New Year’s Eve will be here in just a few days. The question isn’t “when will it arrive?” The question is, will it arrive at your home with a big bang, or will it arrive with grace and ease? I can tell you honestly that New Year’s Eve will arrive at our house this year without whimpers or bangs.
But this wasn’t always so.
Festivus for Us!
In the past, my home wasn’t calm and peaceful. In fact, it was pretty crazy, especially this time of year. For many years I used to host an annual New Year’s Eve party. Friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers knew that my dojo was The Place To Go if you wanted to have a great night on New Year’s Eve. For hours on end it was a fabulously fun FESTIVUS. People were coming and going all night. There were endless fireworks and food. Music was blasting, voices were booming, and drinks were pouring. I threw one heck of a party.
Now I know better.
Consider every living being in your home.
I can say with all sincerity that as much as I loved hosting for others, I know now that it was a bit selfish of me because I wasn’t thinking of everyone. I had not considered how my housemates might have felt. These roomies were not like most. They didn’t speak my language. I didn’t speak theirs at the time. I did not consider the effects that New Year’s Eve’s shenanigans would have on them.
My roommates were the animals with whom I shared my home.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t. -No Dog About It
Consider Their Individual Needs.
I can’t say that I ignored my furry, feathered, and scaly roomies’ needs when New Year’s Eve came around. 15 years ago I didn’t know their individual or species-specific needs. I was unaware of what each animal in my home truly needed to feel safe and secure, content and stress-free when the party got started!
Many years ago I was in the old school dogs-and-dominance domain. I knew just enough to get by. I had a heart for fish and herps. And I knew the basics of birds, cats, rats and rabbits.
But knowing the basics and having a heart for them wasn’t enough. -Not if they were to live long, healthy, peaceful, content, and minimally stressed lives. Using old-school, masculine management techniques create more harm than good. And a whole lotta love isn’t enough if we want our animal companions to flourish!
I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday. ―The Prolific Penman
Know Their Needs.
We all have opinions about pets. But what do we really know to be true? Science and metaphysics are constantly discovering new and fascinating insights about animals.
Let’s look a just a few facts and stats to be aware of concerning our animal companions that will help everyone in your home move into the New Year with grace and ease:
All of this matters. –Especially during the holidays.
Are the holidays stressful for you? Consider how it affects your animal companions. Consider how they feel. Consider their individual needs. I failed to do this in years past, but now that I know better, I do better.
Now we spend New Year’s Eve cuddled and calm. We don’t throw wild parties, and if we do have friends over, we set up our home environment to ensure the animals feel safe.
How will you spend your New Year’s Eve this year? Will you welcome it with calmness and without fear? My wish is that you will. May you find comfort and peace being home with the ones you love, and may you be content beingtogether.
“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket
Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?
I do. We all do.
We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on. They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid. When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.
What Is Displacement Behavior?
Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:
In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.
Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.
Displacement Activity defined:
1. (Psychology) behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time
Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.
Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object. Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.
In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors. You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered. Men often scratch at, or touch their face. Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe. I call it fiddling and flirting! Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men.
Mating and Conflict in Many Species
Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration. There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom. They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs. Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:
If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.
Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.
Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.
Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.
What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict. They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.
Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones
Gulls are not unlike our pets at home. If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions! For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy). During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight. So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming. Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!
“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior
Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:
yawning when not sleepy
grooming out of context
using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
shaking off when not wet
Scent marking with their face
“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen
Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure. In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.
Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.
How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?
—-> We need to look at the FULL picture. We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”
The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context. For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors. Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.
Displacement In Action!
The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs. See how many you recognize. Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?
The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe
Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.
These behaviors indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted. Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.
What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat. If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on. Remember to keep it upbeat and easy! We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.
Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!
Are you that kind of pet owner or animal lover that doesn’t know when to back off? I used to be one of those people with my animal companions at home.
A few years ago I went to a workshop for Reactive / Fearful Dogs hosted by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training. One of the many techniques she taught was the 5 Second Petting Rule.
How Do We Do It?
Here’s a way to ask your dog if he or she likes the way you are petting. I call it the 5-second rule. Every person who interacts with a dog, cat, or even a horse should know it, because it’s excellent bite prevention and also just basic polite manners!
1. Wait for the dog (or other animal) to interact with you, scratching the body part that is closest to you first, like the dog’s side.
2. Pet for no more than 5 seconds. (Pet less if the dog is shy or not a dog from your family.)
3. Stop and wait for the dog to turn or move toward you, asking you for more.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, alternating between petting and waiting.
You also need a way to tell your dog to stop asking for petting. If you are done and the dog is still interested, give an All Done hand signal. In the video, the “All Done” signal is two flat hands, showing that both hands are empty. After you give the signal, ignore the dog for a little bit so that the meaning of the All Done signal is clear.
Watch how to do this technique here:
“Take the Hint: How to Use the 5-Second Rule for Petting Dogs”
Why Do We Need To Know This?
When you are interacting with any breed or species animal, it’s very important to know if they are enjoying it, or merely tolerating it. (You can learn more about that here.) It’s important for a number of reasons: safety, respect, and maintaining a healthy relationship. This is something that we can practice with many different kids of animals.
Try it out. You will be surprised to see how often the furry, feathered, and scaly ones we love might not love the interaction as much as we do. Once you become aware of this, you can teach your kids, spouse, and guests! I teach this technique to my clients, friends, and other family members, and also in my public workshops. It’s especially important for children to learn!
I hope that this brings some awareness to how you or your family members interact with your companion animals, and the animals that we meet in other homes
We’ve always known our dogs are good for us, but here’s a biological explanation for it beyond the fact that they make us feel good. – Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
How much do you love your dog? Does your dog love you just as much?
We don’t have kids. We have a dog. And we love our dog. Saying “I love my dog” doesn’t come close to describing how I feel when I think about her. Just looking at her makes my heart swell. I feel good just being around her, and I know she feels good being around me.
Have you heard of the “Love Hormone?” That’s how some people refer to oxytocin, which acts as a chemical messenger in the brain. It’s produced in the hypothalamus and is responsible for feel-good human behaviors such as sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety, and the mother-infant bond. It also serves to counteract the stress response and reduce adrenalin, which results in less anxiety and less immune suppression.
Oxytocin, a neuropeptide synthetized by the hypothalamus in mammals, regulates many complex forms of social behavior and cognition in both human and nonhuman animals.
That’s why people refer to oxytocin as the ‘love hormone’, ‘cuddle chemical’, or ‘trust hormone’. They even discovered that people are more trusting of strangers if oxytocin is sprayed into their nose. Science now has evidence that oxytocin is directly involved in the bond between people dogs. (Details here)
Oxytocin Even Helps Dogs Bond with Playmates
Does your dog have a favorite doggie pal? Science and chemicals may play a role in their friendship as well! A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that a whiff of oxytocin made the dogs friendlier toward their dog pals. The researchers also determined that oxytocin is key to forming and maintaining close social relationships—even when those are with unrelated individuals or different species. This could explain why many dogs form close bonds with others species of animals. (Details here)
That animals of different species induce oxytocin release in each other suggests that they, like us, may be capable of love. It is quite possible that Fido and Boots may feel the same way about you as you do about them. You can even call it love. -Neuroeconomist Paul Zak
Researchers found the hormone oxytocin spikes in both human and canine brains when a dog gazes calmly into his/her person’s eyes!
“Oxytocin enables the bond between dog and human.” – Jessica Oliva, PhD
promotes the connection between humans and companion dogs
lowers blood pressure and other indications of physiological stress
is involved in a dog’s ability to use human cues
in extra doses helped dogs to performing simple tasks better
The researchers theorized that since both humans and dogs usually produce more oxytocin when they interact, the presence of the oxytocin hormone indicated that dogs evolved into being “the perfect human companion” because that chemical bond allowed them to better read their person’s commands. (No cats were available to comment on these findings.)
“Our relationship with dogs are very much like parent child relationships. We respond to our dogs quite a bit like human children. Brain imaging studies have shown that brain networks of mothers respond in the same way to pictures of their own dog to their own children.”
“Dogs may have found a way to ‘hijack’ these parenting responses and dogs over time may have taken on more childlike and juvenile characteristics to further embed themselves into our lives.”
Humans may feel affection for their companion dogs similar to that felt toward human family members.
-Dr Miho Nagasawa
Feeling Blue? Play with Your Dog!
When you are feeling down, be glad your dog is around. Science proved that dog guardians experience a burst in oxytocin after playing with their canine companions.
These studies also found that:
Petting and talking to a dog for three minutes increases oxytocin levels in the blood stream of both human and dog.
Actively playing with your dog boosts oxytocin levels.
There’s a correlation between the level of a dog owner’s oxytocin level and how much their dog tended to gaze directly at them.
Relaxed eye contact with your dog increases oxytocin.
The closer a person feels to their dog, the more oxytocin the person will release.
Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.
There are many reasons people choose to train an animal. Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them. Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal. Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.
Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.
I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together! I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship. I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win! I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them. I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process. Training became one of my favorite forms of communication. Training became an essential part of my life. Training was an essential part of their life.
Something else I learned while training animals: If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.
I am not special. I merely took the time to learn the techniques. I practiced the skills. I learned patience. I made mistakes. And I tried again and again.
That’s why I want to talk with you about training. You can train animals the force-free way, too! But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.
What Is Training?
Training is “teaching”.
When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal. However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them. We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.
That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.
Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns. You are their teacher. As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day! Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?
Training is all about associations.
The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being. Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day. As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).
Training is about building a relationship.
When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust. Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon. Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime. Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime! Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.
Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan. What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.
Why Training Is Essential
Training is a key component to an animal’s well being. Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes! A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful. Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan. From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.
Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care. Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez
Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field. Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training. Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!
We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible. When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible. Of course, there are limits to what we can train. But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.
Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!
In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity! He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets. Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting. See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:
My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely. ~Ken Ramirez
Animal training should be about mutual respect. The goal is to build a relationship based on trust. When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human. The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion
Coming Up Next: How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!
Butt Sniffing. It’s gross to most humans, but it’s very important to our canine comrades.
Derriere sniffing is just one of the many fascinating forms of chemical communication in the animal kingdom. Animals all around the world use chemical communication to communicate. Pheromones are the source of this communication!
Pheromones are chemicals released by living organisms that send information to other organisms of the same species via scent. They’re used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals. Pheromones can be released as alarms, food trails, sex lures, and much more. Plants, vertebrates, and insects communicate in this chemosensory way.
Our dogs and cats (and even hedgehogs!) are just as sensitive to these pheromones, and they decipher them using a very cool method! Like many reptiles and other mammals, these animals have a “scent collector “in the roof of their mouth that’s called a Jacobson’s Organ, or a vomeronasal organ. (Which, by the way, is absolutely one of the coolest tools in the animal kingdom.) This organ is used by many species to send chemical scents directly to the brain.
The Jacobson’s organ is useful in the process of communicating chemical messages between members of the same species. The organ helps snakes hunt and track their prey. Much evidence suggests that this organ may also be involved in the detection of chemical signals related to aggression and territoriality in some species.
Fun Fact: Elephants touch the tips of their trunks to the Jacobson’s Organ (inside the roof of their mouth) to engage their chemosensory perception of things in their environment. Lions use it for sensing sex hormones.
This same organ recognizes chemicals as they enter a dog’s nose, via circular sniffs through each nostril. This organ then interprets the pheromones collected. It’s sensitive enough to not confuse fecal matter scent with pheromones.
According to the American Chemical Society, when dogs get their derriere sniffing on, it’s really all about one dog literally sniffing out important information about the other. Find out why “Bacon is to people, as butt sniffing is to dogs”in the video below:
Fido Fact: Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us. Proportionally speaking it’s 40 times greater than ours.
Feline Fact: A cat’s sense of smell is 40x stronger than ours. Scent is crucial when it comes to social situations, locating prey & maintaining safety. Scent is also crucial when it comes to evaluation of food.
Our pooches have pouches called anal sacs. These sacs are a pair of small, kidney-shaped structures on each side of the anus. These sacs hold glands that secrete chemicals. Every dog has a unique scent “signature” created by the secretions of its anal sacs. This unique scent not only distinguishes one dog from another, but it also reveals the dog’s sex. Genetics and the state of their immune system can influence the aroma of these sacs.
When an animal passes a stool, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands so that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs are able to tell who has been in the ‘hood, just by sniffing the stools they find. Dogs can smell these anal sac scents when they are nose-to-rear as well.
Cats also have two little anal glands on each side of the rectum that release a very strong-smelling liquid to mark the cat’s stool as it passes through. And cats have scent glands on their paws pads, cheeks, and head! You can read more about these here.
The flehmen response (/ˈfleɪmən/; German: [ˈfleːmən]), also called the flehmen position, flehmen reaction, flehming, or flehmening. This is a behavior in which an animal curls back its upper lip exposing its front teeth, inhales with the nostrils usually closed and then often holds this position for several seconds. It may be performed over a site or substance of particular interest to the animal (e.g. urine or feces) or may be performed with the neck stretched and the head held high in the air.
The Flehmen response is performed by a wide range of mammals including ungulates and felids. The behavior facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ (VNO, or Jacobson’s organ) located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth of the animal. The word originates from the German verb flehmen, to bare the upper teeth. The flehmen response often gives the appearance that the animal is grimacing, smirking or laughing.
The main reason for, or function of flehmen is intraspecific, or within-species communication. By transferring air containing pheromones and other scents to the vomeronasal organ (VNO), an olfactory-chemosensory organ located between the roof of the mouth and the palate, animals can gather chemical “messages”.
The response is perhaps most easily observed in domestic cats and horses; both exhibit a strong flehmen response to odors. Stallions usually smell the urine of mares in estrus whereas the male giraffe’s flehmen response includes actually tasting the female’s urine. Elephants perform a flehmen response but also transfer chemosensory stimuli to the vomeronasal opening in the roof of their mouths using the prehensile structure, sometimes called a “finger”, at the tips of their trunks.
The flehmen response is not limited to intraspecific communication. Goats have been tested for their flehmen response to urine from 20 different species, including several non-mammalian species. This study suggests there is a common element in the urine of all animals, an interspecific pheromone, which elicits flehmen behavior. Specifically, chemical pheromone levels of a modified form of androgen, a sex hormone, were associated with the response in goats.
Other animals which exhibit the flehmen response include buffalo, tigers, tapirs, lions, giraffes, llamas, hedgehogs, rhinoceros, giant pandas, and hippopotami.
When it comes to companion animals such as dogs and cats, they recognize each other by smelling one another in the general area of the anus, since each animal’s anal glands produce a unique scent. Sniffing another derriere is just another form of chemical communication. Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”. It’s how they learn about another dog or cat’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!
So the next time you see your dog or cat getting a good whiff of another’s derriere or doody, let him/her get their sniff on! It’s not gross; its purely instinctual and it’s a very effective form of communication! Your cat or dog will thank you for letting him/her Bbe themselves.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
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.
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:
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!
What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals? Please share in the comments below!
Studying animal personality can tell us more about both animals AND humans. ~ Sam Gosling
Science is about critical thinking not facts – Prescott Breeden
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