We all love our Jack Russells like family and hate the idea of our little ones laying at home all day, or growing bored and anxious. What can we do? In this article will take a look at what enrichment is and why it’s important for dogs and how you can use enrichment to keep your Jack Russell mentally stimulated. We will also go through several games you can play with your little one to sharpen that mentality after hours of solitude!

History of the Jack Russell Terrier

The Jack Russell is a true legend in his own right, a miniature giant among dogs (as any owner will attest). We know him for the feisty champion he is today, but where did the Jack’s story begin? What is the history of the Jack Russell?

Born on a calm December day in 1975, John (aka Jack) Rusell came from an English hunting family. Being no exception, John sought a quick and agile terrier better able to flush out but never actually kill his fox. Instead, John looked for a patient champion that would nip at his prize, throwing it off its own game while urging the fox from his underground den.

As legend would have it, tales of a chance encounter with a unique little spotted white fox terrier, owned by the local milkman, drove John from his mundane Oxford studies. The year was 1819, and John supposedly purchased that girl on the spot.

That diminutive spotted Fox Terrier went by the name of Trump, and she would sire a line of legends that grows more popular with the day! John crossed her with a Devon Hunt Terrier (a British hunting terrier very similar to today’s wire-haired Jack Russell, but taller), laying the foundations for a breeding program that stretched well into the 1850s.

With their shorter stature and muscular legs, these first Jack Rusell Terriers (still known as Fox Terriers) were well suited for their tasks, easily able to drive any fox from his lair.

High Prey Drive

The Jack Rusell Terrier was bred to chase and flush small game, sharing that same high prey drive with many other hunting breeds (i.e. Shiba Inu). These dogs are instinctively driven to chase or hunt. The instinct is already natural, but enhanced through artificial selection. This is literally one of the things A Jack Rusell Terrier was bred to do.

That means your Jack might feel the desire to chase other animals! Again, this is a natural instinct and not their fault. Your pup might feel the need to chase any moving object, be it a rabbit or leaf blowing in the wind!

Warning: Your pup might turn into a little escape artist, digging under fences or racing out your front door after that obscure cat across the street! The digging could be exaggerated because this is another activity influenced through breeding.

Be sure and place extra emphasis on early socialization training. You want your Jack t know what a cat is (for example), and that a cat is a friendly animal before he encounters one for the first time and decides to burn circles in your carpeting trying to catch it.

Warning #2: If your Jack does happen to escape, beware of turning ‘the chase’ into a game. This is a mistake I made during those first years so long ago. It wasn’t long before Loki would run out the door simply for another chance to play ‘the chasing game’, and not even food would convince him to return before tiring.

I knew enough to curb this behavior right away with my Beagle (also high prey drive). Don’t chase your dog, but rather lure him to you.

You want to keep your Jack Rusell leashed at all times when not in a fenced-in area! Don’t ever feel like you’re the best trainer in the world and he’ll listen to you every time. A time will come when his attention is focused on something else, and you can’t break it no matter how loud you yell.

Image via Flickr: Matacz

What is Dog Enrichment?

Imagine a time when wolves were never hand-fed, having to expend enormous amounts of energy daily hunting, tracking, and chasing prey. These animals relied on their powerful hunting instincts daily.

Now picture a working dog around the 17-1800s. The domesticated family house pet of today didn’t exist; dogs were bred to serve a particular purpose, working alongside man. A family’s livelihood often depended on their dogs (not so much in John’s case).

Fast forward to now, today, in this very moment. Millions of dogs are sitting at home all day while their masters leave for work, often napping. Food, water, and shelter are freely given, and our dogs rarely have to work for anything. Most never truly utilize that full hunting prowess, or those powerful senses specifically evolved to augment those hunting skills because they simply don’t have to.

Dog Enrichment

Dog enrichment involves activities that offer our dogs a chance to rely on those specific hunting senses, or participate in activities they were originally bred for. It offers a dog the chance to exercise his mind, much like a child reading a book.

Think of a Beagle (or Jack Russell Terrier) relying on his nose to find a small toy hidden somewhere within his home, or participating in natural social behaviors with other dogs at a park. Imagine that Labrador Retriever happily paddling alongside a fishing boat, or the Poodle retrieving waterfowl for her owner. Picture the legendary Bloodhound trekking through millions of acres of Louisiana wetlands to ultimately find that missing child.

It can be hard for onlookers to view those four Siberian Huskies or Samoyeds tethered to that road cart, happily strolling along in the frigid weather, and realize this is the work these dogs were bred millennia ago to perform and they absolutely love it.

Dog enrichment could include simple things like playing with other dogs or more focused activities like chasing game, or anything else that utilizes these hunting/tracking senses to their fullest. It encourages them to rely on their natural behaviors and abilities.

Why is Enrichment Important?

Think back to that house pet described above, napping while his owner is at work for nine hours or so, only to be greeted by that same owner relaxing on the couch for a few hours before bed. An estimated 54% of dogs in America are not just overweight, but clinically obese, owing their health to an overwhelming lack of physical activity combined with poor nutrition.

An estimated 39.6% of American adults are obese themselves. It’s not difficult to imagine the reasoning for this lack of activity in our pets.

Enrichment is very important not just for their mental and psychological health, but physical health as well!

Tips on Keeping Them Stimulated

  1. The worst thing you can do is discourage your pet. That nearly always spells the end for any game. Offer plenty of positive, enthusiastic reinforcement! Shower your Jack with praise, like their small accomplishments are really earth-shattering events to you!
  2. You never want to scold or punish your pet for not succeeding. The game ends once it isn’t fun and interesting anymore.
  3. Always reward success with something, whether that be a toy, praise, or food. Your Jack Rusell is working for your acknowledgment.
  4. Avoid ‘overplaying’ these games. If you play the same game too often or too long, it can lose some of its reward type of qualities. The same goes for those treats you use as rewards. You always want to reward success, but there is a line. Depending on the treat, keep nutrition in mind as well.

Mental games Fore Jack Russell’s

Your dog is smart! Most dogs can learn to solve nearly any simple problem thrown at them, as long as the reward is worth the effort. Don’t ever think they can’t learn, but rather ask yourself ‘What can I do differently’?

Game 1: The ‘Find It’ Game!

jack russell games
Image via Flickr: B Napa

This game forces your Jack to use his natural tracking senses. Basically, you’ll end up hiding a special toy somewhere in the home while, and Trust me, he’ll love it!

As with anything, you’ll have to start out small. Any type of object will work for this, but a favourite toy you can build an association with will be a good idea.

Step One: Have your dog sit and stay, placing the toy on the ground a few feet in front of him. Use a command phrase ‘Where’s the _____?” and direct your dog to the toy you just set down. Reward your dog with a treat and praise for ‘finding it’. This was the most impressive act of genius you’ve ever seen!

You’re just trying to teach your Jack Rusell (or any breed) to associate the command phrase with the toy he’s supposed to be ‘finding’. He needs to understand what it is you want him to do. You’ll simultaneously reinforce this association and add value to the game by rewarding your dog for any success.

Repeat this a few times before increasing the difficulty. You want this game to be a sort of reward in itself, so don’t overplay it.

Step Two: Now that your Jack Rusell Terrier understands what you want him to do, and that he’ll be rewarded once it is done, you can increase the difficulty slightly. Try moving the toy to the opposite side of the room. Your pup can still see it but has to run over to get it. He’s not using his nose quite yet.

Moving too fast can discourage your pup!

Let’s say a day or two passes by. Now you can place the toy around corners or behind doors. Your pet doesn’t have a direct line of sight, but it still isn’t hard to find. Gently guide your pup to the toy if you have to.

Remember, slow and steady! This game is about your dog using his tracking senses and having fun! It doesn’t matter if he’s able to find the object with or without your help, as long as he’s working.

Step Three: Your terrier has a firm grasp of the game, understanding exactly what is expected! You’ve rewarded him every time, ensuring he knows to expect that tasty treat at the end. Now you can steadily increase the difficulty, hiding the toy in obscure corners of your house, under couch cushions, behind curtains, etc. Your Jack is forced to rely on his nose, not his sight.

If you have more than one dog (like I do), you can let them compete with each other! Make sure to reward both at the end, regardless of which finds the toy.

If you’re an overachiever, you can try teaching your pet scent tracking, requiring different scents, at home!

Game 2: Toss the Kibble Game

Have you ever seen your dog catch some tiny blur of an object mid-air? Think of that treat you toss on a regular basis, and how it seems to disappear from your vision immediately upon leaving your hand. A dog’s eyesight, and wolf’s before him, has adapted to detect tiny, rapid movements of prey very well.

This allows our dogs to see fast-moving things clearly we rarely ever can. Don’t confuse this with a dog’s visual acuity (ability to see clearly from a distance), which is poor compared to ours.

This game is extremely simple, and touches on that ‘hunting sight’. Instead of feeding your pet from his bowl, toss individual pieces of kibble to him. It won’t take long before he’s staring at your hand with anticipation!

Game 3: Puzzle Games

These usually require your dog to perform some action in order to get little bits of food or treats. The best ones will require your dog to solve simple problems for his prize. The effort required to get the food reward/kibble is often more valuable than the kibble itself.

For example, I have a ‘flying saucer’ with four small openings, a bit like doors. After dropping a few bits of kibble through an opening in the top, my Jack Rusell will have to ‘rock’ the saucer back and forth with his paws in order to get a kernel of kibble to slide out.

What if the saucer is backed into a corner? Now it won’t rock back and forth. Uh-oh! Loki has to figure out how to move it away from this obstacle before the game can continue.

You can find a wide assortment of puzzle games at your local pet store, or if you’re creative, develop your own!

Game 4: Agility Training

Try and think of agility as more of a game you play with your dog, as opposed to any kind of training. They do! Agility offers a dog the opportunity for great exercise while it forces them to pay attention to both hand signals and your location simultaneously.

Depending on how you approach training each task, most dogs can easily learn just about anything. This comes down to more of a ‘Do I know the right way to teach?’ question than whether or not your pet is smart enough. He is!

Ironically, agility training really requires more learning on the part of the handler, so we won’t get into it too deeply. Just remember to always make it a fun, positive, and joyful experience!


Cover image credits: Bjorn Bednarek