Cognitive Enrichment is usually thought of as ‘training’. Although this is part of it, it doesn’t get down to the root. The very foundation of cognitive enrichment is the opportunity for thinking and problem solving. As any pet parent who has had an escape artist, stealthy stealer, or all around opportunist knows, animals are great at problem solving.
Have you ever been faced with a riddle or math challenge that has really made you think? Not one that has left you frustrated and wanting to quit, but rather one that left you feeling proud of yourself when you finished it? This is the goal of cognitive enrichment for our pets. We want them to be challenged enough that they have to think, but not so much that they get frustrated or want to give up. Mental challenges or exercises give us a feeling of accomplishment, and our pets are no different. Lack of cognitive enrichment is often what leads to ‘problem behaviours’ such as excessive barking, and escaping the yard.
With that in mind, cognitive enrichment is giving our pets a way to problem solve in a controlled and constructive way. By providing our dogs with a chance to figure things out on their own, one is much more likely to have a pet happily laying beside them, instead of looking for opportunities to satisfy their needs.
As mentioned before, training is a piece of this puzzle. Using positive reinforcement one can teach a dog to offer behaviours or interact with objects on their own, until the desired skill or behaviour is achieved. This method of training called ‘shaping’ gives the dog a chance to be creative, by allowing them to choose what skills they offer. Thus getting them thinking and ‘problem solving’ rather than just reacting to what they are being told.
Another great way to provide cognitive enrichment is through Scent Games. These games are based on the dog sport ‘Scent Work.’ Scent work creates fantastic puzzles for dogs to work through. They have to find the ‘source’ of a designated odour. The reason scent work is such an ideal activity for cognitive enrichment is because so much of the dogs brain is dedicated to their olfactory sense.
If looking for scent isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways for your dog to use their nose, such as finding food or finding you! Playing hide and seek can be a fun game to bond with your dog over, not to mention its benefits for recall! By hiding, calling your dog, then rewarding them once they find you, you are building value to come to you at the same time as tiring out their brain as they figure out how to get to you!
Your pet doesn’t need hours of intense and complex brain games. Just a few minutes of thinking will take you and your pet a long way to a happier and more satisfied life.