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Why is enrichment important for dogs?

Enrichment involves mentally and physically stimulating activities that engage an animal’s mind, body, and senses (e.g., smell, taste, sound, smell, touch).

The RSPCA advocates for all animals to be provided with appropriate enrichment.

Benefits of enrichment

Enrichment is essential for the physical and mental health of all dogs and allows them to engage in natural behaviours (e.g., smelling things, playing, digging, running, exploring, and interacting socially). It allows dogs to do the things that are inherent to being a dog. This can also be referred to as their telos, or in other words, the essential functions that constitute what it means to be a dog[1].

Enrichment has been shown to have wide-ranging benefits for dogs including promoting relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety, improving resilience, strengthening bonds with their people, and preventing and treating undesirable behaviours (e.g., excessive barking) and problem behaviours (e.g., fear aggression)[2,3].

Types of enrichment

Dogs need both animate (interactions with people and other animals) and inanimate (interactions with non-living things) enrichment[4]. There are many different types of animate and inanimate enrichment including behavioural, environmental, feeding, musical, scent, and social enrichment. Some activities can simultaneously represent multiple types of enrichment. For example, a person taking a dog through an agility course can be cognitive, environmental, and social enrichment.

Cognitive/behavioural enrichment

Cognitive enrichment (e.g., training[5], problem-solving tasks, memory tasks) involves mental stimulation. This type of enrichment can help dogs feel calmer and less stressed, and can improve overall behaviour[6]. Cognitive enrichment can also slow age-related cognitive decline in dogs[7].

Environmental enrichment

Environmental enrichment involves exposing an animal to environmental complexity (e.g., toys, walks, trips to the park). This type of enrichment can increase activity levels, encourage exploratory behaviour, and reduce undesirable and problem behaviours[4].

Feeding enrichment

Dogs are less likely to get bored with activities that involve chewing or feeding (e.g., puzzle feeders or toys filed with food)[2]. Contrary to assumptions that feeding enrichment may reduce dogs’ drive to perform at work and training, feeding enrichment may enhance learning[8].

Musical enrichment

Some research indicates that dogs respond well to classical music (e.g. less excessive barking, more time spent resting)[4].

Scent enrichment

Exposing dogs to novel scents (e.g., via snuffle mats, scented toys) has been shown to increase dogs’ level of engagement, reduce stress related behaviours, and increase time spent resting[4,9].

Social enrichment

Domestic dogs are social animals who need social interaction. Social enrichment can involve interactions with other dogs, people, and/or other animals.

Limitations and risks

It is important to be thoughtful about enrichment because if poorly done, it can have no effect or even cause harm. For example, giving a dog the same toys day in and day out is unlikely to be beneficial because they will get bored; over-reliance on feeding enrichment can increase the risk of obesity; dogs have such sensitive senses of hearing and smell that inappropriate musical or scent enrichment may do more harm than good; and toys used for enrichment may pose hazards if dogs swallow them. However, all these risks are avoidable, and are outweighed by dogs’ essential need for enrichment.

This information is general and should be tailored to suit individual animals and specific circumstances.


[1] Rollin BE (2017). A New Basis for Animal Ethics: Telos and Common Sense. University of Missouri Press.

[2] Hubrecht RC (1993). A comparison of social and environmental enrichment methods for laboratory housed dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 37(4), 345–361.

[3] Willen R M, Schiml PA, Hennessy MB (2019). Enrichment centered on human interaction moderates fear-induced aggression and increases positive expectancy in fearful shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 217, 57–62.

[4] Wells DL (2004). A review of environmental enrichment for kennelled dogs, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85(3–4), 307–317.

[5] Fernandez EJ (2022). Training as enrichment: A critical review. Animal Welfare, 31(1), 1–12.

[6] Herron ME, Kirby-Madden TM, Lord LK (2014). Effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of shelter dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 244(6), 687–692.

[7] Milgram NW, Siwak-Tapp CT, Araujo J, Head E (2006). Neuroprotective effects of cognitive enrichment. Ageing Research Reviews, 5(3), 354–369.

[8] Gaines SA, Rooney NJ, Bradshaw JW (2008). The effect of feeding enrichment upon reported working ability and behavior of kenneled working dogs. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(6), 1400–1404.

[9] Murtagh K, Farnworth MJ, Brilot BO (2020). The scent of enrichment: Exploring the effect of odour and biological salience on behaviour during enrichment of kennelled dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 223, 104917.

[10] Veede CL, Taylor DK (2009). Injury related to environmental enrichment in a dog (Canis familiaris): Gastric foreign body. Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, 48(1), 76–78.

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Updated on May 5, 2023
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