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

Not All Treats Are Equal When Training Your Pet

According to the principles of Operant Conditioning, animals (including us!) change their behaviour depending on its consequences. Behaviours that result in a desired consequence are repeated or strengthened whereas behaviours resulting in an unpleasant consequence, or none at all, are weakened or avoided. This means that animals do what works for them; what they find most rewarding (reinforcing) in any given situation throughout their lives. You can learn more about Operant Conditioning HERE.

There are a number of factors that influence exactly what an animal finds rewarding or reinforcing. These include it's species, breed/breed type, temperament, personality, past experiences, likes and dislikes, health status, age, the immediate environment, time of day etc.

Why use treats when training you pet?

Most animal trainers recommend food as the best reward for desired behaviours. Food is classified as a "primary reinforcer" or biological need. Primary reinforcers include food, drink and shelter. Food is innately reinforcing and it works exceptionally well in training to teach dogs (and all animals) desired behaviours. But not all food is equal. Just because you think the treats you're using are rewarding to your dog (or other animal), doesn't mean they are the most rewarding or effective treats to use.

Why treat selection is important

When choosing the type of treats to train your dog (or any pet), you should be aiming for high value treats for your particular animal. This is because the higher the value of the food, the more motivated your dog will be and the quicker they will learn. Many dog owners use their dogs regular kibble or dry food in training and, if you have a very food motivated dog, this might work just fine. However, most dogs tend to find their kibble relatively low value, as they eat it every day. In general, foods dogs find highly valuable include cooked chicken, cheese and hotdogs/devon but this varies depending on the dog (see Figure 1 for a general indication of treat value for most dogs).

Figure 1: Hierarchy of treat value for most dogs

To find out which treats your dog values most, why not conduct a choice experiment? This involves lining up a few different treat options (e.g. kibble, liver treats, cheese, chicken) and, during several trials, seeing which treats your dog consistently prefers. If your dog shows a clear preference for certain treats, these are the treats you should train with.

Another indication a particular treat is high value is how quickly your dog consumes it. If your dog scoffs the treats at lightning speed that's a pretty good sign their high value. But if your dog sniffs them a few times, picks one up, drops it and picks it up again before eating it, this indicates the treat is not very high value. Variety is also important. So try to mix it up a bit and avoid using the same treats day in, day out.

What about other rewards?

Although food is the best reward to use in training, it's important to combine it with other things your dog finds rewarding. These other rewards are referred to as "secondary reinforcers" and can include praise, pats, favourite toys, games, going for a walk and the opportunity to play with another dog. Secondary reinforcers are extremely useful for when you don't have food on hand, or you want to phase food out, and you still want to reward desired behaviour.

Again, it's important to establish if the secondary reinforcers you are using are actually rewarding to your dog. We often assume our dogs enjoy pats, but sometimes they don't. Here's a video to help you determine if your dog find pats reinforcing. The best indicator of whether your dog finds something rewarding is an increase in the behaviour you're rewarding. If the behaviour is not increasing (or strengthening) then the reward you're using is not reinforcing enough.

So now you know how important treat selection is in training, why not put it into practice and see what difference it makes. We'd love to hear your experiences!

Piranha Puppies: How to bring an end to the BITE!

I’ve seen several clients recently with puppies and young dogs who bite and mouth them REALLY hard, often causing scratches, bleeding and bruising. Puppies vary in the intensity and duration of their biting and chewing. Given plenty of appropriate items to chew on, many will not direct this behaviour towards their human family. When they do, however, it can vary from mildly annoying to painful and scary.

Why do some puppies bite hard?

Biting and mouthing is normal puppy behaviour. Puppies explore the world with their muzzles (smelling, tasting, chewing) and biting and chewing on things, including our limbs and clothing, helps puppies learn about the world around them. It also helps to relieve pain associated with teething. This means that biting and chewing is a self-rewarding behaviour and will continue while it provides desired consequences (pain relief, entertainment etc.).

When puppies are with their mother and litter mates they learn many important social behaviours, one of these is called “bite-inhibition”. Bite inhibition is a dog's ability to control the pressure of its mouth and teeth, to cause little or no damage to the recipient of the bite. 

During normal play and rough housing young puppies inevitably bite each other and their mother. The high-pitched yelps given off by the receiver of the bite signal to the offender that the bite was too hard and it hurt. The consequence often being the play session is over.

With repeated interactions puppies learn quickly to modulate their bites to avoid conflict. Sometimes, puppies are separated from their mother and litter mates too early, missing this important learning opportunity, and may be prone to bite harder than normal.

The good news is that given time, most puppies will eventually grow out of the biting stage. That said, there are steps you can take to avoid being bitten and to teach your puppy to bite their toys instead…

How to stop the bite:

You can reduce the likelihood of being bitten by your puppy by following these tips:
  • Encourage your puppy to bite and chew on appropriate items such as chew toys, chew treats and feeding toys. Reward your puppy with attention, praise and high value treats for chewing on these toys. You can also put treats inside toys or smear them with peanut butter to make them extra tempting.
  • If your puppy’s teeth contact your skin immediately give out a high pitched yelp sound (to make the unwanted behaviour) and remove your attention from your puppy (completely ignore them) for a few moments. As soon as your puppy stops biting immediately reward that behaviour with your attention and praise. If your puppy continues to bite you remove yourself from the room for several minutes. Repeat as necessary.
  • As you’re moving around the home or backyard, flapping clothing can tempt some puppies to latch on. Avoid pulling away and creating a fun game of tug. Rather, try not to make a big fuss. Stand still, be boring and ignore your puppy until they stop or throw a ball or toy away from you for your puppy to chase, allowing yourself safe passage.
  • Do not allow your puppy to chew or mouth your hands (or feet) in play. Also avoid using your hands to rough house your puppy. Use toys instead. You want to teach your puppy to be gentle with your hands and feet and to bite and chew their toys instead.
  • Have a variety of different sizes and textured toys available for your puppy to play with. Rubber toys (e.g. Kongs), rope toys, squeaky toys, balls and treat puzzles are popular choices. Tug toys such as the Tether Tug or Home Alone are great choices for dogs that love tug games, once they’re a little older. It’s also important to rotate toys and introduce new ones every so often to help prevent boredom.

With a little time, patience and consistency, your puppy will learn that chewing on their toys is WAY better (because it results in lots of additional reinforcement) than chewing on you (which results in being ignored).

Now go have fun with your puppy!

How To Stop Your Dog Jumping Up

Jumping up on people is one of the most common issues I help dog owners to address. It tends to occur most when visitors arrive and when family members return home from an absence. These are exciting events for dogs, especially those who may have been home alone all day. 

Although many small dog owners tolerate their dog jumping up on them, a large dog is a different story. In their exuberance, heavy dogs with big paws and claws (and big teeth!) can cause bruising and damage to clothing. Most visitors to the home don't appreciate being jumped and slobbered on either, even if they assure you it's ok.

Image credit: Mr.TinDC via Flickr
Why do dogs jump up?
So, why do dogs jump up on people? The short answer is; because the behaviour has been reinforced (rewarded) in the past. 

All behaviour is driven by consequences. Animals repeat behaviours that have a desired consequence. Conversely, they tend to avoid repeating behaviours that have an unpleasant consequence. Animals continually change their behaviour to do what's most reinforcing for them, based on their unique likes and dislikes, wants and needs, in any given situation.

When it comes to jumping up most people respond to the behaviour in (variations of) one of three ways: 1) They pat and greet the dog, 2) People who are scared of dogs might squeal or yell and put their hands in the air moving erratically or 3) They scold the dog telling it to stop/get down and/or push it away. 

Not all people will respond the same way to any one dog that jumps up and therefore a dog is likely to get a mix of responses to the behaviour. For many dogs, being told off or pushed away still reinforces the behaviour because it's still attention, even though it's intended as a punishment. Furthermore, if the consequence of jumping up is inconsistent; sometimes rewarded, sometimes punished, sometimes resulting in an exciting reaction this is known as intermittent reinforcement which will result in the jumping up behaviour continuing.

How to stop your dog jumping up
To stop your dog from jumping up when you or your guests enter your home you must remove all reinforcement for the behaviour (i.e. attention, reaction). More importantly, you need to teach your dog what you want them to do instead (e.g. sit calmly or have four paws on the floor) by consistently reinforcing the desired behaviour.
Image credit: Pete Markham via Flickr
Have some of your dogs favourite treats on hand when you arrive home or when guests come over. It's best to practice this exercise with your dog several times yourself, so he understands what's expected, before it's attempted with visitors. 

When you come through the door immediately ask your dog to sit and show him you have treats (this will make him more likely to comply). As soon as he sits, reward the behaviour with a treat and praise. Take a few steps and ask for another sit or reward your dog if he hasn't jumped up. As soon as he does jump up on you turn your back and completely ignore him. Don't tell him off, don't even look at him. Pretend as though he's not even there. As soon as he stops jumping turn to him and reward four paws on the floor or ask him to sit and reward the sit. Repeat as necessary. 

It's critical that the consequences for your dog's jumping up and sitting are immediate - As soon as he jumps up he's ignored (unpleasant consequence). As soon as he sits, he gets a treat, pat and praise (pleasurable consequence). With consistency and repetition your dog will change his behaviour to do what works (sit calmly when you or guests enter the house) because that behaviour results in the things your dog desires (treats, praise, pats) whereas jumping up results in being ignored.

Consistency is key and this means having ALL people who come to your house respond in the same way. If this doesn't happen, the risk is that jumping will be intermittently reinforced, and the behaviour will persist. If you're having guests over and you can't do the training it's best to put your dog in another area of the house to ensure that jumping up isn't accidentally reinforced.

Why not go a step further and teach your dog to go to their bed (or a mat), and stay there until released, when you come home, visitors arrive or when the doorbell rings? For step-by-step instructions on how to train this behaviour, read this article.

A Canine Conundrum: To Hug or Not to Hug?

I remember receiving an email a while back which made me feel nauseous. In it, a concerned dog owner explained how his dog isn’t great with children because when they put their arms around the dog’s neck and hug it, or get up close to the dog’s face, the dog responds by snapping or growling.

The email went on to explain that the dog has never bitten or made contact but that the behaviour is a concern because the family's toddler loves to interact with the dog and other children just want to hug it because of how cute it looks.

This wasn't the first email I’ve received about dogs that behave aggressively when people (especially children or strangers) get too close, hug or manhandle a dog and it won’t be the last. In fact, in my work as an animal behaviourist and consultant, human-directed aggression is a common issue I’m called in to assist with.

Image 1: Do you think this dog is enjoying being hugged? 

What’s wrong with hugging dogs?

So why do some dogs respond aggressively to being hugged? What’s wrong with hugging dogs? It’s how we show them we love them so it must be ok, right? The answer may surprise you…

Research looking into this phenomenon is lacking in the scientific literature. However, this issue came to light recently when canine behaviour expert Stanley Coren wrote an article for Psychology Today about an informal study he did (not published in the scientific literature) in which photos of people hugging dogs, freely available on the internet, were analysed for signs of canine stress or anxiety. 

The results of this study indicated that about 82% of the dogs in the photos showed some sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety. Not surprisingly, this article caused some controversy, upsetting many dog owners who take pleasure in hugging their dogs.

Hugging is a form of intimacy found in all human societies. We inherited this tendency from our closest relatives, chimpanzees, who also hug and kiss one another. So it’s not surprising that humans use hugs as a reward for their dogs. The thing is, dogs don’t hug one another and have not evolved to understand what a human hug means. The closest thing that dogs might do to each other that resembles a hug is mounting - both a sexual behaviour and one used to communicate dominance1 - or during an argument (see image #2 below). So what kind of message are we sending our dogs when we hug them?! The answer lies in their body language…

Image 2: These dogs may look like they're hugging but they're actually fighting.
Credit: David Shankbone CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

How can I tell if my dog enjoys being hugged?

I used to hug my dogs too, especially my Boxer, Archie who sadly passed away in 2015. I could tell he didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Rather, he tolerated it. I did it because I enjoyed it and it felt good but rarely did I stop and think, is he really ok with being hugged, until I knew better. Like many dog owners, I assumed he understood the sentiments behind the hug. Our late Labrador Joe was never into hugs and never sought them out but our newest dog Lenny, who we adopted in 2017, is absolutely MAD for hugs. He seeks them out several times per day and during most of our interactions with him. I should clarify that Lenny enjoys hugs from me and my husband but sometimes shows mild stress signals (licking his lips and whale eye) if either of my two young children (3 and 4 years old) sneak in a hug. 

Something else to consider is that not all hugs are equal and different styles of hugs may be tolerated, or even enjoyed, more than others. For example, a bear hug with both arms tightly held around a dog’s neck, shoulders or body (see images 3 & 4) is more likely to cause stress because it momentarily immobilises the dog. In contrast, a familiar arm over a dog that’s comfortably resting combined with gentle patting or stroking or cradling a puppy while it's sleeping (see image 5) are likely to be pleasurable and enjoyable for both parties. Archie our Boxer preferred this style of hug to a bear hug and once this became blindingly obvious to me,  I changed the way I hugged him. 

Image 3: This dog may appear to be enjoying the hug and "kissing" it's owner. but looks can be deceiving - licking the owners face is an appeasement behaviour.

Image 4: A different style of hug but still this dog is uncomfortable. 
Image 5: This puppy is calm and relaxed being held and stroked.

You can tell if your dog enjoys hugs and what kind of hug it prefers by observing it’s body language. Signs of stress that indicate hugs may not be your dogs thing include: lip licking, whale eye (whites of the eyes clearly visible), ears held back or down, turning away, yawning, avoiding eye contact, panting, lifting a paw and avoidance. More overt body language which indicates you should immediately stop hugging your dog include baring teeth, growling, snapping, nipping and biting.

Signs of a dog that is relaxed and potentially enjoying being hugged can include a loose body, soft/squinty/closed eyes, a relaxed mouth and facial expression, lying down, head resting on you, ears in a neutral position and steady breathing (see image 5 again). For more information on reading canine body language, including signs of stress/anxiety or relaxation, see this article.

I'm not saying you should never hug your dog again. The take home message here is not to assume all dogs like hugs because it's quite likely the opposite is true. Rather, I suggest erring on the side of caution, especially if you have a dog with an unknown history, young children or a dog that is fearful or anxious. Don’t hug dogs you don’t know. You have no idea of their temperament, personality or past experiences. Even if it’s the cutest damn dog you’ve ever seen. You wouldn’t hug a complete stranger and, even if you did, you would stop if they told you too. 

Teach children not to hug (or even approach) dogs they don’t know. Teach them that dogs prefer a gentle scratch under the chin or on their chest, shoulder or back - and only if they are relaxed and approach calmly of their own accord to interact. Just as we wouldn’t expect a child to hug or kiss a complete stranger it’s unfair to expect our dogs to tolerate the same thing from people or children they don't know. 

Dogs probably tolerate hugs from people they have a strong attachment bond, and trusting relationship with, but that doesn’t mean we should expect them to tolerate a hug from anyone, let alone a complete stranger. You can learn more about how to "ask" your dog if they'd like a pat or a hug by watching this excellent YouTube video.

Dr Kate x

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