New study explores environmental enrichment for working dogs

With more strong applications in the November 2023 granting round, one study in particular stood out to the Healthy Pets NZ grants assessment team. 

Dr Rene Corner-Thomas and her team are seeking to assess the impact and duration of environmental enrichment in dogs by novel methods that reduce the risks of human bias. While this research is specifically aimed at ensuring the welfare of working dogs, it is likely the outcomes will help us understand how to provide a more enriched life for all dogs who may spend some time in enclosed spaces, hence the value of this project.

Working dogs in New Zealand provide a service to their owners from working with livestock to protecting the public and detecting biosecurity threats. In many of these roles, dogs have mental stimulation while working, however, during periods of confinement they may experience low activity levels and boredom.

Generally, the ability of an animal to perform specific behaviours due to a lack of suitable stimuli or physical restraint is viewed as a cause of reduced welfare. There is increasing evidence that the opportunity to display more species-specific behaviours is beneficial to captive animals. Providing activities for dogs is a method of increasing their activity levels and thus increase their range of behaviours. However, the effectiveness of different enrichment methods is unclear.

Currently, there are limited behavioural assessments in the dog industry that provide completely objective, practical data that do not require a human observer to be present. New technologies such as activity monitors and video surveillance now provide an opportunity to monitor dog activity and behaviour without observers being present.

 Accelerometer devices allow for behaviour and activity counts to be measured continuously without a human observer present. These small devices accurately measure the intensity, duration, and frequency of every movement along 1-3 planes of movement which means that numerous activities such as walking, running, resting, etc. can be detected.

These devices have the ability to measure various aspects of dog behaviour including overall daily activity, resting periods, changes in behaviour, postural changes, and even movement patterns associated with each posture. They have also been utilised to study stress levels, sleep quality and overall psychological wellbeing of dogs in kennel environments. Additionally, from an animal ethics perspective, accelerometers are non-invasive, small devices that can easily be attached to a dog's collar or harness without causing any disturbance to their normal behaviour.

The aim of this study is to determine

1) the effectiveness of three different enrichment methods on both dog activity and a range of behaviours

2) the rate at which the novelty disappears.

These data will provide an opportunity to develop recommendations to owners of working dogs as to the most effective methods and the best timing for their use.