Even in the best shelter environments, animals experience an incredible amount of stress and anxiety. 

While some animals may enter the shelter system struggling with pre-existing behavior issues, others come in healthy but begin to display problematic behaviors over time due to chronic stress or psychological decline. Sadly, despite the fact that many of these issues would not be seen in a home environment, they often prevent the animal from having a positive outcome due to the types of issues that arise from chronic stress, such as reactivity and aggression.

One of the biggest contributing factors is that living in the shelter environment limits an animal’s ability to freely practice natural behaviors, such as chewing, playing, running, licking, sniffing, nesting, and interacting with other animals. The goal of any enrichment program is simple: To enhance and maintain an animal’s quality of life and psychological well-being by giving them back these opportunities that allow them to maintain their mental health while they are in care.

To get started, here are four great ideas that you can start a low-cost, resource-friendly enrichment program in your shelter.

1. Kongs

Kongs are dishwasher safe, easy to prepare in advance and store, and are known to be safe to pass out and leave in dogs’ kennels with minimal risk. Though Kongs can be relatively expensive, ranging from $15-30 each, Kong does have a program called Kong Cares, where they sell greatly reduced, imperfect Kongs for anywhere from $2 to $6 each. I recommend purchasing a variety of sizes for every animal and stuffing them with something like peanut butter or spray cheese. You can stuff some additional treats in the middle and freeze for long-term storage and fun. These help keep dogs busy and provide an incredible amount of fun for them while they hang out in their kennels.

2. Sniff Spots

Dogs process so much of their world through scent. Think of a dog sniffing something on a walk, outside of the sterile environment they are temporarily calling home, like us reading our morning newspaper. While some people think the best thing to do is to walk as much as possible when a dog is out, actually letting them stop and sniff something is worth its weight in gold. 

Having that extra time to stop, relax, and just take in all of the information they can get through scent, such as what animals have passed by, how old they are, if they are spayed or neutered, or potentially even how stressed they were at the time, would be like reading an extremely interesting article that you found at a time when you really needed a little escape away.

An inexpensive way to do this is to purchase some synthetic animal urine and place it on walking paths where dogs will be walking or in play yards where dogs go outside.

This provides them with a ton of opportunities to keep their brains working while doubling as a way to encourage dogs to fully eliminate while they are outside instead of in their kennels.

3. Music

Sound levels in shelters can exceed 100dB, so something like playing classical music is another great form of enrichment that studies show reduces barking and decreases stress. 

This decrease in stress also helps them appear calmer and more desirable to potential adopters. Classical music and reggae are the two most recommended genres as they have been most frequently studied. You can use pre-loaded portable speakers, such as the iCalm, or purchase their CDs for use in a standard CD player for a more budget-friendly option.

4. Treat Buckets

Kennel bucket

Treat buckets are wonderful. These stainless steel buckets filled with treats on the outside of each kennel serve multiple purposes. 

Treat buckets give people positive, safe and interactive ways to engage with dogs in kennels. Having people regularly stop and treat them helps reduce barrier frustration and kennel stress and gives people a reason to stop at even the most fearful dog’s kennel to help them build positive associations to people. To stack on top of that, they also provide staff and volunteers with ever-available treats that make something like moving a scared dog in or out of a kennel or safely leashing an overly-aroused puppy a breeze. 

But truly, the opportunities are endless, and there are so many great and inexpensive ways that you can help improve the lives of your dogs and cats through these lifesaving interventions. Even something like having take-home enrichment-making kits available is a great way to get volunteers or children involved who maybe can’t physically be in the shelter or are too young to be in shelter but still want to help the animals. 

Photo credit: Michigan Humane

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