What is Shelter Enrichment?

Simply put, shelter enrichment means providing animals under managed care (in shelters, zoos, etc.) with the environmental stimuli they need to remain physically and emotionally healthy.

The goal of shelter enrichment (also called environmental enrichment) is to improve an animal’s quality of life by increasing physical activity, stimulating natural behaviors, and preventing or reducing what are called “stereotypical behaviors” that often develop in shelter environments. In dogs, this means behaviors like repetitive circling, pacing, tail-chasing and licking.

Any novel stimulus which evokes an animal’s interest can be considered enriching, including natural and artificial objects, scents, novel foods and different methods of preparing foods, and new activities of all kinds.

Why Practice Environmental Enrichment in Shelters?

While providing the basics of food and shelter, most animal shelters, with few exceptions, are impoverished and very stressful environments for dogs.  Many dogs deteriorate in these conditions, particularly dogs who are housed long-term.

Chronically under-funded and under-staffed, most shelters do not provide an environmentally enriched experience for the animals in their care, so there continues to be a gap between what shelters provide and what dogs need.

We have found that providing environmental enrichment benefits shelter dogs, staff, volunteers and the shelter itself in the following ways:

— improves the well-being and quality of life of shelter dogs
— improves the adoptability of shelter dogs by providing physical, emotional, and mental stimulation via exercise, companionship, play and training
— enhances shelter workers’ and volunteers’ experience by expanding their repertoire of interactions with shelter dogs
— significantly lowers volunteer attrition, due to an enriched experience for the volunteers as well
— eases the emotional strain of working or volunteering in a shelter, as the shelter scenario for dogs is dramatically changed from one of unremitting boredom and loneliness to one of engagement and activity
— improves the shelter overall, because through aspiring to and practicing a higher level of care, the shelter itself is elevated and its mission deepened

It is our experience that environmental enrichment efforts — however modest — make an enormous difference to shelter dogs and shelter staff.  It is also our experience that with the right knowledge, tools, desire and shelter support, an environmental enrichment program can be implemented easily and successfully as part of a regular dog volunteer program.