canine enrichment book cover and author photo

SPA Alum Jackie Starr on Canine Enrichment by Allie Bender & Emily Strong

August 31, 2020

Note: August 26 is National Dog Day, which is why Starr wrote about this book. Wonderwork welcomes submissions from CU Denver faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Simply recommend one book, podcast, movie, etc. that deserves more attention. Our ultimate goal is to promote a more diverse and inclusive book and media culture. Nominate your favorite Wonderwork or posting on social media with #CUDenverwonderwork.

My lifelong journey with dogs started in 1964 when my husband and I took in our first dog, Taffy-Boy. We were just twenty years old and neither of us had ever owned a dog before.

Taffy had wandered out of the woods and hung around the apartment complex where we lived while going to school in the Boston area. After several days of observing that he had no home and was being fed by children in the area, we decided to take him in. He was about a year old, had floppy brown ears and orangey-tan markings above his eyes and around his mouth. He was gentle and liked kids. Our vet called him a beagle-shepherd mix.

In 1964, there were few leash laws and no chips to identify a lost dog, so finders were keepers. He had a rabies shot and we bought him a dog tag, a collar, a leash, a water bowl, a food bowl, and some dry food. He had one toy—a hard plastic mouse that squeaked. We also bought him a coat to withstand the freezing rain and snowstorms of the Northeast. I had a huge wool shawl that I would put out on a chair at night for his bed. That was the extent of our initial investment. We walked him, played with him, and fed him. When our children were born, he was surrounded by many kids and other dogs.

Except for a chronic liver disease, we felt he led a happy life. We didn’t give much thought to raising him: he seemed to raise himself. But owning a dog today has become a much more complex experience.

Dogs Have Complex Emotional Lives

Allie Bender and Emily Strong, authors of Canine Enrichment for the Real World, say recent studies indicate that dogs think of their owners in the same way children look upon their parents and that as dog owners, we have the same obligation to create a nurturing, loving environment for them. Their book is based on this premise.

Although thoroughly researched with references to lots of studies and resources for dog owners, the book is a pleasure to read and offers extensive but practical advice on what factors to consider when having a dog as a pet. The authors draw on examples from other animals and people to explain their concepts, especially since dogs have been found to have complex emotional lives and the cognitive capacities of human toddlers.

Enrichment practices for animals were started in the 1960s by zookeepers who recognized that their animals’ obsessive behaviors (functionless, repetitive motions such as pacing) resulted because they were taken out of their natural environments and not given anything to replace the stimulants found in nature.

Focus on Sense of Smell

The authors define enrichment “as meeting all of an animal’s needs as closely as possible to how they would be met in the wild, in order to empower them to engage species-typical behaviors in healthy and appropriate ways.” Enrichment results in a physically and behaviorally healthy animal.

The authors discuss enrichment for dogs in terms of natural behaviors and instinctual needs. These include providing sensory stimulation with a particular emphasis on smell, allowing dogs to scavenge and forage for food, providing security and a safe place, and paying attention to their emotional needs, as well as their physical needs, including hygiene, health, nutrition, and exercise. Chapters are devoted to each of these topics with ideas and examples of what to do to meet a dog’s needs.

There are also discussions of dog’s sensitivity to its owners and how anxiety in owners can create anxiety in their dogs. The book debunks the theory of the owner being the “alpha” and the dog the submissive in the human-dog relationship. Instead of punishing unwanted behaviors, the authors instruct readers on how to get dogs to do what you want them to do and reward them for their desirable behaviors.

Agency and the Human Element

portrait of Jackie Starr
Jackie Star MPA ’81

I found one of the most enlightening chapters in the book to be the one on “agency.” Agency is universal for every sentient being: it is having some degree of predictability and control over the environment. It’s the ability to communicate and the power of choice. An example of agency in a dog is something as simple as observing where your dog enjoys spending time or sleeping and putting his bed in that same place. Agency means recognizing your dog’s fears and either conditioning him to overcome them or helping him find another way to cope with them. Agency is as simple as letting your dog choose which direction to go in on his walk or allowing him to follow a scent he has picked up on.

A unique aspect of this book is the chapter on “The Human Element.” The authors do not want readers to be overwhelmed by the tasks of meeting a dog’s needs. They want dog owners to feel joyful in interactions with their pets. You are probably doing many of the things suggested in the book without actually knowing that you are. If you would like to assess how well you are doing with your dog, Chapter 17, “Putting It Altogether,” includes a great chart listing all the aspects of enrichment and giving you space to decide whether the needs are being met and, if not, prioritizing them and creating a plan of action.

Well, I better go now. It’s time to take my two dogs for a walk, er, I mean a sniff.

Jackie Starr graduated from the University of Colorado Denver, the Graduate School of Public Affairs, in 1981 with a Master’s Degree in Urban Affairs. She lives in Aurora with her two dogs and forty-year-old red-eared slider turtle.