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Behavioral Enrichment in a Shelters

ASPCA, National Shelter Outreach

Behavioral Enrichment

Animal sheltering is changing. More humane organizations are holding animals for longer periods of time before they are placed. As this occurs, the welfare of shelter animals concerns more than just meeting basic needs. Long-term sheltering requires taking on a holistic approach, caring for the animal’s entire well being.

Animals that remain in a kennel environment for extended periods of time need outlets for their natural behaviors, social interaction, sensory stimulation and exercise, balanced with quiet time. Behavioral and environmental enrichment techniques will increasingly become an integral part of sheltering in the future.

Kennel enrichment requires creativity and greater staff involvement. It may seem impossible to institute new programs in overworked, short-staffed situations. A few changes are all it takes to get started. Give staff a voice when planning an enrichment program. Making everyone part of the process ensures its success.

The goal of enrichment is to provide variety. It should reduce stress as well as introduce change into a static environment. Anything that is unchanging, loses its uniqueness and becomes part of the scenery. Items used to improve an area should be easy to move, sanitize and of course afford. Budgets may present roadblocks, finding ways to drive around them is part of the process.

Listed below are some suggestions for helping cats and dogs to cope while kenneled. John Rogerson’s “Rescue and Rehoming” course deserves the credit for inspiring many of them. The ideas are based on play therapy or giving a focus for behavior that may become intensified in a shelter. Mouthing by adolescent dogs is a good example of a behavior that can be solved by providing outlets, rewarding positive behavior and teaching an alternative response.



Create communal play areas. Any dog kenneled for longer than two to four weeks, who is dog-friendly needs a social outlet. Groups of three to five dogs work best. Train staff and volunteers to read canine body language to prevent altercations. Equipping the area with multiples of identical toys helps to reduce the likelihood of toy guarding. Consider a plastic “kiddie” pool. It can be filled with water or sand for the dogs to splash or dig in.

Supply durable easy-to-clean toys. Buster Cubes(c), Kongs(c), Booda Ropes(c), etc. Teach staff to stuff Kongs with peanut butter and biscuits. Interactive toys give the dogs great mental exercise.

Introduce everyday items into the kennel. Vacuum cleaners, blenders, bicycles, shopping carts, etc. Move them around daily. Turn appliances off and on. Do not place items directly in front of the kennel, but off to the side, if the dog shows any fear.

Give the dogs a different view every few days by switching their kennels. Try not to place trigger barkers or wall-scalers next to each other or impressionable puppies.

Equip each dog with an elevated resting bench or different surface within the kennel. This is primarily for comfort but also helps maintain house training — especially important for puppies and young dogs.

Encourage QUIET in the kennels. Reward dogs for NOT barking. Have staff and volunteers teach the dogs that barking means no attention, quiet means you get love. For dogs that don’t shush, try peeling an orange in front of the kennel to interrupt their barking. Consider purchasing a citronella collar to place on incessant barkers.

Alternate type of disinfectant (or bleach) used every other week. Introduce smells that are pleasant. Natural oil essences like lavender, diluted in a spray bottle can be spritzed throughout the kennel several times daily. Scents have different affects, some calm while others energize.

Hang wind chimes of various tonal registers. Leave up for a few days and then remove. Do not place directly in front of entry to kennel, this may reinforce greeting barking.

Emphasize calm greeting behavior. Ignore jumping and reward sitting. Do not open kennel door for walks until dog has held a sit for two seconds. Build time that you expect the sit to be held and the concept of stay has automatically been introduced to the dog.

Teach the dogs to make eye contact both in and outside of the kennel. Dogs that never look at a potential adopter are less likely to get chosen.

Discuss with staff and volunteers the proper way to enter the kennel. Anyone that interacts in any capacity with the animals affects them. Angry or hyper personalities will bring that mood into the kennel. Ask people to be aware of how their behavior may be over-stimulating or stressing the dogs.


Provide shy cats with hiding zones such as perches, shelves or cardboard boxes. For 48 hours drape the kennel, then slowly reduce the size of the drape as the cat settles in.

Construct “busy” boxes by cutting multiple holes in a shoebox and placing toys inside.

Make mini-scratching posts out of cardboard wrapped with sisal twine. Lay flat or attach vertically depending upon cat’s scratching preference.

Hang toys from top of kennel. Use Velcro adhesive strips to attach. This will make high-prey drive cats happy. Easy to remove, the toy can go home with the cat rather than being thrown out.

Place an aquarium with tropical fish that have different swimming patterns in the cat room.

If designing a new cat room, allow for cats to have window-view access.

Use whiffle balls with sponge toys inside for cats that bat everything out of their kennel. This prevents fallen toys from going back in with the wrong cat, reducing the spread of upper respiratory infections.

Film containers with pennies or small stones inside all make a good batting toy and can be hung from the top of the kennel or left loose for batting practice.

Hang mobiles that are fluttery and reflective from the ceiling. Move them around the kennel area, do not leave them up in one spot longer than three to four days.


Consider creating a “home-life” room. Furnish with couch, coffee table, TV, etc. This kind of space is ideal for socialization, behavioral evaluations and training. This room can also double as a staff/volunteer relaxation room when not scheduled for use. Some cats lover to watch nature films or other kitty video tapes.

Ask people to donate audio tapes with household sounds, soap operas, low-key music, crying babies, etc. Play at a very low volume for short periods of time during the day.

Personalize the animals. Take photos of animals in other settings. Post in magnetic Lucite frames on the door of their kennel. This gives each animal a personality outside of the shelter environment.

Start a “clean” team. Teach staff and volunteers how to give baths and light grooming.

Consider using clicker training for the shelter dogs. For more information on conditioned reinforcers read Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes. Clicker training easily transfers to the new owner to continue training.

Formalize a dog walking program. Rate the dogs on ease or difficulty for walking.

Ask local dog trainers for help in creating shelter dog training classes. Emphasize basic manners and have staff and volunteers choose a specific dog to work with. Reciprocally, your adoptees could be referred to the trainer to finish classes once in their new home.

Shut off the kennel lights at scheduled times. Animals need darkness to balance their circadian rhythms, too much light is stressful.

Involve the local community. Hold a “best-ever” cat/dog toy contest. Approach schools to participate. Provide guidelines for safe materials and construction ideas. Post the winners pictures in your adoption area with an example of their toy. Children are an excellent resource for suggestions for an enrichment program, they get bored with sameness too.

These suggestions are to get you thinking! Spend a few hours in an empty kennel without a book, chair or toilet and you may come up with many more. Think about what a dog or cat would consider a priority and get creative!

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