.

Here’s  Why:  You never know when fear might strike.

Here’s How:  Make it Rain Treats!  Rain those goodies down when and wherever something frightening, startling, or scary happens. (Even if you don’t think the person, place, or event was scary, your pet does), so make it rain, baby.  Rain down the treats!

If you are unfamiliar with food as a tool, you can see how we use food in these videos:

 

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Preparing to go for a walk!  We always have food as a tool.

The Dope Rewards

Let’s get back to Dopeamine for a minute.  Dopamine is considered a “reward” chemical. When we are using food, we are able to increase the level of dopamine in the animal’s brain.   What we as humans, call rewards, are often things that are unexpectedly good. Let’s say for example, you run into an old, favorite pal, or your boss surprises you with a pay raise. Or maybe your spouse takes you on a romantic vacation.  These unexpected events lead to positive prediction errors, and increases in dopamine.

As cool as that is, there is more to the dope, hip chemical called Dopamine. More and more studies are showing that this neurotransmitter is not responsible for pleasure per say, but it has more to do with motivation.


Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself. – Salamone, a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor,

Dopamine-and-addiction-relapse22

Researchers have found that in animals, dopamine levels can actually spike after stress! This could be something such as losing a fight with another animal, or seeing a predator outside the window.  Humans also experience a spike in dopamine after stressful encounters.  Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder also show activity in dopamine-rich parts of the brain when hearing recorded gunshots and other combat sounds.

So what’s with dopeamine coming out during negative experiences?

One researcher believes he has found the reason.  A scientist was able to artificially raise (or lower) dopamine levels in animals. Then he gave them a choice between two rewards with a different value, which could be obtained through different amounts of work.  For example, he wanted to see what a rat would do when given an easy or difficult choice. On one end of a corridor he place a pile of food. On the other end there was a pile of food twice as big, but this end has a small fence that the rat had to jump over to get the food.

The results are fascinating!

Animals with lowered levels of dopamine almost always choose the easier, low-value reward. But the animals with normal levels of dopamine didn’t mind exerting more energy and effort to jump the fence to receive the high-value reward.  (I know many species of animals and people who behave the same way!)  Other studies in depressed human patients have corroborated these results.

The scientist who did the study believes, “This lack of perceived energy is maladaptive, because it reduces the tendency to interact with the environment. But, it could also reflect the body’s attempt to save energy in a crisis.”

I found that study fascinating and helpful.  If motivation is directly related to dopeamine, and food can increase the level of dopeamine, then why are we not using food more often?  Why is food not front and center and at the heart of any training or behavior modification program? Why are we as animal guardians not using food as a tool with our pets?

Maybe today you will.  Maybe one day we all will.

I have hope for us all!

 


 More To Come!

This is part three of a four part series about how to help you and your pets cope with grace and ease during times of stress or Big Family Changes.  Stay tuned for the next post.

But in the meantime, Get Some High High-Value Food … And Don’t Leave Home Without It! 


 

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good

Nina Simone

Thank you.

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” –Dalai Lama

thank you

This is a shout-out to you.  A huge, sincere thank you to you.

Today is all about you.

It’s National Pet Parent Day!  Yep.  I have to admit that I laughed when I realized this and thought, “Every day is pet parent day in our home! I don’t take a day off.”

There seems to be a worldwide or national day for everything these days, but today is a good day to celebrate.  Today is a worthwhile day to recognize because it’s all about honoring everything that we do as devoted animal guardians.   Whether you are a pet parent at home, an animal care taker at a shelter, zoo, or aquarium, or whether you are a trainer, behaviorist, veterinarian, or energy healer, you deserve thanks.  No matter what our exact role is, we all need to hear thanks.  No matter how we serve them, we all need to feel appreciated for all that we do for them.


How This Day Was Created

National Pet Parents Day was created to “honor all dedicated pet parents across the nation with a special day of their own.”  This date was founded by Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) in 2007. And although National Pet Parents Day is an unofficial holiday, it was created out of the inspiration of realizing that the majority of their insurance policyholders consider their pets to be part of their true family.     If you are following this blog, then you (like our family) see your “pets” as animal family members.  They may not be related to us by blood, but they are f a m i l y.



“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” -Cicero


We Aren’t Always Living On Easy Street.

If you are a professional animal caretaker, or a professional pet consultant, people may see you and think you have the coolest job in the world.  If you have beautiful pets people may envy you.  They may assume your life is perfect with them.   If their rescue story melts their hearts they may want to rescue one, too.  And they assume that your animal companion’s rescue story ended when you invited them into your home.

If you are an animal behavior consultant, an animal trainer, an animal communicator, or an animal healer, people might assume you have “perfect pets.”  They assume that these pets are never sick, never wild and crazy, they never backslide, and they are all perfectly trained, and never misbehave.  You must be the envy of the world if you are one of these people with one of these pets!

Ah, but we know the truth.

We all know that life is not always easy-going with the animals we care for and share our homes with.  We know that some days there seem to be constant challenges.  We know what it feels like to want to cry or scream when we are at our wit’s end.  We know all too well how hard it can be to juggle a busy work and a family life with a pet-family lifestyle.

We know what it means to have our own physical challenges while living and working with animals who have their own challenges.  We know what it’s like to be a new parent struggling with a new baby while trying to manage your pet “kids” as well.  We know what it means to have a crawling toddler and a conflicted canine.  We know that a rescued animal’s rescue story really only begins the moment that we bring them into our human environment.  We know that there is never a “cure” for every behavioral issue.  We know the real meaning of patience.  We understand what it means to rearrange our lifestyle to ensure that our animal companions feel safe and secure.  We know the meaning of selflessness and sacrifice.  We know and understand that there are a myriad of challenges that we encounter with every animal that we care for.  We know that we have invited these animals into our lives and we are bound to them for the rest of their life.  We know that life with animal companions can be a blessing beyond words, but it can also be wrought with unexpected trials and circumstances.

But we also know that we never give up. Ever.

We are dedicated to them all.  We believe in what can happen when we are armed with knowledge.  We know how far we can go together with love and compassion.  We know that healing is possible.  We know that there are solutions that can be found.  We know that together we can create miracles.  We know that we will find a way to succeed with them. We know that they might never know all that we have done and will continue to do for them. But we do it all anyway. We do it with love and devotion.

And our lives will never be the same.

We know this truth.

We live it every day.


A Thousand Thanks

I have taken a break from writing blog posts to continue my focus on writing a few books in the works, and to prepare for an upcoming move to the west coast.  But when I felt into what today represented, I was inspired and really wanted to take a moment to write to you.

Thank YOU for being a true and loyal Conscious Companion. I know it’s not always easy.

★Thank you for never giving up on them.
★Thank you for allowing them teach you.
★Thank you for being open to new ideas.

★Thank you for being willing to implement something new every day.

★Thank you for learning how to speak their language.
★Thank you for learning how to listen to them.
★Thank you for accepting challenges as they arise.
★Thank you for helping them to become well-adjusted to your human world.
★Thank you for helping them to age with grace and ease.
★Thank you for knowing when it’s time to let them go.
★Thank you for loving them with all of your heart.

Thank you ALL for being dedicated, determined, and downright amazing!

I am graciously sending you and yours my love and gratitude.


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“Bᴇɪɴɢ ᴀ ᴘᴇᴛ ᴘᴀʀᴇɴᴛ ᴄᴀɴ ʙᴇ ᴏɴᴇ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴇ ᴍᴏsᴛ ᴄʜᴀʟʟᴇɴɢɪɴɢ ʀᴏʟᴇs ᴡᴇ ᴇᴠᴇʀ ᴄʜᴏᴏsᴇ, ʙᴜᴛ ɪɴ ᴇxᴄʜᴀɴɢᴇ ᴡᴇ ʟᴇᴀʀɴ ᴛʜᴇ ʀᴇᴀʟ ᴍᴇᴀɴɪnɴɢ ᴏғ sᴇʟғʟᴇssɴᴇss, ᴀᴄᴄᴇᴘᴛᴀɴᴄᴇ, ᴀɴᴅ ᴜɴᴄᴏɴᴅɪᴛɪᴏɴᴀʟ ʟᴏᴠᴇ.” – Amy Martin

Creating Calm After the Chaos

Martin Family Halloween 2015
Scary Scarecrow and his friendly Crow
Now that the tricks and treats of Halloween and Samhain are coming to a close, it’s easy to become complacent as we wind down, but be aware: Your animal companions might still be wound up!  The endless sights, sounds, and stressors of Halloween might have deeply affected your animal companions.
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“Oh the crazy things my humans do …” – King Albert the Grey could do without the shenanigans of Halloween

Hocus Pocus and the Kitty Boyz did quite well during the pre and post Halloween festivities because we set everyone up for success, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is Cool and The Gang afterward.  The day after a cacophony of commotion is often when families observe their pets becoming irritable and reactive.  We refer to this as trigger stacking.

Trigger stacking is how stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactive behavior.  This kind of behavior is also seen in humans; think about when you have lost your temper after one stressful thing after another happens.  When an individual is pushed over their threshold, we see reactivity.  A ‘threshold’ is the point at which one reacts.  They quickly switch from an operant-thinking-mode to a non-thinking-survival-mode.

When the non-thinking-survival-mode kicks in the individual will either fight, flight (flee), fiddle, or freeze.  Below are The 4 F’s –  4 common behavior patterns that animals (and people) will do when afraid or feeling threatened:

  1. Flight
  2. Fight
  3. Freeze
  4. Fiddle About

Stress is both a physical and mental problem.

Stressful events affect all living beings, even on the cellular level.  And be aware: these stress hormones don’t just disappear once the stressful event is over.  The stress hormones can last for days, and even weeks with some individuals.

When conditions in the environment continue to stack up, and when multiple triggers (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time, they can have a cumulative harmful effect on the animal.  These stress hormones cause the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not.

Over the years we have observed each animal in our home respond with a different type of reactivity to their individual perceived threats.  The dog has been known to lunge and bark, freeze and growl, or retreat.  Her response depended on what she felt threatened by, and by her individual stress/hormone levels at that moment.  Each of the cats has their own individual response, depending on the trigger at the time, and their individual stress hormone levels. You might recall one of your animals behaving this way when they are stressed. You might even recall doing this yourself!

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone with a great number of effects on the body.  The level goes up or down quickly in response to stress.

Pet owners will often see this kind of reactivity when multiple stimuli occur in a short period of time (example: Halloween!)    It’s important to know that we don’t get to decide what’s stressful for the animal; these stimuli are anything that the individual animal is sensitive to.  A reactive animal can be sensitive to dogs, cats, people, sounds, objects, and/or their environment.  This sensitivity can be displayed by various types of reactive behavior such as running, hiding, freezing, growling, hissing, air snapping, biting, and guarding resources such as food, bedding, spaces, people, etc.

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Often during holidays and festive times pets can be under rested. Be sure to give them ample down time for rest. This can reduce their stress levels and reduce reactivity.

365 days a year we do our best to help every animal in our home to feel safe and secure. We continue to counter condition each animal to their individual perceived threats, and we strive to set them all up for success.  We use tools and techniques to ensure their perceived threat level is at zero.  But these are only pieces of the peaceful puzzle.

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King Albert and Beaux are sharing warm sunny spot, enjoying the peace

Reducing Stress Levels by Creating “Down Time”

How do you feel when you are tired and irritable after a long stressful day?  Our animal companions feel this and more when they are forced to participate, or even observe our human shenanigans.  Just watching and listening to so many strange sights and sounds can greatly increase their stress hormone levels!  But we can help them recover by giving them a “cortisol vacation.”   One of the most loving and helpful things we can do as animal guardians is offer all of the animals in our home plenty of safe, quiet places of refuge, especially after busy weekends such as this one.  We can create plenty of “pet down time.”  We can do this by encouraging them to take naps, get plenty of deep sleep, and lots of rest.  We can create a peaceful, calm environment.  Think of ways that you can create peaceful personal retreats for every living being in your home, including yourself!

Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.
Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.

Boundaries, Please. 

Creating safe boundaries is an essential key to creating peace and harmony in your home, especially after stressful festivities.  If you have children, guide them by showing them how to to respect the animal’s space or enclosure.  Teach them to be mindful and respectful of each individual animal’s tolerance for noise and commotion.  Ensure that the pets have their own safe bubble where they are free from being “loved on” (AKA being pestered).  If you have family or friends visiting, remind them to give the animals space.  If the animals choose to be around your guests, remember that the dog or cat may be excited to see newcomers, but in the next instant they very well could be more protective of things they consider “high value” such as bedding, treats, their people, and their food. Remember those stress hormones are in their system!  Also, if the animals in your home are not the best of buds, and they’re merely coexisting with one another, creating safe spaces for each animal and managing your home environment carefully is imperative.  Give everyone ample safe space!

Being aware of each animal’s individual threshold, and their need for safe, quiet refuge after any kind of commotion is how we become conscious companions for the animals with which we share a home.

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Hocus Pocus tucked in and sleeping soundly after the Halloween festivities.

Was your family prepared for the festivities this year? How did your animal companions do during the commotion? Are you all having a relaxed Sunday together? How do you help your animals and yourself decompress after big events?

Blessings of peace to you and yours!

Celebrate Them Every Day.

We seek the comfort of another. 
Someone to share the life we choose. 
Someone to help us through the never ending attempt to understand ourselves. 
And in the end, someone to comfort us along the way. 
~ Marlin Finch Lupus

Hocus Pocus our puppy _copyright Conscious Companion
Hocus Pocus, our canine companion, during her puppy days

Today I am celebrating the birthday of one of my greatest teachers.  I have had many teachers in life.  Many of them were people, and many were animals. But the teacher that I am celebrating today is a dog.

I have only known her for three years, but I feel like I have known her for lifetimes.  She is my constant companion, my friend, my guardian, and my teacher.  She is my dog.  I am her human.  And we love each other more deeply that I ever though possible.

Hocus (and the rest of our animal menagerie) have taught me some of my most valuable lessons in life.  Because of them, I learned to see life through the eyes of an animal.  I learned how to live life to the fullest, and to never take things for granted.  They showed me how to trust more, give more, love more, feel more, and share more.  They showed me what unconditional love and loyalty really is.  They taught me how to slow down, and how to love myself more.  They showed me how to play more, why it’s good to be goofy, and to not care what anyone else thinks.  They show me why it’s safe to be my authentic self, and not be afraid to hide who I really am, and what I really feel.  They showed me how to move through fear gracefully, and how to never regret a damn thing.  From watching them, I learned that I am never a victim of the world; I have the ability to create my world.  They taught me to not take life too seriously, but to give 100 percent to everything  I do.

My teachers taught me when you breathe into fear, it becomes adventure.  Adventure appeals to your sense of wonder, your inner child, and most important, your creative self.  It also reminds you that you make new things happen- the world doesn’t just happen to you. ~ Sonia Choquette

How do you give thanks to someone who gives you these kinds of gifts every day?  It’s easy; by thanking them each day – not just on their birthday.

So here we are. It’s a day after her birthday, but I don’t care.  It’s not about the date.  It’s about honoring and celebrating her every day.  So I made a promise to do just that.

For the rest of my life, I will celebrate her.  I will celebrate the day she was born.  I will celebrate the day she came into our lives.  I will celebrate every day. I will celebrate all of them.

I made a cheesy video for my husband, who once again, has to be gone for long lengths of time, so he cannot be with her during her “birthday extravaganza”.  I wasn’t going to share it with anyone but our family, but I finally decided to share it with other families who love their animal companions as much as we do.  My hope is to inspire you to celebrate your furry, feathered, or scaly animal companion every day of the year.

If you choose to, you can watch the video here.

Let’s stop waiting for birthdays to do “special things” with our animal family members.  Go on an adventure together on a Wednesday!  Offer him that rare, special treat on a Tuesday!   Spend quality time with her on a Thursday!  Make time for them every day.

The earth trembled and a great rift appeared, separating the first man and woman from the rest of the animal kingdom.  As the chasm grew deeper and wider, all the other creatures, afraid for their lives, returned to the forest — except for the dog, who after much consideration lept the perilous rift to stay with the humans on the other side.  His love for humanity was greater than his bond to other creatures, he explained, and he willingly forfeited his place in paradise to prove it.”
~ Native American folktale, Ojibway tribe

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Hocus, and her people

How do you celebrate your animal family member’s birthdays? I would love to hear!

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!