In my journeys through Pubmed and Elsevier, I have been coming across more and more articles on environmental enrichment, patient wellbeing, and reducing stress, especially as it pertains to the hospital environment and animals needing to be kennelled or restricted, or undergoing unpleasant procedures.

I would love to share some information from a review of environmental enrichment for kennelled dogs, Canis familiaris, by Deborah L. Wells.

Environmental enrichment falls into two categories: animate and inanimate. Animate enrichment includes social interaction, and inanimate incorporates toys, cage layout and furniture, as well as auditory and olfactory stimulation.

Animate enrichment

Interaction with other Dogs

Dogs are social animals, and when we consider the relationship they have with their owners and other pets, a stay in the hospital can be incredibly stressful simply as a result of this separation. Kennelling dogs in isolation from other dogs is widely considered detrimental to their wellbeing, and can result in withdrawal, inactivity, or excess barking, as well as physiological stress responses such as increases in salivary and urinary cortisol concentrations.

The ability for kennelled dogs to see, hear or smell other dogs can hugely increase the interest they display in their environments.

Allowing a form of social contact also provides kennelled dogs with the opportunity to gain an increased sense of control over their environment, which helps them to cope better with confinement.

Research has shown that kennelled dogs spend most time in the area of their kennel where they are able to view other dogs, thereby fulfilling a desire for social contact, and likely adding a level of stimulation to these environments.

Interaction with People

Studies suggest that human contact can be more impactful on the wellbeing of dogs than contact with other dogs. The presence of a person has been consistently shown to impact the behavior and physiology of dogs, leading to increased animation and activity levels. Kennelled dogs have been shown to have a reduced heart rate after they have been handled by a person, and dogs that are allowed to remain close to people display fewer fear reactions.

Stroking has been shown to have a positive effect on the physiology and behavior response to stressors in dogs, and short periods of handling lead to a reduction in stress behaviors such as chewing in kennelled dogs.

Inanimate Enrichment

Toys

Toys are commonly used to provide stimulation, comfort and environmental enrichment. The research into its value in kennelled dogs, however, is inconclusive. Some studies indicate that toys promote exploration, increase activity levels and reduce the occurrence of unwanted behavior, while others show that toys have no effect on the behavior of kennelled dogs.

Toys that can be chewed or make a noise seem to elicit interest and exploration. Dogs will generally acclimatize to and lose interest in a toy quite quickly, and for this reason toy rotation can be beneficial.

Kennel Furniture

Kennel furniture can be included in the kennel to add complexity and interest to the dog’s environment. This might include a platform to give them height and increase their field of vision, and an enclosed area that allows the dog to sleep or hide. The simple addition of a bed can increase the dog’s comfort in his kennelled environment, and using his normal bed or blanket from home can provide some familiarity in a stressful environment.

Auditory Stimulation

The effect of music on people has been deeply studied and the effects are well known. The effect has also been studied in various animal species, including, recently, dogs. The addition of classical music can increase behaviors suggestive of calm and relaxation while heavy metal music increases behaviors suggestive of agitation, such as barking. Human conversation and pop music were found to have no effect. Specifically, Mozart has been found to be beneficial for both infants and Alzheimer’s patient in a way that is almost uncanny – might be worth trying Mozart out with our dogs!

It is important to consider whether the addition of music to an environment will be beneficial. A busy, noisy and overstimulating environment might only be worsened with the addition of the wrong kind of, or potentially any auditory stimulation.

Olfactory Stimulation

Preliminary studies have shown that dogs react to the scent of lavender in a manner that suggests relaxation, while scents such as peppermint increase the dog’s activity.

How does this apply to Rehab?

Much of this research was done with dogs in laboratories and in shelters. We really need to be able to help our clients when their pets need to be crate rested, or in our hospital settings where dogs stay with us for short periods of time while they are ill, injured or recovering from surgery.

In hospital situations, it is beneficial to set up the environment so that it is calm and quiet, possibly with some relaxing music and a lavender diffuser. Ensuring that the dogs are comfortable in their kennels is essential, and providing them with the ability to see other dogs and people will help reduce their anxiety. Interaction with their owners on a regular basis will be highly beneficial, as will interaction with hospital staff as often as possible.

Crate Rest Activities

Dogs can often be on crate rest for an extended period of time, which can be really hard for owners to manage, especially when the dog is an active, high-drive dog!

You want to be able to give your owner a few simple, engaging activities or games they can do with their pets to keep them from becoming bored – a stressor in itself.

We saw from the studies above that stroking and interacting with dogs is a big thing for them – spending time every day just stroking, cuddling and grooming can already help relax and calm the dog. In addition to these, owners can spend time massaging, performing PROM or stretches, or the prescribed rehab exercises.

Some of my favorite games to play include:

  • Targeting. Teaching a dog to target, or touch, your hand or an object is super easy, and super useful! As well as being engaging for the pet and owner, targeting can be incorporated as a part of the rehabilitation program, encouraging different head positions in different postures, from a down, to a stand, to standing on an uneven surface, or with the front feet up. Use this exercise not only to encourage focus, but to increase mobility and strength during all your exercise progressions. It’s a great exercise, flexible and progressive. And because it is easy to train, it is great to boost the owners confidence – love it.
  • Head Positions. You can teach different head positions, such as head down, or head up. This again can be used as a progressive weight shifting exercise.
  • Take it, Leave it. Teaching a dog to take an object and to release it on command is very engaging for the dog.
  • Give Paw. This exercise is both a fun activity and can form part of the rehab program. It can be performed from a down, a sit or a stand, progressing as the dog progresses through his program.
  • Find the Food. This can be done in so many ways. A snuffle rug, a slow feeder or a muffin tray can be used to hide food. A muffin tray can be used on its own with food, or with some tennis balls, placing a ball over the food to increase the challenge.
  • Frozen Peanut Butter. Peanut butter can be placed on a flat tray or in a hoof, a kong, or a mug. This allows the dog to slowly lick out the peanut butter, keeping them entertained.
  • Food Dispensing Toys. Breakfast and dinner can be fed in a toy that needs to be pushed around and tipped to get the food out, providing great engagement and making them work harder for their meals!
  • Chewies. Providing the dog with rawhide or large raw bones to chew on can help reduce boredom and stress, fulfilling their need to chew.

It is important to take the treats for these games out of the daily food ration – with decreased physical activity, the last thing we want is for our patients to pick up weight.

Lastly, consider the placement of the crate: our dogs want to be near us, so let’s be considerate – place the crate in an area where they will be able to see and hear us, and feel part of the action.

I would love to hear your favourite crate rest ‘mind games’, and how you help your clients manage this difficult time – please respond in the comments!

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