The animal is always right

In training. In enrichment.

The animal’s behaviour is feedback telling us humans how well we have set up their environment for success. Or not.
It lets us know what we can refine, adjust, improve.

I don’t want to draw too strong a line between training and enrichment, as there is lots of cross over, and how much cross over there is will largely depend on how we do either one.

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In enrichment, we take that notion even further than often we allow ourselves to in training. (We should be approaching training in the same manner, but that’s for a different day!)

How the animal chooses to engage, or not, with the enrichment activity or device is up to them. Regardless of our intentions or how we think they should approach the challenge – the animal decides. This allows enrichment to be enriching.

We should have goals, and we should plan, but the animal writes half of that plan…so we must observe and adjust based on their behaviour, based on their opinion of how this works for them.

Look carefully at the sorts of behavioural outcomes associated with enrichment activities – don’t get bogged down with a specific solve – how the dog does it is always right! Instead consider what the animal is getting out of it, what behaviours are they trying and what behaviours are winning.

This clip, doing the rounds on social media, attempts to suggest that the dog has the wrong idea. But that, in itself, is inaccurate. However the dog chooses to engage and ‘solve’ the puzzle is correct – the animal can’t be wrong.

These slow feeders are often a source of frustration for many dogs and as such might not be all that enriching for many. This dog has developed a strategy that allows him/her to solve the puzzle and win the prize. That’s just perfect!

Enrichment enhances the animal’s behavioural repertoire. They learn to apply different strategies to solve puzzles, to deal with challenge, to cope with their life.

Animals will do behaviours that work. That’s how enrichment can help broaden a dog’s behavioural repertoire. Behaviours that win are strengthened to be rolled out again and again in the right contexts.

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How does your dog do theirs?

With more and more practice, and more and more enrichment, the animal develops strategies that they might apply to new contexts, stretching their repertoire even further.

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Decker tries a winning strategy, that’s worked for lots of other puzzles, with a completely novel set-up. If this wins here, he’ll try it again, and if not, he will try something else.

You can easily see how appropriate challenge helps to build resilience and grow brains. By presenting appropriate challenge in a safe environment, the dog can try without failing so that offering behaviours is a go-to – developing ways to modify their environment so that it works for them.

Confidence building and stress busting!