Scent Detecting and the Enriched Environment

When Unit 13, the permanent home of Scent : Detect : Find Ltd, opened its doors to clients in September 2016, it became the FIRST training space in the UK to provide a DEDICATED Enriched Environment for every dog that would subsequently spend time there. Since then, all training at Scent : Detect : Find Ltd has continued to take place in an environment that looks something like this …

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At the end of September 2016, Unit 13 opened its doors to provide the FIRST dedicated, Dog-Centric, Enriched training Environment in the UK

Although it changes on an almost hourly basis – items are repeatedly moved around the space and alternated with newer items –  Unit 13 is always full of interesting things. As the saying goes, one (wo)man’s rubbish is another (wo)man’s treasure! Dog-Toys. Plant-Pots. House-Hold Furniture. Wood-Piles. Cardboard Boxes. Plastic Milk Cartons. Garden Furniture. Books. Magazines. Squeaky Toys. Newspapers. Plastic buckets. Old kitchen appliances. Egg Boxes. Scent ‘n’ Snack Mats. Bricks. Children’s Toys. Toilet-Roll Centres. Balls. Mats. Cuddly Toys. Bedding. Blankets. Varying textures, different odours, different colours, sizes, shapes and heights, unusual and unexpected sounds … and odours.

In addition to the items deliberately selected to add enrichment to Unit 13’s space, happenstance also plays a big part – background radio, conversation between clients, food odours, odours left by previous visitors (human and canine), the sound of machinery and voices from neighbouring Units.


So, what exactly is an Enriched Environment?

Well, according to Bender and Strong (2019), enrichment “has become a buzzword [that] gets casually tossed around in conversations … but when asked to define enrichment, things get a little less clear”. For some owners, enrichment might mean providing their dog with a puzzle feeder or scattering a few food treats around the garden. For some trainers, enrichment may be a purposeful, specially planned, event (within the auspices of a larger training event, perhaps) where dogs are allowed and encouraged to interact with a selection of novel items. Once the interaction has taken place, the items are removed from the space and training continues as “normal”.

With what seems like a recent eXpLoSIoN, within dog training circles, of all things enrichment, the concept seems to have taken on an almost mythical status; something “very special” – an “occasion” or “event” – rather than, as Bender and Strong (2019) would prefer, learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs“. As they continue, “this isn’t just about toys and play. It’s about who dogs are, the entire spectrum of their physical, behavioral, and instinctual needs, and how we can meet those needs as a part of our daily routine“. 

Clearly then, an enriched environment is just one aspect of an enriched life – “the meeting of 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 in species-typical behaviors in healthy and appropriate ways” (Bender and Strong, 2019).

(Incidentally, I’d highly recommend Bender and Strong’s (2019) book. A really comprehensive, readable, in-depth, exploration of the subject area).

According to Faverjon et al (2002), an enriched environment (specifically) is one in which there is a “combination of inanimate and social stimulation” and might include elements that innervate any, or all, of your dog’s senses – Olfactory. Auditory. Visual. Gustatory. Touch. Herron et al (2014) highlight the positive effects that might come from this type of enriched environment stating that it “increases the complexity of dog behaviour and helps prevent undesirable behaviour“. 

Interestingly, Boissy et al (2007) argue that the term enrichment “should be reserved for environments that are truly enriched beyond basic needs“. As they point out, simply “adding resources or features to an impoverished setting” is better described as “supplementation” with a reduction in “indicators of poor welfare … rather than an increase in indicators of good welfare”. For me, this lends weight to the position that environmental enrichment can only constitute real enrichment if it’s something that’s added into an already complex and interesting environment. A specially planned section within a larger training event – where your dog is given the opportunity to interact with a few novel items, for a short period of time, before they are removed again – is far better described as “supplementation” with, arguably, somewhat limited benefits.


What are the claimed benefits of creating an enriched environment for your Scent Detecting Dog?

Exploratory Behaviour

Studies conducted on numerous different species demonstrate that, amongst other things, an enriched environment will result in an increase in the animal’s exploratory and locomotor behaviour (Beattie et al, 1995). These are precisely the types of behaviour that we want to develop in our Scent Detecting dogs; dogs who will happily, and confidently, explore … search … their environment.

According to Panksepp (2011), any increase in exploratory (searching) behaviour will activate the brain’s “reward-SEEKING” system. “This system engenders an enthusiastic affective-‘energy’ … it provokes animals to become intensely energized to explore the world and also promotes learning … it leads animals to become excited about the mundane, and the system conditions rapidly to yield vigorous approach, exploration and, eventually, various consummatory behaviors … it just wants opportunities to explore the world, which is critical for survival. Indeed predatory behavior is one manifestation of this system in action”. 

Improved Learning and Cognition

An enriched environment provides novel experiences for your dog. Novelty demands increased effort … “consequently, coping with enriched environments requires activity and exercise, and such environments favor hippocampal neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity” (Boissy et al, 2007). As the hippocampus has a major role in the learning process and the formation of new memories, the connection between a novel, enriched, environment and the enhancement of learning seems self-evident.  

In addition, Milgram et al (2005) point out that “rearing in enriched environments improves learning ability, produces beneficial changes in cellular structure and increases the resistance of neurons to injury”. For Schipper et al (2008), “environmental enrichment induces structural changes in the brain that results in improved cognitive abilities”. This position is further supported by Gluck and Harlow (1971) who state that “deprivation rearing attenuates all learning capacity, while rearing in enriched environments facilitates all learning”. If an enriched environment can support your dog’s learning in this way, this has got to be a good thing!

What seems worth noting here is the reference to the enriched environment and rearing. As Boissy et al (2007) point out, “experiences that occur during adulthood may … influence emotional responsiveness, particularly through classical processes of learning and habituation. The exposure of adult animals to enriched environments … has been shown to decrease subsequent fear, although the reported effects are generally less marked than those induced by the same treatments during infancy”. The development of a successful Scent Detecting Dog starts young and central to the success (or otherwise) of this project may be the rearing practices employed; namely, the provision of an enriched environment.   

Better Welfare

Schipper et al (2008) point out that, “in general, an animal’s inability to perform specific behaviours (for example, due to a lack of suitable stimuli or physical restraint) is often viewed as a cause of reduced welfare of animals kept in captivity … there is increasing evidence that the opportunity to display more species-specific appetitive behaviours is beneficial to captive animals”. 

Whilst much of the work on enrichment practices originated within Farm and Zoo settings, it’s an uncomfortable truth that our dogs (family pets or working dogs) are as “captive” as any Meerkat, Penguin or Pig. Giving our dogs the opportunity to “just be dogs”, providing them with an enriched environment as part of an enriched life – investigating new items in their home, shredding old cardboard boxes, rummaging through a pile of clothes, locating food items scattered in the garden, taking the lead in terms of direction and speed during a walk, having the company of their own and other species – can only lead to an improvement in their welfare.    

Positive Emotions (Affect) and Eureka

The enriched environment can provide your dog with much needed challenges. According to McGowan et al (2014), “animals may experience positive affective states in response to their own achievements“. Your dog appears to be aware of the efforts he’s made and the success (or otherwise) of these efforts. As Boissy et al (2007) state, “the possibility of controlling the environment and coping successfully with challenges may be another source of positive emotions. Despite some degree of stress being necessary in the initial state of coping to activate alertness and metabolism, successful actions with a positive outcome make the animal master of the environment”. 

Context and Place Preference

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, your dog (and you too!) will experience something that Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012) describe as a “place preference”. Typically, your dog will choose to “spend more time in an [environment] paired with positive reinforcers … [and] … less time in [environments] paired with aversive events”.

But place preference is not simply dependent on how many food rewards your dog receives in a particular environment. It’s about the quality of the environment itself. As Ikemoto and Panksepp (1999) point out, your dog is able to learn about his environment without the need for rewards such as food treats. This is a form of declarative learning – the ability to recall facts and events. Did he have a good time there? Would he like to visit again? Was it interesting? Did it stimulate his SEEKING system?


Why does Scent : Detect : Find choose to work in an enriched environment?

Firstly – ASSESSMENT – From his very first visit to Unit 13, your dog is free to investigate the environment in whichever way he chooses. This time – long before he starts any Scent Detecting training – provides an opportunity to assess his ability to navigate the area, climb, clamber and interact with what might be, to him, novel stimuli. His coping strategies. His body language. His use of Calming Signals (Rugaas, 2006). Whether he moves away from you without “instruction”, “direction” or “luring”. These observations provide valuable information. They tell you who your dog really is. They shed light on his past training history and ability to act independently of you. 

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Tweed investigating the enriched environment

You are advised to just let your dog “be”. To begin with, he may choose to simply sit beside you rather than explore the area. This is his decision. As Kaufer (2013) argues, it’s “a shame when puppies [and dogs] do not get enough time to explore new situations, but instead are coaxed with food before they can overcome their insecurity or fear on their own“.

During this assessment phase, I do not use food to encourage your dog to explore the area. “Luring”, as I think this could best be described, may prompt your dog to move toward the food and so, on the face of things, start to ‘explore’ the environment but …  before he feels ready to do so! Rather than food, I let the enriched environment do all the work and simply wait …

SecondlyCONFIDENCE – To help your dog develop his confidence in new and complex environments. An opportunity to investigate new items, play with toys, encounter novel surfaces and sounds. Start to habituate to new stimuli in a safe and secure space … when your dog feels ready!

Thirdly – CHOICES – The enriched environment provides your dog with items that he can interact with if he needs a break from scent detecting. A toy to play with, a cardboard box to rip, a teddy to fling around. Real Choices. If you’re interested in the subject of “choice”, keep a look-out for my forthcoming Blog – Let your Dog Decide. Scent Detecting and the Power of Choice.

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Sully using a Squeeky Pig to take a break
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Rosie relaxing amongst the “treasure” before starting back to work!

Interestingly, according to Sommerville et al (2017), “more destructible toys increase play, perhaps because they better imitate prey”. Certainly, the opportunity to shred a box or chew a toy is used as a “coping” strategy by a number of dogs who visit Unit 13. If they’re becoming tired, finding the work too tricky, struggling with a particular training element, they can walk away from the task, interact with any of the items available to them and then, without further “instruction”, and after only a very few minutes (often seconds), return to work at the point they’d left off!

And … NO … this doesn’t cause (or encourage) your Scent Detecting Dog to be lazy, or disobedient, or easily distracted, or … or … or …! Far from it. With increasing Scent Detecting experience, your dog’s need to “take-a-break” diminishes greatly and he’ll become less easily distracted in other, new, search environments.

FourthlySEARCH – As discussed earlier, enriched environments promote movement and exploration, the hallmarks of search behaviour. There is no need to use food to lure your dog out of his comfort zone and it may well be counterproductive. For further discussion of this topic, look out for my forthcoming Blog – Food, Glorious Food

Fifthly – HIDES – The enriched environment provides innumerable places in which to secrete your dog’s target scent source. In addition, because of the complexity of the environment, it’s far more difficult for either you, or your dog, to “guess” where the scent source might be located. This can be a particular issue for competition style scent work. Compare the following photos. Which search area “tells you” where you and your dog should search?

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Two luggage line-up searches. Enriched Environment vs Barren Environment

I wonder how surprised you and your dog would be if you were to discover that, in the barren environment, the scent source was actually hidden on a window-ledge, behind a curtain?   

Similarly, in an outdoor search area I would recommend that you use what is already there; it’s enriched enough. Use the trees, use the old plant-pots, use the walls and window-ledges and bricks and fence-lines and hedgerows. Think twice (or three times) before placing any items there that don’t naturally belong; it’ll do little other than act as a big pointing finger to you and your dog saying “search here”!

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Don’t add to an Outdoor search area – Use what’s already there!

So, faced with an environment like this …

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or like this …

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Poppet. Dream. Teddy. Abel. Luytje.

… which do you think your dog would prefer to investigate?


So … in conclusion …

Enriched environments may be the latest in a very long line of “next BIG things” in dog training circles but Scent : Detect : Find Ltd has always harnessed their beneficial effects. What is so heartening to witness is the number of Scent : Detect : Find Alumni who, after having spent time at Unit 13 with their own dogs, have gone on to create their own enriched environments based on the Unit 13 model. That’s a lot more happy Scent Detecting dogs reaping the benefits of an enriched environment!


Final Note

As with all blogs, I include a reference list. This allows you to investigate the topic a little further, check out the sources of my information and decide for yourself whether my interpretations of the literature represent an accurate reflection of the author’s original work. Happy reading.


© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2020

www.scentdetectfind.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/scentdetectfind/?ref=bookmarks


References / Further Reading

  1. Beattie VE, Walker N and Sneddon IA (1995) Effects of Environmental Enrichment on Behaviour and Productivity of Growing Pigs. Animal Welfare. 4. 3. August. 207-220
  2. Bender A and Strong E (2019) Canine Enrichment For The Real World. Making It a Part of Your Dog’s Daily Life. USA: Dogwise Publishing
  3. Boissy A, Manteuffel G, Jewen MB, Moe RO, Spruijt B, Keeling LJ, Winckler C, Forkman B, Dimitrov I, Langbein J, Bakken M, Veisser I and Aubert A (2007) Assessment of positive emotions in animals to improve their welfare. Physiology and Behavior. 92. 375-397
  4. Faverjon S, Silveira DC, Fu DD, Cha BH, Akman C, Hu Y and Holmes GL (2002) Beneficial effects of enriched environment following status epilepticus in immature rats. Neurology. 59. 1356-1364
  5. Feuerbacher EN and Wynne (2012) RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND-REARED WOLVES. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 98. 105-129
  6. Gluck JP and Harlow HF (1971) The effects of deprived and enriched rearing conditions on later learning: A review. Cognitive processes of nonhuman primates. 285-319
  7. Herron ME, Kirby-Madden TM and Lord LK (2014) Effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of shelter dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 244. 6. 687-692
  8. Ikemoto S and Panksepp J (1999) The role of nucleus accumbens dopamine in motivated behavior: a unifying interpretation with special reference to reward-seeking. Brain Research Reviews. 31. 6-41
  9. Kaufer M (2013) Canine Play Behavior. The Science of Dogs at Play. Washington: Dogwise
  10. McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, Keeling LJ (2014) Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition. May. 17(3) 577-87
    2014
  11. Milgram NW, Head E, Zicker SC, Ikeda-Douglas CJ, Murphey H, Muggenburg B, Siwak C, Tapp D and Cotman CW (2005) Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of Aging. 26. 77-90
  12. Panksepp J (2011) The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives? Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews. 35. 1791-1804
  13. Rugaas T (2006) On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 2nd Ed. Washington: Dogwise Publishing.
  14. Schipper LL, Vinke CM, Schilder MBH and Spruijt BM (2008) The effect of feeding enrichment toys on the behavior of kenneled dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 114. 182-195
  15. Sommerville R, O’Connor EA and Asher L (2017) Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 197. 1-8

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