Enrichment for Dogs in Shelters
This action kit provides ways to increase the adoptability of shelter dogs by enriching their day-to-day lives in the shelter.
The shelter environment can be stressful for dogs, but shelter staff and volunteers can help ease that stress by providing enrichment opportunities and activities. Many of these enrichment activities also help dogs become more adoptable. Every dog needs our assistance to become more adoptable or to stay adoptable until he/she finds a wonderful home. You can make a big difference in shelter dogs’ quality of life by adding enrichment with your time, attention and love.
Table of Contents
1.) Provide a variety of toys
2.) Play hide-and-seek
3.) Go on outings
4.) Set up group play sessions
5.) Teach basic manners and life skills
6.) Keep a treat bucket handy
7.) Help dogs with return-to-run resistance
8.) Offer a variety of smells and sounds
9.) Think outside the box
Note: To keep dogs safe, this enrichment activity should not be used in areas containing, or accessible to, more than one dog. If dogs are housed in groups, each dog should be given a private space to play with toys.
Dogs enjoy having toys or something to play with. Just make sure that easily destroyed toys, such as rope toys or stuffed toys, are never left with a dog who is unsupervised. Best Friends recommends Other Cuz Balls (made by JW Pet Company) because they are practically indestructible and have no appendages that dogs can chew off and swallow.
Food-dispensing toys. Dispensing toys are great for mental stimulation and they increase the time during the day when a dog has meaningful activities to engage in. You put treats or meals in the toy and the dog has to figure out how to get the food out. Most dogs are highly motivated, but be sure to start with easier toys that the dog can experience success with; too difficult a puzzle can increase frustration and promote loss of interest. As the dog’s skills improve, he will enjoy more challenging toys. Try Treat Stiks (www.treatstik.com), Busy Dog Balls (www.busydogball.com) or Buster Cubes (www.kruuse.com). Premier Busy Buddy makes several types of treat-dispensing toys, available at pet supply stores. Kongs are durable rubber enrichment toys that can be stuffed with food. For more information, visit their website at www.kongcompany.com.
Chew toys. Dogs love to chew, so giving them appropriate things to chew is a great enrichment activity. Nylabone makes a variety of chew toys and interactive toys for dogs, providing them with hours of fun. Check out their products at www.nylabone.com. Nylabone and most other manufacturers recommend supervision for many of their products.
Ice-block toys. These “toys” will keep dogs occupied for hours and are a nice treat on a hot day. They are easy to make: Place a few toys in a bucket, fill the bucket with water, and freeze it. Another idea for a frozen treat: Freeze chicken or beef broth in popsicle molds or drinking cups. Be sure to always supervise the dog enjoying the treat.
Note: To keep dogs safe, this enrichment activity should not be used in areas containing, or accessible to, more than one dog. If dogs are housed in groups, each dog should be given a private space when playing hide-and-seek.
It’s not just kids who love this game — dogs love it, too! Keep dogs mentally and physically active by making them think and search for their treats. Some suggestions:
- Bury toys or treats in a sand box.
- Place toys or treats in ladles and hang from trees.
- Place toys or treats in logs or other hiding places in play yards.
If your shelter allows dogs off-site, take a dog to lunch or take one along when you’re on a break or running an errand. The goal is to get them out and about, seeing and experiencing new things, and interacting with the public.
Another idea: Give a couple of dogs some social time by asking a co-worker to walk dogs with you off-site. The first step to providing this type of enrichment is to introduce the dogs carefully and safely, with the awareness that dogs often lack social skills when meeting each other. For more details on how to introduce dogs, read “Helping Shelter Dogs to Meet Each Other Successfully” in the resources section at the end of this action kit. Besides providing social opportunities, encouraging dogs to interact politely also helps them become more adoptable.
At my shelter, we have Wednesday walkabouts, excursions in which we take adoptable dogs wearing “Adopt Me” vests out for a walk in places like shopping centers or parks. It’s great for enrichment and also makes our adoptable dogs more visible to the public, increasing their chances of adoption. We even hand out the dogs’ “business cards” to people interested in contacting us for more information.
Group play is a great way to get the dogs exercised and keep them mentally happy and healthy. A half-hour of group play is the equivalent of a two-hour walk. As with tandem walks, you’ll need to introduce the dogs carefully to prevent any problems.
Before participating in group play sessions, you should learn how to monitor play groups and gather the tools you’ll need for the play sessions. A local or staff trainer can help you learn more about dog body language to better decide which dogs are ready for play groups.
Always monitor a group play session closely and be sure to take into consideration the reproductive status of the dogs and also vaccination status to avoid passing contagions.
Some shelter dogs come from backgrounds where they didn’t have the opportunity to learn social skills. Teaching them basic manners and life skills provides mental stimulation and helps them to become more adoptable. All dogs should have skills such as these:
- Walking well on a leash
- Not jumping up to greet people
- Sit, stay, leave it and come
- Name recognition
You could also try teaching some silly tricks, like how to do a high-five. When teaching a dog any new skill, remember to make it fun for the dog. Be patient, stay positive, and reward success with plenty of praise and treats.
For more details on training, check out the resources.
Shelter staff and volunteers can teach dogs these skills on an individual, informal basis or you could start a shelter manners class taught by a trainer. The class could be held regularly — once a week, perhaps — with volunteers or staff members each responsible for bringing a dog to the class. The added advantage of a group manners class is that it helps shelter dogs develop good relationships with both people and dogs.
For more information on helping very shy dogs, read “Techniques for Helping Feral or Shy Dogs” in the resources section.
Our training classes are all volunteer-based. We have a core group of volunteers who take this very seriously and come regularly. They know they are saving lives! We have classes on Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. The classes are geared toward helping dogs to improve their social skills and gain their Canine Good Citizen certification. The volunteers who participate each take one of the dogs from the kennel and bring the dogs to class. It doesn’t always have to be the same handler with the same dog.
According to the American Kennel Club, which sponsors the Canine Good Citizen program, it is “designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community.” We test for Canine Good Citizen status about once a month. For lots more information about the Canine Good Citizen program, you can go to www.akc.org/events/cgc.
Keeping a bucket full of treats handy is a good way to reinforce good behavior in dogs. A treat bucket is a nice way to help enforce the training rules, while also involving everyone (staff, volunteers, the public) in the training process. And when prospective adopters come to see them, the dogs will sit politely when the people approach.
We have a bucket attached to the front of the kennel that holds the treats and has a sign saying, “Please help train me. Only give me a treat if all four of my feet are on the ground.” This helps train dogs not to jump up on people. The treat bucket is available all the time, for staff, volunteers and the public to use.
At our shelter, we also create ice-block treat buckets, for the dogs to enjoy when the weather is warm. I place various items, such as toys and some treats, in a bucket and then fill it with water, and then I freeze the whole thing. A dog can be occupied for quite a while as he licks the ice to get at the toys and treats.
Kirstyn Northrop Cobb
A common scenario at shelters everywhere: You’ve taken a dog out of his run for a bit and now it’s time for him to go back in. The dog puts on his brakes, tries to back out of his collar, lies down and won’t move. You try to pull him and he starts to growl. What to do? Read “Coping with Return-to-Run Resistance” in the resources section for some ideas on how to help dogs who are resistant to going back into their runs.
As with people, soothing smells and sounds can help dogs relax. For stress relief, introduce aromatherapy – such as lavender, chamomile, valerian or dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP). You can get vent system aromatherapy or even plug-ins for the shelter. DAP is a spray or plugin that provides an effective way to control and manage unwanted canine behavior associated with fear and/or stress. Try different types of aromas; some dogs have favorites. Also, try playing some light classical music CDs or recorded sounds of ocean waves or rain. Again, experiment with different sounds to see what works best.
To help reduce kennel stress, my shelter sometimes uses Thundershirts. The Thundershirt’s gentle, constant pressure has a calming effect on the dog. For more information about this product, go to thundershirt.com.
The number of ways that you can enhance shelter dogs’ well-being is limited only by your imagination.
Because we see a disproportionate number of pit-bull-terrier-type dogs entering our shelter, we wanted to highlight them to show our community that, just like any other dog, they are individuals and make wonderful companions. We have a Pit Bull Ambassador Program in which we feature adoptable dogs. To determine whether a dog is a good candidate for the program, we do a SAFER assessment. (Go to www.aspcapro.org/safer for more information.) If the dog passes all of the tests, he becomes a Pit Bull Ambassador. We promote the dog as much as possible and he is routinely taken out into the community for sleepovers and to attend events and other activities.
Disclaimer: This publication is for educational purposes only. Some of the methods described in this publication may contrast with each other. Any training or socialization program has inherent risks of personal injury and should be carried out by certified professional dog trainers. Best Friends Animal Society does not warrant the effectiveness of these techniques or guarantee results from any training program or shelter program modeled on these techniques, nor shall Best Friends be held liable for any injury or damage resulting from same.
The following attached resources can help you in your efforts to provide enrichment to shelter dogs:
- Helping Shelter Dogs to Meet Each Other Successfully
- Techniques for Helping Feral or Shy Dogs
- Coping with Return-to-Run Resistance
For more information about training and enrichment, check out Best Friends’ online pet care library.
Special thanks to PetSmart Charities® for providing grant funding for the programs from which these materials were derived.