Environmental Enrichment Or Training For Shelter Dogs?

This morning, I went to look at a dog that is being boarded at a local animal shelter. I was invited by a rescue organization to meet with one of their volunteers and work with him a bit. The volunteer came equipped with several new toys and some treats. We were ready.

When we went to see him in his kennel run, it was immediately obvious he was a very social dog. Some kind of mix, a pit mix would be my guess. After the volunteer set down her goodies bag, we approached the kennel door, and he immediately leaned against it to get some kind of touch by her. There was a small treat pail hung near the door, with a sign that encouraged people to give him a treat for being quiet. I fed him a treat, and he took it gently. A good start.

The volunteer took three toys out of her goodie bag. I got a handful of treats out of the pail. We left the room, went around back so he could be released into a play area. She set down the toys and opened the latch. He came boiling out and immediately started jumping up on her, and then me, and attempting to mouth us. He goes for forearms and ankles.

I immediately started asking him to Sit, with a food lure. Again and again, and I had the volunteer do the same. The frantic hyperactivity, jumping and mouthing were the main reasons they haven’t been able to get him into a new home.

I said all of that to say this. We are not making the best use of volunteer time bringing enrichment toys and chew treats for dogs in foster homes or boarding. When you have limited time with each dog, your rescue organization should be focusing on doing whatever it takes to make that dog as adoptable as possible in the least amount of time. Unfortunately, rescue organizations are spending too much money and volunteer time giving dogs enrichment objects and activities.

What we did, instead, was to give him a lesson on the basics he will need to get adopted: to not jump, mouth, or pull on a leash. I also want him to calmly accept petting, and having a leash and collar put on, without getting wild and mouthy. If we can get that solved, he’s ready to go.

Most of the enrichment rescue organizations are doing is prolonging the dog’s time in a foster home or shelter. It’s not helping them get those dogs adopted. Spending a lot of time taking dogs on walks, playing with toys, feeding out of KONGS, running through splash pads, using snuffle mats and such, takes away time that could instead be used to make the dogs adoptable. Furthermore, if you play with dogs too much, they don’t want to work or be mannerly. I’d rather see rescues take each visit to do a full lesson with each dog for, say, up to an hour. Or until the dog runs out of gas. Then put them back in their kennels to sleep and let those lessons convert into good memories.

I have seen way too many dogs that were played with too much, so the dogs won’t do any commands willingly or reliably, and they aren’t well mannered. Thus, when you do a lesson, expend all that energy into social behaviors, wear the dog out that way, then put them up to sleep on that lesson. Don’t muddy up the lesson by following it up immediately with a play session. If you want to do a play time, then make it a play time. But the balance of play/ enrichment time should comprise maybe 10% of your interactions. The other 90% should be lessons which are designed to make that dog adoptable. Instead of spending $100 on dog toys and treats, spend $100 on recruiting more volunteers and deploying them to do basic rescue dog training. The dog will then be with your rescue for a shorter period, and you won’t spend as much on caring for that dog. You then will find a good home, and now have room to take in another rescue dog to rehabilitate and rehome.

Enrichment has gone too far in the rescue world. You aren’t maintaining an animal sanctuary or zoo. You’re not there to entertain dogs that will never find a home, instead you are there to get them out of the system as quickly as possible into good new homes. Let the “enrichment” be more focused on training. You can just as easily give a dog a good day with a proper lesson as you can by letting them run around. [It should be obvious that the training shouldn’t be harsh and stressful for the dogs.] But the difference is, with good training, you are shortening the time the dog is in a foster home or shelter, you are saving more money per dog, and you can rescue more dogs per month.

Some enrichment is great, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for making each dog as adoptable as possible in the least amount of time. You aren’t there to provide months of boarding for a dog that should have found a home instead. The dog should be happy while in a foster home or shelter, and even happier when adopted because the new owner isn’t asking to return the dog because of some behavioral problem. All you’ll then have to do is show them how to maintain that dogs good manners, and move onto saving the next dog.

I’m scheduling to meet this dog again, to work with him and that volunteer again. I’ll assign some good homework and we’ll make a full on effort to find him a new home. He’s a very nice dog. It looks like someone cooped him up too much as a puppy, he became hyperactive when taken out of confinement, and he learned the only way to get attention was to make every greeting into an annoying circus. He was given away for being too lonely and too friendly. Such a shame. Fortunately, all of that can be fixed.

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