Thinking about Enrichment

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Recently I felt like I needed a break from the internet and scrolling through my instagram, or Facebook. I was yearning for something from an older time. I find it difficult to switch off and find that my thoughts are forever returning to my caseload.

I thought of a jigsaw puzzle. I had remembered loving them when I was a preteen – when the holiday season was long. The school books had been bought and covered, swimming lessons finished, and the buffalo grass too hot and spiky to lay on. Inside, in a cool dark dining room, a place on the large round table would be made to do a puzzle – usually an Alpine scene (a gift from an overseas relative) – Swiss cottages and snow covered peaks.

The jigsaw puzzle fulfilled in me a need to do something repetitive and strangely soothing. It incorporated more than one sense – mainly visual, but also tactile – enjoying the click and the snap of the perfectly fitted next piece.

Absorbed in the pieces and how they might fit together the task seemed to push all other thoughts from my mind. It is strangely quietening, like lap swimming, like knitting, like colouring in – all the mundanities that I find soothing.

If I had been truly compulsive in this task then no dinner would get cooked, no dog would get walked and no laundry done. It would then become somewhat of a problem.

One of the core emotions is the need to SEEK – to locate resources required for living, as well as to find mates with whom to procreate. In our dogs we mostly take away their desire for procreation by neutering them and so the desire to SEEK can only be fulfilled if they are given something to do in their search for life sustaining resources. This is why food enrichment is such a vital and gratifying thing for dogs to do.

When we give dogs a way to source their food, through enrichment, we allow this neuronal pathway to fire and the neurotransmitters associated with this work makes the animal feel good. SEEKING works best when more than one sense is used – and hence the power of nose work, combined with manipulation.

It is interesting to see dogs who are not used to using enrichment – they often lack the ability to work their noses. Dogs who are anxious are also less inclined to take the time to sniff their world, and hence the suggestion that caregivers allow their anxious dogs the time to sniff more, and move less.

I felt the world slow down and my mind free itself of clutter as I clicked the small pieces together and watched the puzzle take shape.

Some of my patients have their SEEKING system in over-drive and these animals are the ones who engage in compulsive behaviours. These animals are so driven to perform a task over and over again that they do it to the detriment of other needs. They may become so focussed on this behaviour that they are difficult to interrupt from it and can even be aggressive if something, or someone, interferes in their drive to perform the behaviour.

I liken these dogs to addicts (the “crack-heads” of the canine world) – as their brains are in such desperate need of the chemicals released when they perform the behaviour – and after a certain amount of time – the behaviour is no longer pleasurable, but something simply required to be done, just to feel normal. It sometimes starts as a coping mechanism but later becomes so necessary that an animal cannot be in the world without doing the behaviour, and so he/she begins to look for ways to perform the behaviour more and more.

Allowing dogs adequate ways to SEEK from puppyhood may help to prevent some compulsive behaviours from beginning, but there are a percentage of dogs who have this tendency inherited, and will develop compulsion, despite adequate outlets for more appropriate displays of SEEKING. Some breeds have been developed with a strong drive to perform a certain work and when this work is denied they may develop a compulsive behaviour that in some way resembles the work for which they were designed. For any dog a job needs to be found that fulfils some innate need to SEEK so that the brain does not develop its own less profitable work to do.

Find the equivalent of the jigsaw puzzle for your dog – something soothing, that creates a calm brain, that removes clutter, and, after it is done, leaves a feeling of success.

 

 

 

 

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