Training for Positive Cage Behaviors and Enrichment Toys

You know all those wonderful enrichment toys you provide to your shelter dogs to keep them behaviorally happy and healthy?  Many of you may wonder what effect they really have on the dog’s behavior.   A recent study by Dr. Meghan Herron, Taylor Kirby-Madden, and Dr. Linda Lord looks at exactly this – does training for positive cage behaviors, combined with enrichment toys, make a difference in the behavior of dogs in their kennels?

Working with 107 dogs, the authors created two groups of dogs at an active, working shelter.  Dogs in the experimental group received a frozen food-filled enrichment toy stuffed with puppy kibble and canned dog food (yum!) every afternoon.  The experimental group also received positive reinforcement training to encourage positive cage behaviors such as approaching the front of the cage, sitting or lying, or being quiet when approached.  Training sessions were twice daily.  The control group dogs received normal care and interaction.  The dogs’ in-cage behavior was measured at the start of the study and on day 3 by someone blind to their group.

So, did the training and enrichment toys make a difference?  For many behaviors, yes!  Compared with the control group, the dogs in the experimental group had more dogs with an increase in sitting or lying down and quiet behaviors as well as a greater percentage of dogs with a decrease in jumping.  Location in cage, fearfulness, and eye contact were not found to be different between the groups. Since there is some evidence that people prefer dogs who are easier to view and engage with at the front of the cage but who were not jumping and barking, it makes sense to train for these behaviors, if you can.  These results show that a concentrated plan of training specifically for these behaviors will likely increase the desirable behaviors.  Enrichment toys help, keeping dogs busy and engaged.

But does it make a difference in terms of adoption rates or length or stay?  Keeping dogs in the shelter behaviorally healthy and happy is important – and one of the best ways to do that is to move them out of the shelter and into appropriate homes as fast as possible!  The authors looked at adoption rates by group but found no statistical difference between them.  Dogs who had received the enrichment toys and behavioral training and so were displaying greater numbers of positive cage behaviors were not adopted any faster than those in the control group.  But does that mean it wasn’t worth it?  No!  First, we have to consider that adoption rates were measured on day 7 only; results for any dogs adopted after that were not included in the calculations of adoption rate.  For many shelters, seven days is just too short; it’s likely this wasn’t enough time to tell if there was a real effect of all those positive cage behaviors and enrichment toys.

The authors, working in conjunction with the shelter staff, settled on seven days because of the shelter’s regular routine of moving dogs into real-life adoption rooms, which have a higher rate of adoption, at about a week; they did not want to impact any dog’s chances for adoption.  These are the limits to doing research in a working shelter.  There is some prior evidence that enrichment toys, bed and bedding, do affect adopters’ perceptions of dogs; although that was not detected in this study, it’s still possible the enrichment toys and bedding that keep your dogs happy, healthy, and comfortable also positively affect potential adopters’ perceptions of the dogs.  So why not emphasize them by placing them in more visible locations, picking items with brighter or soothing colors, and training your dogs to make a positive impression on potential adopters?  As the authors conclude, “Maintaining behavioral health in the animals they house should be a primary goal for every shelter. The findings of this study show that a complex enrichment program can help achieve that goal.”


Meghan E. Herron, DVM; Taylor M. Kirby-Madden, BA; Linda K. Lord, DVM, PhD, Effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of shelter dogs, J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2014, 244:687–692.