At-Home Enrichment and Exercise Ideas

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By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Public Training Instructor

When I was a child, my family had two sporting breed dogs: a Brittany Spaniel and an English Setter. When I was ready for my first dog as an adult, I wanted what was familiar to me. I did my research and found a reputable breeder. A female English Pointer puppy picked me.

I named her Piper Maru, after an episode of The X-Files. I knew the amount of energy and physical exercise dogs of her breed needed. The American Kennel Club describes the sporting group as “naturally active and energetic. Sporting dogs make likeable, well-rounded companions.”

I wasn’t a dog trainer at the time. I lived alone. I worked in downtown Portland and commuted every day. Piper was left alone at home for close to 10 hours a day, five days a week. I was an avid jogger, too. Piper and I would jog two miles every morning and two miles every evening. I took her to the dog park every evening after our jog for an hour. We would play frisbee or fetch in the park. On the weekends, we’d sometimes head to the beach, where she could run off-leash to heart’s content. I took her to her first group training class when she was eight weeks old. We also did agility together (which, in hindsight, was not the best sport for a dog who is easily distracted).

I thought I was giving Piper everything she needed for a healthy, happy life. One day I arrived home to find a pile of all the area rugs and bath mats in the living room. Perplexing. Was she attempting to build Devil’s Tower and signal aliens like in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? (Yes, I am a sci-fi geek.) What was she trying to communicate to me? This behavior continued for two years until I got married and moved into a house with a yard. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Piper needed more to make her happy. She needed more enrichment than I was giving her.

What is Enrichment?

What do you think of when you hear the word “enrichment?” I think of a yogi sitting in a lotus position humming, “Ohm.”

In animal training, the word enrichment has been defined “an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.”

Behaviorists have categorized enrichment into five categories: social and four nonsocial categories of physical, sensory, food, and mental/cognitive/occupational components.

Piper was getting the social, sensory, and physical aspects. But she lacked mental enrichment. I didn’t realize this until she had crossed over the rainbow bridge. I became a trainer soon after that, and I realized that her way of communicating, while strange and comical, was clear; she needed mental enrichment. 

During my COVID-19 free time, I am creating fun ways to enrich my three dogs’ lives to make them healthy and happy. Just because I don’t currently parent any cats doesn’t mean that I want to exclude them. Cats need enrichment, too. I’ve found that many of the dog enrichment ideas can work for cats and vice versa.

Piper’s Lasting Influence

I still haven’t found an answer as to why Piper piled up the rugs. The aliens never came to play that haunting organ music like in the movies.

I had a good relationship with Piper. It was this relationship that inspired me to become a dog trainer and to learn more about what pets need to be healthy and happy. I’m building a better relationship with my current dogs due to her inspiration and daily enrichment.

Thank you for reading and, as always, practice patience.

Watch a video of my dogs’ enrichment routines.

During the next month, I’ll share ideas for activities you can do at home to meet all five enrichment categories. Stay tuned! I have a lot to share with you.

Special Note

Due to COVID-19 concerns, our face-to-face training services at Willamette Humane Society have been suspended until further notice. We are offering virtual private lessons. Online group courses coming soon! Visit our blog for more information on how to enroll!