The 4Rs for Better Behaviour: Reinforce the Right Response Religiously

Our dogs, and all animals for that matter, are learning about their environment and the consequences of their behaviour 24/7, not just during formal training sessions.

This means that every interaction your dog has with you, other people and other dogs, as well as all their previous life experiences, shapes their behaviour and the way they view their world.

Although we don't always have control over the environment and all the consequences that reinforce our pet's behaviour, there is much we can do to shape it for the better...

Here I'm reinforcing Lenny with treats and praise for shaking on cue

How to get better behaviour

Animals repeat behaviours that pay off; that have a desired consequence (also called a "reinforcer"). Reinforcers are not necessarily treats, rather they are consequences that strengthen (or increase) behaviour. This means that any behaviour (good or bad) that maintains or increases in frequency must have reinforcement value to the animal or else it wouldn't continue. Dogs that jump up on people is an example that comes to mind and a behaviour that's easily prevented (learn how here).

If you want better behaviour from your dog (or other animal), don't take good behaviour for granted! As pet owners we tend to do this a lot! When our pets are calm and relaxed we ignore them. Then we give them attention (e.g. tell them off) when they do the wrong thing.

Lenny LOVES pats and attention - effective reinforcers for him

What we should be doing is what I call the 4Rs: Reinforce the Right Response Religiously. This simply means noticing when our dogs (or cats or birds etc) are offering behaviours we want to see more of (e.g. being calm and compliant or any other behaviour you like) and reinforcing that behaviour generously and frequently. The more often a desired behaviour is reinforced, the more likely that behaviour will be repeated in future. That's how behaviour works! But there's a catch - you must choose your reinforcers wisely and you must be consistent!

Reinforcement effectiveness

Not all reinforcers are equal and lots of factors influence how effective and valuable different reinforcers are to an individual (you can learn more about reinforcement effectiveness here).

The important thing to understand is that just because you think something is reinforcing for your animal doesn't mean that's true. It's the learner who decides what's reinforcing, not the trainer. Experimenting with different reinforcers (e.g. food, toys, attention, pats) can help you determine which ones are most effective for the individual animal you are working with.

Lenny also loves tug - a great reinforcer for some dogs

Go practice the 4Rs!

So now that you understand the importance of not taking good behaviour for granted and instead reinforcing the right behaviour religiously, go and give it a try! You'll be surprised by how quickly you can get great results when you consistently reinforce behaviours you like.

Dr Kate :)

Dr Kate Mornement is an Applied Animal Behaviourist & Consultant who runs Pets Behaving Badly in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow her on Facebook or subscribe to her blog here.

This blog post is part of the 2018 Companion Animal Psychology #Train4Rewards blog party. Click on the button below to read lots of other great blogs on animal training...

How to Resolve Inappropriate Toileting in Cats

Does your cat go to the toilet in all the wrong places?

Inappropriate toileting is the most common cat behaviour problem I'm called in to assist with. It's a messy, smelly and frustrating issue for many cat owners and can be a source of stress and anxiety for both human and feline family members.

So why do cats toilet inappropriately and how can this behaviour be resolved?

What is inappropriate toileting?

The term "inappropriate toileting" (also called inappropriate elimination) is an umbrella term which covers several elimination problems in cats. These include urine marking/spraying; inappropriate urination and/or defecation. Simply put - any form of elimination done inside the home and outside of the litter tray.

In my consulting work, as a behaviourist, I've seen cats that toilet inappropriately or spray on clothes, shoes, handbags, shopping bags, suitcases, carpet, furniture, human beds, dog beds, in the bath/shower, sinks, wardrobes, on walls, doors and even in a water bowl!!

Causes of Inappropriate Toileting in Cats

If your cat toilets inappropriately the first thing to do is to make an appointment for a check up at the vet. A number of physical issues, such as UTI's and bladder infections, can be responsible for initiating toileting problems and must be addressed before the issue is treated as behavioural. Cats that experience pain or discomfort whilst using their litter tray can then associate using the tray with a feeling of pain or discomfort. This can result in the cat avoiding using the litter tray in future, even though the health issue may have resolved.

If a health or medical reason has been ruled out it's fair to assume the problem is behavioural. There are many reasons why a cat might stop using it litter tray. Here are some of the more common reasons I encounter in my work:

A lack of prior litter training

Learning to toilet in the right place is behaviour kittens learn from their mother. Kittens that were separated from their mother and siblings too early often miss out on this early learning. The environment in which the kitten was raised also affects their toileting habits. For example, kittens that were not given ready access to litter trays may not necessarily understand how to use one when they go to their new home.

Kittens learn where to toilet appropriately from an early age

Negative association with the litter tray

When a cat suddenly stops using their litter tray sometimes it's due to a negative association. This can  occur for several reasons including the location, orientation or design of the tray. For example, I once had a consultation with a cat who suddenly stopped using the litter tray after moving house. After assessing the cat and the new home environment I saw that the tray was placed right next to the dryer, which was quite loud when in use. Once the tray was moved away from the dryer, the cat started using it again.

The tray design and litter type also matter. Choose a tray style your cat is accustomed to and comfortable with. I see many cat owners choosing small or enclosed litter trays for large cats who have difficulty using them comfortably. Cats can also develop a strong substrate preference in terms of the type of litter material they prefer. Try to keep the litter consistent from when they were a kitten or conduct a 'substrate test' in which you offer several different types of litter at once and see if your cat prefers a specific type. Then, stick with that one.

Competition for access to litter trays in multi-cat homes

The general rule for the provision of litter trays in indoor only multi-cat households in one tray per cat plus an additional tray. This may sound excessive, however cats are highly territorial by nature and often avoid using trays that hold a strong scent of another cat, even one they live with and get along well with. Eliminating competition for access to trays can help reduce inappropriate toileting.

Litter trays should be comfortable to use and cleaned daily. This one is too small and the high walls impact negatively on the position of the tail
Image: By Ocdp CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Territorial behaviour

Cats are highly territorial animals by nature. In the wild, they go to great lengths to maintain a territory and keep others away because their survival depends on it. Even though domestic cats are provided with everything they need to survive (indeed, thrive!), they still retain the instincts to protect their territory. Urine marking is one way cats communicate that territory is occupied. It's a normal feline behaviour which becomes unacceptable when done in our homes.

Cats from multi-cat homes are more likely to toilet inappropriately because they have to share their territory and resources (litter trays, toys, cat towers, scratch posts etc) with other cats. Cats confined to smaller homes, such as apartments and units, also tend to be more likely to toilet inappropriately because they have less available territory. But it's not just other cats in the home that contribute to territorial spraying, neighbourhood cats encroaching on your cat's territory can also be a contributing factor.


Stressed and anxious cats are more likely to toilet inappropriately. Common triggers for stress/anxiety-related inappropriate toileting include moving house, the owner travelling for long periods, the introduction of a new companion animal, the arrival of a new baby and a neighbourhood cat encroaching on your cat's territory. Try to establish the cause of the stress/anxiety and alleviate it. If you don't know how, contact a qualified behaviourist for help. Anti-anxiety medication may be needed to allow behaviour modification to be successful and this can be discussed with your vet.

The arrival of a baby or a new pet can stress out a resident cat

Working to Resolve Inappropriate Toileting

In many cases there is no quick fix for inappropriate toileting because it can be such a complex issue. That said, taking the following steps can help reduce, and even resolve, it in many cases.

  • Thoroughly clean previous stains using an enzymatic cleaner to remove all traces of the stain. A black light torch can be useful in assisting to identify and clean all previous stains. Check the house every few days and clean any new marks.
  • Provide an adequate number of litter trays in appropriate locations. Avoid busy thoroughfares and noisy spaces. Cat's need to feel safe when using the litter tray. 
  • Clean litter trays daily. Some cats don't like to toilet in a tray containing a strong scent of another cat.
  • Identify and alleviate sources of stress and anxiety where possible. Calming aids such as a pheromone diffuser and natural supplements may assist.
  • Increase available territory with more vertical spaces. Window hammocks, cat towers and shelving work well. Elevated spaces help cats feel safe and secure and can help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Reinforce litter use with positive consequences (i.e. high value treats and praise). Going to the toilet (whether in a litter tray, outside or in the wrong place) is a self-rewarding behaviour. The consequence is a sense of relief no matter where they go. By make it highly reinforcing to toilet in the litter tray you make it more likely the behaviour will be repeated.
  • Cover couches and prevent access to rooms of the home where your cat toilets inappropriately until the issue has resolved. It can be very difficult to completely remove all traces of urine from carpets and soft furnishings, so prevention is better than cure!
  • Use deterrents such as aluminium foil or plastic sheeting in areas where your cat has toileted inappropriately to discourage them in future.

If you've tried all my tips and your cat is still toileting in the wrong places, it's time to call in an animal behaviourist to thoroughly assess the situation and your cat's behaviour. As I explained in the introduction of this article, this can be a very complex problem requiring an in-depth analysis by a qualified and experienced professional. Addressing this issue sooner, rather than later, provides a much better opportunity to successfully resolve it.

Dr Kate :)

Environmental Enrichment Ideas for Your Companion Parrot

Welcome to my latest blog post in a series looking at environmental enrichment for companion animals. The previous posts looked at ways to provide enrichment to pet dogs and cats. In this post I will discuss the importance of environmental enrichment for parrots and the best ways to enrich your companion parrot's life.

From the relatively small (and more common) budgies, lovebirds and cockatiels all the way up to the larger Cockatoos and Macaws, parrots come in an amazing range of sizes, colours and personalities. Unlike cats and dogs, companion parrots have not undergone thousands of years of captive breeding for the purpose of domestication. This essentially means they remain wild animals in terms of their behaviour (Hoppes & Gray 2010).

A Green Winged Macaw foraging

In the wild parrots live in flocks with a sophisticated social structure and complex interactions, the basis of which is the pair bond. Parrots can fly hundred of kilometres per day and spend hours of their day foraging for food and interacting with other members of their flock. Contrast this to the life of a companion parrot confined to a cage, alone for much of the day. The captive parrot shares the desire to perform the same innate behaviours as their wild counterparts, however their ability to do so is limited within the constraints of their cage and the home environment (Mornement, 2018).

Why do companion parrots need enrichment?

Companion parrots need enrichment to provide them with opportunities to perform species specific behaviour, which is critical for their mental and physical well-being. Even though many pet parrots are provided with everything they need to survive (i.e. food, water, shelter and human social interaction), they must be provided with opportunities to engage in normal parrot behaviours, including foraging, bathing, flying, problem solving, preening and socialising, regularly in order to thrive.

In my work as an applied animal behaviourist, I see many companion parrots who have developed behaviour problems because they are unable to be parrots. Some common problems I encounter are feather picking disorder, excessive vocalisation (screaming) and aggression due to fear, territorial behaviour or mate defence.

By providing daily enrichment opportunities, companion parrots can express species-specific behaviours in an appropriate way. This can help to alleviate problem behaviours and even prevent them in the first place.

An African Grey parrot exhibiting feather picking disorder
Image by JoelZimmer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Types of enrichment

If you've read my other posts in this series, you'll remember that environmental enrichment can be Animate (social) and Inanimate (physical). Animate enrichment is the provision of social stimulation from interaction with other birds or people. Whereas inanimate enrichment involves interaction with objects including toys, feeding enrichment, olfactory and auditory stimulation.

Enrichment ideas for your parrot

The best enrichment for companion parrots facilitates behaviours seen in the wild and provides opportunities for mental stimulation (problem solving), social interaction and physical exercise.

Social enrichment

Parrots are highly social flock animals and need social enrichment every day. Many species are long-lived and most form strong attachment bonds to their caregivers. Having two (or more) companion parrots can help provide much needed socialisation with other birds, which is very beneficial if the owner works full time. If you only have one bird, it's critical to allow your companion parrot time out of its cage every day to be with you. Spend time talking and playing with your parrot daily. Training is a great way to share time together in a productive way (see below).

Wild Rainbow Lorikeets flocking

Feeding enrichment

Parrots are no longer considered the "bird brains" of the animal world. Rather, the latest science is shining a light on the incredible intelligence and problem solving abilities of parrots (Milewski, 2015). Wild living parrots spend a good proportion of their day finding and foraging for food. This requires thinking, problem solving and physical activity. For this reason, companion parrots should be fed from foraging toys, rather than eating ad lib from a bowl.

Parrots also have complex and varied species-specific dietary and nutritional needs. The diets of many wild parrot species remain poorly understood. An appropriate diet it critical to your companion parrots health and well-being. If you're unsure whether you're feeding your bird an appropriate diet, check with a knowledgeable breeder or avian veterinarian.


Many people have unrealistic expectations of their bird's behaviour. Parrots are naturally loud, messy, destructive and mischievous. However, these normal parrot behaviours in a home environment can be problematic for many people. Companion parrots need to be taught appropriate behaviours, such as chewing on appropriate items, vocalising in desired ways (i.e. not screaming loudly) and toileting in certain areas, when living in our homes. Positive reinforcement training is the most effective way to teach parrots desired behaviour. Here is an introduction to positive reinforcement and its benefits for companion parrots.

Food can be used to reinforce a pet parrot for flying to your hand

Physical enrichment

Allowing your bird daily flight opportunities is extremely enriching. Flight facilitates physical exercise and problem solving. It also allows for a quick get away if the bird is frightened. The downside of allowing your bird to fly is that our homes are full of potential dangers (e.g. windows, open doors, electrical cords, stoves etc).

The practice of clipping one or both wings of companion parrots to reduce or prevent their ability to fly, although controversial, remains popular today. Most people clip their birds wings for safety reasons or to make the birds easier to handle. I am now firmly against this practice in most cases for a number of reasons. My knowledge and experience to date clearly suggests that preventing parrots from their right to flight severely compromises their welfare. That's all I'm going to say about it for now and will write about the topic in depth in a future blog post.

A Moluccan Cockatoo with wings clipped

Other ways to provide physical enrichment include toys that promote your parrot to use its beak and feet to manipulate them as well as items that encourage your parrot to climb. Things like parrot play gyms (made out of natural timber), swings and ropes work well. Daily opportunities to bathe is another way to enrich your parrots life. Bathing is not only enjoyable for birds but it's vital for their skin and feather health, helping to promote preening.

Parrots are highly sensitive creatures who need their physical and behavioural needs met (and ideally exceeded) to live a happy life in captivity. Problem behaviours are common in companion parrots, particularly when one or more of their biological needs are not being sufficiently met.

If you'd like to learn more about how you can provide your parrot with enrichment download these FREE parrot enrichment activity books, written by a parrot enrichment specialist HERE.  I'd love to hear about other ways you enrich your parrot's life. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section!

Dr Kate :)


Hoppes, S & Gray, P. (2010). Parrot rescue organizations and sanctuaries: A growing presence in 2010. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 19(2), 133-139.

Meehan, C. L. Garner, J. P. & Mench, J. A. (2004). Environmental enrichment and development of cage stereotypy in Orange-winged Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica). Developmental Psychobiology, 44(4), 209-218.

Meehan, C. L. Millam, J. R. & Mench, J. A. (2003). Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 80(1), 71-85.

Milewski, A. (2015). New intelligence on Australian parrots. Wildlife Australia, 52(4), 28.

Mornement, K. (2018). Animals as Companion, In Animals and Human Society (pp.281-304).

Environmental Enrichment Ideas for Your Cat

Following on from my recent blog posts about the importance of environmental enrichment for companion animals, and environmental enrichment ideas for pet dogs, this blog post is all about enrichment ideas for cats!

Felids are obligate carnivores, specialising on a diet of animal meat and organs. In the wild, cats are free to express the full range of their normal behaviour, including feeding behaviours through locating, stalking, chasing, capturing and killing their prey; behaviours which require time, problem solving and intense activity. In contrast, the artificial and predictable environment of captivity frustrates the normal behaviour of wild felids and can lead to the development of abnormal behaviour and psychological disorders (Damasceno & Genaro, 2014).

Despite the fact that companion cats are domesticated, they too retain the instincts to perform normal, species-specific behaviour. Species-specific behaviours of the cat are very similar to that of it's wild relative, the African wildcat, and to free-roaming cats. These include social family rankings, elimination and feeding behaviours (Overall, 2005). When owners understand these normal behaviours and provide appropriate outlets for them, the behaviours are less likely to be expressed in a problematic way.

As is the case with pet dogs, our modern lifestyle is frequently in opposition to the life our companion cats evolved to live. Increasingly, pet cats are confined to the home and many do not have regular access to the outdoors. Although this keeps them and our native animals safe, many cats spend long periods of time in isolation unable to exhibit normal hunting or social behaviours. Consequently, these cats often develop problem behaviours such as aggression towards their owners (or animals living in the home); destructive scratching and inappropriate toileting inside the house.

Types of Enrichment

Environment enrichment can be divided into Animate (or social) and Inanimate (physical). Animate enrichment comprises social stimulation arising from interaction with a member of the same species (infraspecific), different species (interspecific) or both. Inanimate enrichment involves interaction with inanimate objects such as toys, feeding enrichment, olfactory or auditory stimulation (Kiddie et al., 2017).

Enrichment Ideas for Your Cat

When deciding what kind of environmental enrichment to give your cat, it's important to consider your cat's breed/breed type, temperament and personality, age, health, likes and dislikes. Observe your cat's behaviour and take note of the activities they engage in of their own accord. This will provide clues about the types of enrichment your cat might enjoy most. For example, does your cat go crazy for catnip? Or do they display a strong preference for certain kinds of toys? Or is food the number one thing on your cat's agenda? Another important consideration for companion cats is that they prefer high places. This is especially true in multi-cat or multi-pet households. Being able to get high up helps cats feel safe and secure and gives them a great view of their surroundings. Tall cat towers, window beds and high shelving are just some ways to provide high up places.

Social Enrichment

Cats have the ability to live in social groups under conditions where food and space is plentiful. Affiliative behaviours such as also-grooming, also-play, nose touching and maintaining physical contact have been observed in social groups between certain individuals, indicating a preference for spending time with particular individuals. This means that opportunities to spend time with other cats may have welfare benefits under specific circumstances and where there is no competition for access to high value resources such as food, water, toileting areas and outdoor space (Ellis, 2009).

Feeding Enrichment

No wild-living cat gets their food for free, served up in a bowl, without having to work for it. Wild felids spend time finding, hunting and stalking their prey. They expend energy and problem solve in their attempt to catch prey. Contrast this to our domesticated cats. Even though we feed our pet cats a good quality daily diet, they still retain the instinct to perform hunting behaviour and to seek and find food. In fact, research shows that all animals prefer to work for food. It's called contra freeloading.

Feeding enrichment can be provided by feeding you cat exclusively from interactive food dispensing or puzzle toys. There are numerous such toys on the market (just Google "cat food toys") so choose one that suits the type of food you feed. For cats fed dry food we like the Kong Wobbler for cats or you could use an empty water bottle with the lid removed. If you feed your cat wet food, try using a muffin tray or an old egg carton and filling each compartment with a spoon of food. A small sized dog Kong can also work.

Play Enrichment

Daily play sessions are essential to provide your cat with an appropriate outlet for normal hunting behaviour (i.e. stalking, chasing, biting). The best toys are those that mimic prey, such as feathers attached to a fishing rod waved in the air to mimic a bird in flight or a furry toy that moves along the ground mimicking a rodent. Da Bird is a great example. You can see it in action here.

The Cat Dancer is another popular enrichment toy. It's movement mimics insects in flight. Toys that roll along the ground also entice cats to chase them and they need not be expensive. Scrunched up pieces of paper or even aluminium foil can make cheap and entertaining toys, as can empty cardboard boxes, pen lids and hair ties - as long as your cat doesn't chew or swallow them!

Appropriate outlets for hunting behaviour can help avoid aggression problems towards people and other animals living in the home. Play is also important to provide physical exercise which releases endorphins and reduces stress and boredom. Click here for the most popular cat toys on Amazon. If you're in Australia, like me, Kmart have a wonderful range of cat toys starting at just $2! Remember to rotate toys often and introduce new toys every now and then to maintain your cats interest.

Sensory Enrichment

Sensory enrichment can be provided in numerous ways. Water fountains (instead of a water bowl), pheromones, scents and herbs (e.g. catnip and cat grass) can all help stimulate the seeking system and a cat's curiosity. If your cat enjoys being groomed, a daily brush can be an enriching experience.

Cat videos and cat games on YouTube showing real and animated animals can provide hours of entertainment, as can a number of phone and iPad Apps designed specifically for cats. Similarly, a window view of birds outside can be enthralling, as long as it doesn't upset your cat.

Cats are highly territorial and like to mark their territory with their smell. They do this by rubbing their cheeks on furniture (and people!) and by scratching objects which also deposits scent from glands on their paws. It's important to provide your cat with opportunities to express this normal feline behaviour in appropriate ways. Scratching posts, cat towers and scratch mats work well and help avoid your cat targeting your couch or curtains.

Outdoor Enrichment

Many councils in Australia and other countries now enforce "cat curfews" stipulating that pet cats must be confined to the owners property at certain times of the day (usually night time) or permanently. Allowing cats the opportunity to spend time outside is crucial for their well-being. Outdoor access provides many benefits such as additional space (territory), sensory stimulation through new smells, sights, sunshine etc.

Whether you live in an apartment or a large house, own your home or rent, there are numerous options available to allow your exclusively indoor cat safe access to the outdoors. Cat netting is a great option allowing balconies, courtyards or a small section of the backyard to be sectioned off. If you're handy with the tools, you can save money with this option and do it yourself! Other companies offer outdoor cat enclosures and cat runs which vary considerably in their design and cost. Some companies will design and build a solution specific to your needs.

Remember that cats like to have access to high vantage points, where they feel safe and have a good view of their surroundings, so providing some elevated places in the outdoor space is important. You are really only limited by your imagination when it comes to providing safe outdoor space for your cat!

I've really just scratched the surface when it comes to providing your cat with environmental enrichment. I'd LOVE to hear about the kinds of things you do to enrich your cat's life! Leave a comment and share your tips.


Damasceno, J. & Genaro, G., (2014). Dynamics of the access of captive domestic cats to a feed environmental enrichment item. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 67-74.

Ellis, S. L. (2009). Environmental enrichment: practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 901-912

Kiddie, J., Bodymore, A., Dittrich, A., & Phillips, C. (2017). Environmental Enrichment in Kennelled Pit Bull Terriers ( Canis lupus familiaris ). Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 7(4), Animals: an Open Access Journal from MDPI, 2017, Vol.7(4).

Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical behavioural medicine for small animals. Mosby - Year book Inc

Environmental Enrichment Ideas for Your Dog

In my last blog post, I explained what environmental enrichment is and discussed it's importance for your pet's wellbeing. Now I'm going to describe some of the best ways to provide environmental enrichment for your pet, starting with dogs. But first, here's a reminder why it's so important...

Our modern lifestyle places dogs under enormous pressure. With the ever-increasing human population, particularly in major cities, many of us opt for apartment or unit-living as a more convenient and affordable housing option. We then expect our companion dogs to live happily with us in our smaller abodes, content with a daily walk, and to behave appropriately while we're at work all day. This expectation is unrealistic.

Remember that all the dog breeds we have today were originally developed to perform a job: Border Collies and Australian Kelpies herded livestock; Labradors and English Springer Spaniels were used as gun dogs to flush and retrieve game; German Shepherds, although originally used for herding, were and continue to be utilised for police and military work. Many of the smaller breeds, including the Dachshund, Italian Greyhound, Pomeranian and Shih Tzu were used to hunt small animals and as watch dogs. While some dogs are still used for these jobs, the majority now spend their lives as our companions.

The reality is that many dogs are living in environments in which they are unable to exhibit normal behaviour leading to boredom, frustration and behaviour problems such as excessive barking, destructive behaviour and house soiling. In addition, research shows that social and spatial restriction and too little environmental variability can cause dogs chronic stress, fear and frustration which can also lead to the expression of undesired behaviour, particularly separation anxiety (Kiddie et al., 2017).

This is why environmental enrichment is so important for our pet dogs. The goals of enrichment are to increase behavioural choices and facilitate species appropriate behaviours in order to reduce abnormal and problem behaviour; increase positive utilisation of the environment; increase the animal's ability to cope with challenges and, overall; to enhance welfare (Kiddie et al., 2017).

Types of Enrichment

Broadly speaking, environmental enrichment can be divided into Animate (or social) and Inanimate (or physical). Animate enrichment involves interaction with a human or other dog(s) whereas inanimate enrichment involves interaction with inanimate objects such as toys, feeding enrichment, olfactory or auditory stimulation (Kiddie et al., 2017). Dogs need both animate and inanimate enrichment for optimal wellbeing.

Enrichment Ideas for Your Dog

When deciding what kind of environmental enrichment to give your dog, it's important to consider your dog's breed/breed type, their temperament and personality, their age, health as well as their likes and dislikes. Research the behavioural and temperamental traits of your dog's breed/breed type if you are not familiar with them already. Observe your dog's behaviour and take note of the activities they engage in of their own accord. This will provide clues about the types of enrichment your dog might enjoy most. For example, does your dog really enjoy playing and interacting with other dogs or do they generally prefer the company of people? Is your dog head over heels for balls and fetch, tug games or do they prefer to sniff everything?

Here are some of the most popular ways to provide enrichment for your dog:

Social Enrichment

Positive interactions and experiences with a variety of people and other dogs is important throughout every dog's life to maintain their sociability. Including your dog in activities and outings, while ensuring they're having a positive experience, will help develop their confidence and engage their senses. This is particularly important when it comes to your vet and groomer. Ensure your dog has many more positive experiences with the vet/groomer compared to negative experiences to avoid them developing fear/anxiety-based aggression. This can be as simple as taking your dog to the vet/groomer when you don't have an appointment and feeding your dog some yummy treats or having the staff do so.

Dedicated dog parks are a great place to take friendly, sociable dogs who interact well with other dogs. Unfortunately, though, some owners take dogs to these parks that are unsuitable because they're aggressive, anti-social or too boisterous which can cause real problems.

Some dog owners believe their dog should be friendly and sociable with every other dog it encounters and this is an unrealistic expectation. Just like we pick and choose our friends, based on having things in common and getting along well, dogs also have preferences when it comes to other dogs. Rather than expecting and allowing your dog to interact with every dog it meets, which often leads to conflict, allow your dog to play and interact only with other dogs you know they like and get along well with. Regular play dates with the same dogs are a great way to provide your dog with social enrichment in a safe environment.

Feeding Enrichment

No wild-living animal gets their food for free, given in clean bowl. Every. Single. Day. Even though our pet dogs are domesticated and don't need to hunt and scavenge for food, they still retain the instinct to seek and find food. In fact, research shows that animals prefer to work for food rather than get it of free - this phenomenon is called contra freeloading (Iglis et al., 1997).

One of the easiest way to provide enrichment for your dog is to feed them their meals exclusively from a food dispensing toy. Doing so encourages mental problem solving and physical activity as your dog engages with the toy in an attempt to get the food. If you feed dry food, try the Kong Wobbler, a Snuffle Mat or interactive food maze toy. If you feed canned or raw food, try stuffing it into the Green Feeder or the Outward Hound Fun Feeder. Varying your dog's diet, if appropriate, is another great way to provide enrichment.

Puzzle toys, such as those made by Nina Ottosson, can be used to feed your dog their meals or as a challenge to find special treats. These are high quality products that are made to last and are a great investment for dogs that enjoy problem solving. They vary in their degree of difficulty so choose one to suit your dog's skill level. These toys can provide entertainment for a period of time and are wonderful for dogs that spend hours at home while their owners are working.

Play Enrichment

TOYS!!! Most dogs LOVE toys. Toys are a great way to provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviours such as chewing, mouthing, biting, licking, chasing and tugging. When these behaviours are directed towards people they're totally inappropriate, but when dogs use toys as outlets for these behaviours, it's completely acceptable.

Think about how your dog engages in play with toys. Are they a toy destroyer, determined to rip apart every toy you give them? If so, look for high quality and durable toys, such as those made by Kong and Aussie Dog Products. These companies make a fantastic variety of toys for dogs that love to chew, tug and chase. It's important to provide these dogs with an appropriate outlet to avoid your clothing, furniture or household items being destroyed.

If your dog loves soft toys, try Hide a Squirrel which combines the fun of squeaky toys and problem solving. Your local op shop is another great place to find cheap soft toys.

Training Enrichment

Teaching your dog new tricks and behaviours provides an excellent form of enrichment. Learning requires problem solving and concentration and when coupled with positive reinforcement training, most dogs relish the opportunity to learn. Try short daily training sessions using high value treats to reward desired behaviour. If you'd like to learn more about how to train your dog effectively using a science-based and human training method, try Clicker Training.

If you have a little more time and motivation, why not consider participating in a dog sport like agility, flyball, herding, lure coursing or nose work? Check out the Pets4Life website for a complete list of dog sports and clubs in Australia.

Outdoor Enrichment

If your dog spends hours home alone, providing a variety of enrichment while you're away is important. Outdoor tug toys such as the Tether Tug or Home Alone by Aussie Dog Products are popular choices. In the warmer months, a clamshell pool/sandpit can provide great entertainment for dogs that like water or for those that like to dig for treats and toys.

Being outdoors away from the home is incredibly enriching for dogs that spend a lot of time indoors or confined to the property. The new smells, sights, people and other dogs all add to the excitement.  Daily walks, outings and even adventures to local beaches or walking trails that allow dogs provide incredibly rich experiences for dogs allowing them to engage all their senses. The Dogs Allowed website is a great resource listing a variety of places, including parks, beaches, cafes and walking trails, in Australia that allow dogs.

There are many more ways to provide your dog with environmental enrichment and we would LOVE to hear what kinds of enrichment you give your dogs. Let us know in the comments section!


Kiddie, J., Bodymore, A., Dittrich, A., & Phillips, C. (2017). Environmental Enrichment in Kennelled Pit Bull Terriers ( Canis lupus familiaris ). Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 7(4), Animals: an Open Access Journal from MDPI, 2017, Vol.7(4).

Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B., & Lazarus, J. (1997). Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy logic model of contrafreeloading. Animal Behaviour, 53(6), 1171-1191.

Wild at Heart: Why Enrichment is Essential for Your Pet's Well-Being

You've probably heard of the term "environmental enrichment". Most people associate environmental enrichment with captive animals, such as those living in zoos and aquariums, but did you know that environmental enrichment is important for your pet's well-being and welfare too?

A body of research from ethology, animal science and veterinary science has clearly demonstrated that animals have behavioural needs and that certain innate behaviours, such as nest building in birds, are highly motivated. In addition, neuroscience shows us that animal brains have complex emotional systems that serve as motivators for behaviour. The core emotional systems include seeking (novelty), fear, panic (e.g. separation stress), rage, lust, caring (e.g. nurturing young) and play (Morris et al 2014).

Chew toys are a great form of enrichment for dogs

What is Environmental Enrichment?

Broadly speaking, environmental enrichment involves the practice of increasing the physical, social and temporal complexity of captive environments (Carlsbad & Stepherdson, 2000).

Wild at Heart

Our modern day companion animals are relatives of wild species and, more recently, breeds originally developed to perform work such as herding, hunting guarding and retrieving. Despite this fact, when choosing their next animal companion, many people do not consider the breed or species-specific behaviour of the animal, rather their choice is made on the basis of appearance or the perceived status the pet will bring them (Whelan, 2010).

What are "species-specific behaviours?" Species-specific behaviours are actions and behaviours that animals have evolved to perform or carry out. They include things like foraging or hunting for food, establishing and maintaining a territory and protecting their territory from intruders. To provide appropriate environmental enrichment it's crucial that the natural history and behaviour of the breed or species is well understood. Cats and dogs are both members of the order Carnivora and they share species-specific behaviours similar to their wild counterparts. Similarly, companion parrots also share the same species-specific behaviours as their wild living relatives.
Many wild-living cat species are arboreal (live in trees)

As with captive exotic animals, laboratory animals and livestock, our pets are also captive animals living by the constraints we place on them. Even though we provide them with everything they need to survive (i.e. food, water, shelter, vet care etc) we often don't realise they retain the instincts and desires to perform, and need outlets for the expression of, these behaviours in order to thrive. When we fail to provide ample opportunities for our pets to express natural behaviours or exercise as they normally would, unwanted negative behaviours can result (Whelan, 2010).

When considering the natural history of dogs, it's important to recognise breed differences. With over 150 different breeds in existence, originally developed to perform specific jobs, genetic differences in the strength of the core emotional systems are likely. For example, one dog may be a high seeker, constantly motivated to chase a ball, compared to another which is a low seeker, happy to live a more sedentary life. These days pet dogs are not required to perform the jobs they were originally bred for however those selected behavioural traits still remain. For example, the Border Collie that herds small children or the Doberman that barks at people walking past the home. These are normal behaviours for these breeds but are often considered problematic by dog owners (Morris et al, 2014).

This dog is highly motivated to fetch the ball

Increasingly, pet cats are confined to the home with many not having regular access to the outdoors. Although this keeps them safe from cars and other animals, many can spend long periods of time in isolation unable to exhibit hunting or social behaviours. Consequently, these cats often develop problem behaviours.

Species-specific behaviours of the cat are very similar to that of it's relatives, the African wildcat and to free-roaming cats, and include social family rankings, elimination and feeding behaviours (Overall et al, 2005). When owners understand these normal behaviours and provide appropriate outlets for them, the behaviours are less likely to be expressed in a problematic way.

Behavioural issues are a common reason for relinquishment of companion animals to shelters. As such, we must recognise the core emotional systems affecting behaviour and do our best to provide appropriate outlets for these systems through enrichment. This will help to reduce problem behaviour and the subsequent relinquishment of pets to animal shelters.

Benefits of Environmental Enrichment

Much of the research on the benefits of environmental enrichment to date has been performed on mice in a laboratory setting. These studies show that an enriched environment can provide numerous benefits including improved learning and memory, increased brain weight and size and enhanced activity of the opioid systems in the brain (van Praag et al, 2000). Research on captive exotic animals shows that enrichment can decrease aggression, increase activity, reduce the expression of abnormal behaviour and improve health and reproduction (Carlsbad & Stepherdson, 2000).

Enjoying some environmental enrichment!

As our pet's guardians it is our responsibility to maintain not only their physical health, but their emotional health as well. Adequately providing for the mental health of our companion animals through environmental enrichment before the development of behaviour problems is key. Furthermore, the concept of environmental enrichment should be considered an essential component of pet husbandry rather than an optional addition.

Good enrichment should provide pets with opportunities to express behaviours driven by positive emotional systems of seeking, caring and play. Some examples include foraging, play, positive social interactions and grooming. Enrichment should aim to increase positive emotions and reduce the time animals experience negative emotions such as fear and panic (Morris et al, 2014). When applied correctly, environmental enrichment promotes optimal animal welfare.

Stay tuned for my next few blog posts which will focus on the most effective ways you can provide environmental enrichment for your dog, cat and companion parrot!


Carlstead, K. and D. Shepherdson. "Alleviating stress in zoo animals with environmental enrichment." The biology of animal stress: Basic principles and implications for animal welfare (2000): 337-354.

Morris, C. L., T. Grandin and N. A. Irlbeck. "Companion Animals Symposium: Environmental Enrichment for companion, exotic and laboratory animals". Journal of Animal Science 89.12 (2011): 4227-4238.

Overall, K. and D. Dyer. "Enrichment strategies for laboratory animals from the viewpoint of clinical veterinary behavioural medicine: Emphasis on cats and dogs." Ilar Journal 46.2 (2005): 202-216.

Van Praag, H., Kemperman, G. and Gage, F. H. "Neural consequences of environmental enrichment." Nature reviews. Neuroscience 1.3 (2000): 191.

Whelan, F. "Environmental enrichment for pets." Veterinary Nursing Journal 25.3 (2010): 27-28.

Is Your Cat Suffering Whisker Stress?

You've probably heard that your cat's whiskers are highly sensitive. Indeed, whiskers provide cats with vital sensory information about their environment. But have you heard the term "whisker stress" and, if not, what is whisker stress and could your cat be experiencing it?

The role of whiskers:

Whiskers are modified hairs which are deeply rooted and rich in blood vessels and nerve endings. They are used by mammals to supplement their short-distance vision, providing information on the distance, size, shape and texture of surrounding objects as well as air pressure. Cats typically have between eight and 12 whiskers on each side of their face and additional tufts of whiskers above their eyes and on their chin.

What is Whisker Stress?

Whisker stress is caused when a cat's sensitive whiskers continually touch the sides of it's food bowl while eating. Many cats are affected by whisker stress on a daily basis, especially those fed from a deep food bowl. This causes the whiskers to hit the sides of the bowl every time the cat eats a mouthful of food (see image below).

Whiskers contain proprioceptors; sensory receptors which detect the slightest change in pressure. When whiskers constantly make contact with the side of the food bowl (or cat flap etc) it can cause significant irritation. The result is a cat that can appear picky or finicky with food - Ever seen a cat flick it's food out of the bowl? The reality, however, is that eating from the deep bowl is very uncomfortable.

Wild living felines have choice in terms of where they consume their food (e.g. on the ground, high up in a tree, in hiding etc). Most pet cats are fed from their food bowl, so they cannot eat in a way that is most comfortable for them.

Notice how this cat's whiskers hit the sides of the bowl while its eating

How to prevent whisker stress:

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent your cat experiencing whisker stress.

  • Choose a wide food dish with shallow walls or, even better, ditch the food bowl and provide meals in a food dispensing puzzle toy or activity feeder. No wild living feline (or other animal) gets high quality food for free, served up in a bowl, without having to work for it. Making cats work for their food is an excellent form of environmental enrichment and provides additional physical activity and opportunities for problem solving which is especially important for indoor-only cats. Research supports this idea, showing that animals prefer to work for their food; a phenomenon known as "contra-freeloading".
  • Consider providing fresh water via a cat fountain instead of a bowl or provide a wide and shallow water bowl. 
  • Ensure any cat flaps or access holes are wide enough to avoid touching your cat's whiskers as some cats may avoid using them if they cause irritation to their whiskers.
  • Avoid touching or playing with your cat's whiskers.

Finally, NEVER cut or trim your cat's whiskers. Cutting the whiskers can cause them to become disorientated, scared and stressed. 

We'd love to hear about any changes you notice in your cat's behaviour after implementing some of these ideas!

Dr Kate xo