Enriching the lives of dogz

What goes through the minds of the millions of dogz living in shelters across the world? Are they scared? Confused? Overwhelmed?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, after attending a recent Academy webinar on ways to enrich the lives of shelter dogs.

When Hubz and I hunted for a pup to join our family two years ago, we visited multiple shelters in person and viewed scores of dogs online. Our criteria was simple: We wanted someone who melted our hearts, had a loving, sweet personality, and would enjoy long walks and jogging. I looked at the dogs and thought only of myself. Is he cute enough for me? Does she look like she’ll want to schnuggle up to me?

I can honestly state that I didn’t once think about the welfare of the dogs on the other side of the cages. I just assumed they were fine. After all, I’m a vegan, and I’m “rescuing” not “buying,” so that automatically makes me an animal welfare advocate, right?

I’m not writing this to judge myself or others; I’m just admitting that I didn’t have empathy for the shelter animals then.

But I do now.

Armed with two years of Life with Emma the Beagle as well as a ridiculous amount of time reading, studying, and learning about dogs, I see these furry guys so differently now.

Many dogs — including Emma — suffer from what’s called “confinement phobia.” Emma was a caged breeder before we adopted her. She was scared enough in her wired prison cell that she mangled her teeth and jaw trying to bite her way out. Then she was rescued and put in a cage at two different shelters.

Our girl now roams freely in our entire house. What mental torture would she endure if she found herself back in a shelter cage once again? Millions of dogs are relinquished to shelters every year. When I think about that I picture Emma. She would be absolutely gutted. Where’s my home? Where’s my family? Where’s my Frog? 

Rescue centers such as the Women’s Humane Society in Pennsylvania and Best Friend’s Animal Society in Utah strive to make the dogs in their care as healthy and happy as possible. They’ll do things as simple as allow the dogs to spend the day at workers’ desks or even have children read books to the animals.

My absolute favorite “enrichment program” that these shelters offer is putting out treat buckets.

They hang a small bucket on the front of each dog’s cage with a sign that says something like, “Please help train me. Only give me a treat if all four of my feet are on the ground.” Or maybe, “Give me a treat if I’m sitting quietly.”


So much good comes out of this easy little gesture. While in their cages, these lost dogs get yummy food treats. They learn that HUMANZ ARE AWESOME — they give me FOOD. And people visiting shelters learn a basic tenet of dog training: Pay the dog when she does something you want her to do more of.

I visited the Loudoun County Animal Shelter the morning after the enrichment webinar and was thrilled to see that they also have treat buckets on the cages. I also noticed that each dog’s food was served to them in food toys.

When I came home that afternoon I reflected on how well I’m enriching Emma’s life. Although she gets to do tons of sniffing in our neighborhood and on trails, is there more I can do? After each meal, we hand Emma a Kong stuffed with things like cooked veggies, freeze-dried duck, and banana chips. But we can do better.

I had forgotten that we used to play Hide and Seek with Emma in our condo before we moved to the big house. Since we didn’t have room for her to run, at least she could go on a sniffing scavenger hunt.

She. Loved. That. Game.

So now while she’s eating her meals, we run and hide her Kong somewhere in the house and then ask Emma in a high squeaky voice, “Where is he?” Emma literally bounces with glee and takes off in search of her prey.

Thank goodness that shelters are providing so much more than a roof, some food, and place to poop. The work that they’re doing to help their dogz is trickling out to help dog parentz like me make sure that our pupz have enriched lives too.

Emma would say thank you, but she’s too busy running around in search of her stuffed platypus right now.



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