At High Tail Hikes, we are huge advocates of finding ways to meet your dog’s needs. While we offer a group hike service, we recognize that this format does not work for many dogs, for a variety of reasons, and that’s okay! There are a lot of other ways to fill your dog’s cup mentally, emotionally, and physically.
For this week’s blog we talked with Anna Wong, owner of Mutts Have Fun, a training business based in Oakland, CA, about enrichment outings. This is a service type that more dog professionals are beginning to offer, and it looks a little different from your standard neighborhood walk or group hike. We discuss enrichment outings, why they're so beneficial, and some things to keep in mind when planning your own outings with your pup. Enjoy!
(Banner Image: Quimet likes to sniff and explore in large open areas where she can make space from things that worry her).
Thanks so much for chatting with us Anna! First off, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your training business, and what services you offer?
Thanks Liz! I started Mutts Have Fun: Training You & Your Dog in 2019, after spending most of my career working in advocacy to improve our criminal legal systems and work for racial justice (I still do this work part time). Like many professional trainers, I made a career transition after adopting my dog Kempie in 2013 and learning about positive reinforcement training after struggling with some of Kempie’s more challenging behaviors. I became fascinated with both the human and dog side of the training equation. My certification is through Karen Pryor Academy, and you can almost always find me enrolled in some sort of professional development to continue building my knowledge and skills. Most of my training clients are people looking for foundation training and socialization for their puppies or adult dogs. Although Mutts Have Fun is a training business, I’ve realized over time that I deeply enjoy forming longer-term relationships with my clients, as well as hitting the trails for some fresh air and exercise with the dogs. Offering enrichment outings allows me to have that longer term relationship with clients that I enjoy, while meeting a need in the market.
To start off, can you explain what an enrichment outing is, and how it differs from a neighborhood walk or an off leash group hike?
Sure! During an enrichment outing, there is less focus on walking, and more focus on helping the dog meet their physical, mental, and emotional needs. It’s typically a solo service, although sometimes two very well matched dogs can enjoy this type of outing together. The format and location will look different depending on the individual dog. On our outings, my goal is to allow for as much autonomy and fun as possible, while managing the environment to keep everyone safe and minimize stress. The dog is encouraged to engage in whatever activities feel good to them - running, sniffing, digging, rolling, stalking bugs, chewing on sticks, playing, training games, or even just relaxing and observing their surroundings. Another distinction is that because it’s an individual service, and I often take the dog to another location, the price point is higher than a group walk or a neighborhood walk. It may seem expensive, but it’s a worthwhile investment in the long run to improve your dog's overall wellness and quality of life.
Tahoe doing a "dog thing" - chewing on a stick.
Here, Mack takes some time to relax in the grass and observe his surroundings.
Where do enrichment outings take place?
The format can vary quite a bit depending on what the dog needs. Sometimes, it'll take a few visits before the dog even feels comfortable leaving the house or getting in the car. Until the dog is more comfortable in the car, I might take the dog out in their own neighborhood or backyard, but would not want to force the dog into the car, as adding that stressor would undermine our overall goals.
I like taking dogs into nature because it provides a different experience than most of the busy Bay Area neighborhoods we live in – fewer city noises like trains, trucks, and skateboards – but also new smells, places to dig, new surfaces and textures, critters, and sometimes even streams to splash through or swim. But enrichment outings don’t have to be on a trail. I also provide outings in places like grassy fields, parks, empty parking lots, or on quiet streets. If the dog I’m working with has specific triggers, I consider that when choosing a location. Depending on the dog, we may visit the same location each time, or we may mix it up to provide exposure to different experiences.
Jackie, one of Anna's clients, puts her nose to work sniffing in the grass.
What kinds of dogs might be good candidates for an enrichment outing?
While any dog can benefit from this type of outing, I often attract clients whose dog isn’t suitable for a group and needs some additional management for everyone to be safe. Many people believe that taking their dog to the dog park or sending them out in a group is being a good doggy parent, but there are lots of dogs who don’t thrive in close quarters with other dogs. If forced into these situations, dogs may exhibit avoidance behaviors, they may shut down or freeze, or they may escalate to aggressive behaviors to get the space they need. If a dog is not feeling good in a group setting, it will add stress to their lives. It’s important for us to provide a context in which they can relax and practice the behaviors we want to see. Oftentimes, these dogs enjoy the smells, critters, and exercise of an off-leash hike or walk on a long line, but need more space from dogs, people or other triggers (like cars or noises) in order to relax.
In a slightly different category are dogs who may do well in a group setting down the line but aren’t quite ready. Many puppies and adolescent dogs fall into this category - they need to work on foundational skills like recall or polite greetings, or they need to wait until they are neutered or spayed, which is a requirement for many group walkers. Some adult dogs just need to work on strengthening recall or polishing their social skills. For some dogs, private enrichment outings can lead to successful group hikes in the future; for other dogs, a group setting will never be the best environment. And that's okay!
Georgie the puppy loves to explore and play training games during her outings.
Do you work on a lot of training during these outings?
While it’s not a formal training session, I do often mix some training into our outings. With puppies or adolescent dogs, I work on reinforcing skills like checking in, recall, polite greetings, and calmly moving past (or away from) distractions or triggers. One behavior that I always like to reinforce is a voluntary check in - any time the dog makes eye contact or chooses to return to me without being cued. A strong history of reinforcement for checking in will help with working on harder skills like recall. I weave recall work into a hike or a long line walk so that coming back to me rarely signals the end of the fun. When a dog returns to me after being called, they get a lot of reinforcement, then I release them to go back and play. I also work on polite walking, but always in short stints with lots of freedom for the dog to choose activities for most of the outing. The goal is to build up valuable skills while we’re out having fun together.
When I’m with a dog-social dog or a puppy that really enjoys playing with other dogs, we work on calmly passing unknown dogs on the trail without interacting. I work on this a lot because it’s a life skill that dogs need to have. Many dogs, including my own, don’t enjoy being rushed by other dogs on the trail. Sometimes when we encounter another dog on the trail, and both dogs seem interested in meeting, I allow a greeting and a short play session after reading both dogs’ body language and asking the owner if they want the dogs to greet. We can also use this as an opportunity to work on taking breaks by calling my dog back to me and feeding them or engaging with them with a few easy cues. A great resource for owners to learn more about healthy play is the nonprofit Shelter Playgroup Alliance. They have a YouTube channel with lots of examples of dog-dog interactions and dog body language.
We'll sometimes play brain games or do movement activities. We might play “find it” - tossing or hiding treats for the dog to sniff out - or just scatter some kibble into the grass for the dog to forage for. We may work on targeting exercises like “touch,” or practice hopping up onto logs, stepping onto rocks, or weaving around or under obstacles, which can help with balance, strength, and even building confidence.
Kempie (Anna's dog) loves to play training games while out hiking (using a High Tail Hikes Hands Free + Convertible Leash)
How do you communicate with your human clients? Do you share training tips with the owner and tell them what you are working on with their dog?
I stay in close communication with my human clients to make sure we are supporting the dog as best we can. I let the clients know what I’ve been working on, including what has been going well or if something didn't go well during the outing. It's important for them to have this information so as a team, we can best support their pup. I also ask clients to let me know about any behavior changes or potentially stressful events that have taken place. I often take short videos so that clients can see how I work with their dog, or just fun things like their dog digging a big hole and having the time of their life! What I love is sending a video and getting back a picture of their dog totally chilling out after their outing with a text like “she’s still sleeping” [four hours later].
Will an enrichment outing tire my dog out?
Simply put, yes! (see above). Exercise is not the only way, or even the best way, for some dogs! Mental stimulation and “doing dog things” are great ways to tire your dog out. Exercise is healthy and important, but too much exercise, or outings that include too much high arousal activity, can paradoxically amp our dogs up or detract from their ability to settle down at home. One dog that I regularly hike with had an injury recently which required rest to allow the paw to heal. This dog loves digging and running. Rather than risk re-injuring the paw, I played “find it” and other training games in their yard for half the session, and did a shorter neighborhood walk on a High Tail Hikes 10 foot leash. The dog’s mom sent me a picture of her dog sacked out on the couch all afternoon.
Busy doggy parents sometimes complain that their dog sniffs too much on their walk, digs big holes in the yard, counter surfs, steals from the trash can, or chews on the rug or plants. On our outings, I try to give the dogs a chance to engage in these normal dog behaviors in an appropriate way. By providing an outlet for species-typical behaviors such as sniffing, digging, chewing, and foraging, you may see a decrease in these “problem” behaviors at home.
I’d like to take an enrichment outing with my dog. What do I need to bring or think about?
First and foremost: get to know your dog! Try to throw out preconceived notions of what “all dogs like” and just observe your dog. What are his or her true joys in life? Digging, running, playing, rolling in gross stuff, hunting, sniffing out food? Where does she appear to be most relaxed and safe? Research locations that will provide your dog opportunities to feel safe and engage in the activities they love. Consider factors like noise, routes, traffic, potential triggers, time of day, and emergency exit plans. Quiet locations with a lot of opportunities to create space are ideal. You can get creative here! Some ideas are:
- Quiet trails during off times
- A Sniff Spot
- Public cemeteries
- College campuses
- Grassy fields
- A friend's backyard
- Quiet waterfront area
- A naval base, port, or similar
Remember that you can also provide lots of enrichment in your own home or yard, if you have one! If you do go on an outing, consider having the following gear: a long line (You'll want to read this if you're not sure what size or length to use), harness, high value treats, a toy if your dog is into playing, and water + portable water dish. Lastly, you might need to up your patience game! Remember that it’s about giving your dog the chance to engage in what they find enriching, not taking a certain route or walking a certain distance. If your dog wants to sniff a bush for ten minutes, or lay and roll around in the grass for a while - great! Enrichment outings are great time to practice being present and in the moment with your dog.
How do I know if this service is offered in my area?
More positive reinforcement trainers and walkers are offering this type of service - you might start by contacting professionals in your area. When vetting someone for this service, I’d suggest sharing information about your dog and your goals for the outings, and see if you can brainstorm together what environments might be best for your dog. You might ask questions such as:
- How long will you spend with my dog?
- Will you work on any training during the outing?
- How will you handle unwanted behavior by my dog?
- Will my dog be on or off leash?
- How do you decide when it’s safe to let my dog off-leash?
Humane Dog Training Advocates provides some great questions to ask when looking for a walker, trainer or daycare/boarding service. The questions aren’t tailored to enrichment walks or hikes, but are a great resource for vetting dog professionals in general.
Thank you so much Anna! To learn more about working with Anna, visit Mutts Have Fun.