Animal Enrichment

Behavioral and Environmental Husbandry for Wolfdogs

When we set out to build Indigo Mountain we spent a period of time traveling around the country looking at zoos, sanctuaries and private owners. We attended conferences and we discussed animal care with professionals in an assortment of animal fields. Then we sat down to design our mission, goals and programs in our efforts to build a sanctuary that provided a lifetime of quality care to the animals we brought in. At the time enrichment was becoming a hot topic. Millions of dollars were being spent on a number of studies focusing on animal behavior and enrichment. It was our belief then and continues today that it is not enough to simply “save” an animal from its present situation. Saving an animal means that you provide for its physical and emotional or psychological well being, not just taking it in, throwing it in a 10’ x 20’ cage with clean water and good food. That in our opinion is not “saving” them.

It is our belief that an animal’s behavior is an end result of both genetic and environmental factors or nurturing nature. So we felt it was necessary to consider the genetic makeup and the natural history of each species we planned to care for as well as the individual needs of each animal.

Our Program: An Overview Planning

With that in mind we investigated the wild wolf’s (canis lupus) natural history. We took into consideration their territory and habitats, social structures, threats, physical considerations, behavioral patterns, and diets. Then we took a good look at the behavioral and physical considerations of the dog breeds such as husky, malamute and German shepherd that are mixed in with the wolf to make the wolfdog “breed”.

From this research we were able to design our habitats at Indigo Mountain. By understanding clearly what a wild wolf does each day we were able to optimize the space and provide items in the habitat that would cater to the animal’s genetic needs. A good habitat provides for all the animals basic needs. It allows them to make decisions. A good design considers the physical space, the den areas, feeding areas, water dispensers, drainage and allows for “Getaway Areas”.

With the general needs taken care of in habitat design we then set out to cover each individual dog’s behavioral and emotional needs. In designing the perfect program for each animal we had to evaluate the individual dogs. This is a time intensive part of our planning. Not only do we need to know the animal’s personal history, but we need to have a thorough understanding of its temperament, behavioral issues, what motivates or stimulates it, what makes it happy, does it suffer from stereotypic behaviors, does it have medical problems or considerations? Studying the dog’s behavior can give you many answers to their needs and lead to all kinds of improvements to their health and well being.

Set Objectives & Plan the Program

Once we had a good idea of what the dog requires to fulfill its genetic and environmental needs we could then set our goals and objectives for that individual. We determined what behaviors we wanted to encourage or discourage based on their needs. Then we determined what items would work best to encourage or discourage the behaviors. We also took a good look at all safety considerations and risks involved. Afterall, habitat design and enrichment do come with consequences. You have to make sure that the items you are providing the animal with are safe.

Next we had to come up with the items. Some were easily purchased, but others had to be constructed. A simple digging mound is a breeze, but building platforms or log swings and hammocks might take a little more work to complete.

Once you know what you are going to use it is important to have a good implementation plan. How will you know if your objectives have worked? How often will the item be given to the animal? Was the item a hit or a flop in the dog’s eyes? Does it need to be altered slightly to make it more effective?

Play Time!

The next step in our program is to put the items to use. But it is important to document the play time. We need to know what affect the enrichment item had on the animal and did it meet our goals and objectives. It’s great to design and build a wonderful enrichment item, but if the animal doesn’t like it that item is useless and a waste of time, money and effort.

Evaluate and Fine Tune

The last step in our program is to evaluate the documentation and determine the effectiveness. Did it help us reach our objectives with that animal? Is there something we should change or should we continue to use it. Essentially, we are always evaluating how effective our enrichment time is. Afterall, the animals mature and change. They learn from some of the items. Other items become boring once they have learned how to problem solve through it. So enrichment is always evolving.

Case Study

Based on general natural history of the wolf species here are a few things we know:

  • Canis lupus was once found inhabiting a wide variety of habitats from plains and savannahs to softwood and hardwood forests to taiga and arctic tundra.
  • They are carnivores that prey on ungulates, small mammals, fish, birds and even grasshoppers.
  • They are social animals living in packs of 2-15 (average)
  • Smell is their primary sensory modality. It is 100 times more sensitive than man’s ability to smell.
  • Hearing is very acute. They have the ability to detect a difference in pitch one tone apart on a musical scale.
  • Physical capabilities include a powerfully built body well suited for loping long distances, climbing, digging, swimming
  • Communicate with others using olfactory senses as well as visual and auditory capabilities.
  • Threats are man, malnutrition, parasites and disease
  • Intelligent animals with the ability to remember, associate events and learn from a since event.
  • Primary social behaviors are aggression, courtship or mating, affliative, play
  • They are adaptive, inquisitive animals
  • There is a tendency towards seasonal fluctuations in behavior

So with these things in mind we designed our habitats at Indigo Mountain. We believe in providing them with spacious areas so that they can roam around. Each of the habitats are tucked into a pine forest much like what a wild wolf would live in near Yellowstone. The habitats take their digging and climbing abilities and powerful bodies into consideration. All are designed so that the animals cannot dig under the fencing, climb up the fence or bite through it in an effort to get out. Each habitat also incorporates natural rock formations so that the animals have a place to climb on and rest if they so desire. To comply with animal welfare laws, each wolfdog has a den of some kind. Beyond that, each wolfdog has an individually designed behavioral and environmental husbandry program built to cater to his or her needs.

Here is an example of one Behavioral and Environmental Husbandry program for a High Content Wolfdog:

High Content wolfdog with a lot of wolfish behaviors and very few malamute traits.

  • He is 130lbs., very powerful and is not fully aware of his size.
  • He lives with a 75 lb female who is shy and tends to stay away from people and new objects
  • He can be highly food intense.
  • He is very gregarious with everyone and backs his mate away from people to gain 100% of the attention.
  • Tends towards laziness. Does not move about habitat much.
  • Loves to dig
  • Good problem solver
  • Tends towards overweight
  • Diagnosed with DLE with some ulcerations on nose.

Our objectives for the wolfdog:

  • At over 8 years old he does not like to partake in a lot of exercise, yet we are concerned about keeping his weight at an optimum level for his body size.
  • Reduce food aggressiveness and prey drive
  • His love for attention from humans has created a jealous streak that can be dangerous to his cagemate. He will back her off with intent growls and will chase her away. He needs to learn to coexist/share humans better.
  • When he becomes bored he will dig at the dirt around him. We need to reduce boredom digging – increase problem solving
  • The DLE can get worse if he spends too much time in the direct sun. We need to increase shade time

Here are some of the enrichment items on Tacoma’s plan:

  • We have increase one-on-one time with Tacoma by taking him for walks. This helps to satisfy his human attention needs and provides exercise to maintain his weight.
  • We have gone to a 2 person feeding system with this pack to reduce food aggression. Additionally, because he gets so excited at feeding time and paces if he has to wait for any length of time we have gone to changing up his feeding schedule more. He is sometimes 1st to be fed, other times middle or last. Feeding time now fluctuates from different times of the day.
  • Operant conditioning techniques to teach better human etiquette have been put in place. For an example, he is being taught to sit and ask politely for attention from humans. These training sessions are two fold. They also increase his one-on-one time with his caregivers.
  • Treasure Hunt games are played daily with the dog. Small bits of food are hidden in lower tree limbs, scents are sprinkled on trees and toys or objects such as pieces of hide or bone are hidden in piles of straw or loosely piled wood chips to keep him from rubbing his nose in dirt or other abrasive areas. This reduces ulceration of the nose due to the DLE yet allows him to hunt for objects and problem solve.
  • Scent marking trails are laid out throughout his habitat to get him to move about and use his entire habitat, gain some exercise, yet keep him in the shadier portions of the habitat.
  • To increase his desire to lounge in the shade we have built a day bed of wood chips. This area is shaded all day long. We have also moved his house so that it is in the sun only early in the morning and remains shaded the rest of the day so he does not lay on top of it in direct bright sunshine.

Forms of Enrichment


Social animals should be housed with cage mates while more solitary animals may choose to live alone. In some cases these solitary animals benefit from having the same species in an enclosure adjacent to their habitat.

Feeding of Foraging

Feeding is the most pleasurable time of the day for many animals. However, many predators become overly agitated while waiting for the keeper to arrive with their food. They will stand at a lookout point and anxiously pace. Staggering feeding times can cut down on the pacing.

Hiding fruit, chopped vegetables or meat throughout the enclosure will stimulate problem solving. We have drilled holes in logs throughout the bear habitat to hide berries. We also hide fish in a pool, meat under rocks and have smeared canned dog food or on low hanging tree limbs.


To many animals a piece of bark, a log, a bone, a feather, bowling ball, tire, Kong or balls are considered toys. We rotate these toys in and out of the enclosures each day to avoid boredom with any one toy.


This is a difficult one. The easiest way to provide visual stimulation is to design habitats so that the animals can view the sights of the sanctuary. Having a variety of people visit the enclosures also helps. We sometimes have volunteers wear different hats or sunglasses under controlled situations. This also helps to desensitize the animals to reacting adversely to people with glasses and hats. Another way is to provide the “Call of the wild” for them. We hang bird feeders throughout the Center to provide our animals with birds to watch and listen to.


This can get fun. We sprinkle a variety of scents throughout the habitat. Some of our animal’s favorites are perfume, hunting scents, soy sauce, mustard, ketchup and cooking spices. We DO NOT use onion spices, as it can be toxic to many animals.

Auditory or Verbal

We will occasionally play soothing music or animal sounds on audiotapes. It is also very important that our staff members talk to the animals. Tone and the intensity level in your verbal interactions are important.


Different textures in bark, paper bags, or burlap bags provide enrichment. Food textures can also be varied as can the temperature of the food. We thaw our meat and chicken for the animals, but occasionally provide an ice chunk with meat inside or a cold bone to chew on. We fill pinecones with meat for wolves and peanut butter for bears.

Human touch, grooming, scratching or rubbing are additional ways to enrich the animals life in this form. It also allows you to check the animal for its coat condition, weight loss, parasites, tumors, cuts or injuries.


Many facilities have a strict hands-off policy. At Indigo Mountain we have a policy of hands on as much as possible. Regardless of their backgrounds each and every wolfdog receives a lot of one-on-one attention with its caregivers. Our volunteer program requires a strict time commitment to insure consistency in the volunteer’s relationships with the animals.

We believe in doing basic training such as sit, stay, down, wait. Training the animals increases the intellectual focus of the animal.


We believe in allowing the animals to lead a normal life. Animals that swim, climb or dig in the wild should be able to do so in captivity. We provide jungle gyms and hammocks for climbing animals. We provide water sources for animals who enjoy water. We provide portable digging boxes for animals who dig. These can be filled with sand, dirt, straw, wood chips, etc.


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