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.





A case of Food Bowl Aggression


A few weeks back I had an interesting case of a canine with food bowl aggression. This patient has other anxiety issues but his food bowl aggression was something his caregivers needed to deal with on a twice daily basis, and hence it was really something that could no longer be ignored.

It had got to the point where the diminutive Shiba Inu, I am going to call Manny, would hold his caregivers prisoners while he ate. For twenty minutes around each meal time they needed to remain motionless. If they attempted movement, whilst he was eating, he would bite their feet. Sometimes he would abandon his bowl and come and lay his head, menacingly, on a foot, but if there was still food in the bowl it meant they should remain stationary or else he would attack their foot.

Both caregivers had been bitten several times by Manny. This creates a situation where  a strong history of reinforcement exacerbates the behaviour. They are in a vicious circle. Biting people had resulted in them not moving whilst he ate – his goal. Manny wants to keep people still while he eats, probably because he is worried about what people might do. He finds the world a scary and unpredictable place. His aggressive responses are his attempts at gleaning control. It is bizarre and strange to require this much control over your caregivers’ movements whilst eating – especially as they are unthreatening and often just trying to stay away – but this is a good example of how such strange behaviour helps us to diagnose Manny with a mental health disorder. This is not a result of a lack of training. Needing to have such control over his caregivers movements is abnormal and is suggestive of a brain that cannot deal with the information it is receiving. He is neither an effective communicator of his needs or a fluent reader of the communication sent from others. Manny’s brain is acting on instinct – he is over reactive and seeks an abnormal level of control over his surroundings.

When dealing with a behaviour issue one of the first tasks of the veterinary behaviourist is to manage the behaviour so there can no longer be reinforcement – that means the practice and rehearsal of the unwanted behaviour must not be allowed to continue, as this only strengthens the behaviour.

It seemed difficult to create any safety whilst still using a food bowl with Manny – his caregivers had already changed the way they fed him on numerous occasions, and were now left with a series of no-go zones that all resulted in the same guarding and offensive behaviour.

A decision was made to hand feed Manny with very small morsels of food, no bigger than a small fingernail – nothing that was large enough to be taken away and then guarded – food would be fed at a fast rate so as not to create any frustration. During the consultation Manny had showed himself to be exceptionally smart, but also unable to deal with frustration (barking for attention) and any prolonged waiting for food might see the plan fail. It is always important to remember that a strategy has to be constructed for an individual, and although it would be ideal to teach Manny some impulse control, the first thing that needs to happen is that there needs to be a period of time (of around eight weeks) where there have been no aggressive events, and Manny has developed some calmness and reliability around meal times. After this time we might be able to introduce some more variables.

Thankfully this first part of the puzzle is working well and Manny’s caregivers report that hand feeding has been working well – so well that they are prepared to remain doing this for some time – as it was, they could not do anything with the time when he was eating – except wait while he “shark circled” – so the time taken to hand feed him is not onerous – but rather a chance now to build on trust and eventually they will be able to work on focus and self control.