Mental enrichment for cats and dogs

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

How are your enrichment activities coming? As a reminder, 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.”

We’ve discussed social enrichment and physical enrichment. This week, let’s talk about the importance of mental enrichment exercises. 

Here are a few fun activities to try

Bubbles (indoor or outdoor)

This activity is a triple threat because it encourages your dog to jump and run (physical), think about what they are seeing (mental), and feel the bubbles popping on their bodies (sensory).

I recently purchased a bubble blower that looks like a leaf blower. If your dogs or cats are frightened by unusual noises, you should use the blower stick that comes with the bottle of bubbles. Should you choose the leaf blower, you will need to do some desensitization and counterconditioning before using a noisy bubble blower like mine.

This entails gradually introducing the bubble blower and pairing it with something your pet enjoys like yummy treats or scratches. How long does the process take? It’s up to your pet and you. If you are consistent, friendly, positive, and rewarding, you will see your pet enjoying it sooner rather than later. In a multi-person household, everyone has to be on the same page for the process to work.

Communicating and Training (indoor and outdoor)

In order for us to train our pets we need to communicate with them. Whether it’s English, Spanish, American Sign Language, or human nonverbal language, your pet enjoys communicating with you. 

Dogs: An experiment done by researchers Alex Bingham and Katie Slocombe from the University of York, UK, suggested “that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.” When training your dog, use high-pitched, friendly intonations if you want results. As for training, I am an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator. I can also evaluate for AKC Trick Dog Titles. You can do it virtually now. For more information on the revised requirements, visit the AKC website. Then contact me.

Cats:  A study conducted by Swedish Dr. Susanne Shotz, an associate professor at the Swedish University of Lund specializing in human phonetics, revealed how to break the cat vocalization code of what they are trying to say to you. She discovered a large repertoire of different sounds that varied extensively depending on context or situation and the cats’ mental states. A meow is not just a meow. What a meow means, basically, is “I want.” If you factor in the loudness or softness of the meow plus the degree of pitch and listen carefully as you get to know your cat better, you can determine exactly what your cat wants (ie play, food, a cuddle, an open window, a drink from your tap, or whatever). So, listen to your cat. Find her motivator. Start training. This video from Jackson Galaxy demonstrates how to train a cat.

Next week, we’ll discuss two favorite forms of enrichment: food and sensory stimulation! This will be the last post in the series, and you won’t want to miss it. 

We’re excited to resume in-person group classes and private lessons, with remote options still available if you prefer. Questions? Email us at behavior@whs4pets.orgor visit this page to find out about classes and enroll.