Enrichment Ideas for Dogs: Toys, Games and DIY

enrichment ideas for your dog

Do you have a dog that is often engaged in what you would consider… problematic behaviors?  Behaviors such as digging, barking and chewing… chewing your shoes, your furniture, your kids toys, etc?  These behaviors are very common in dogs that are bored, but anxiety can also bring these behaviors out. The truth is… a dog that is bored is not getting the appropriate mental and physical stimulation which often results in them getting into trouble as they find ways to entertain themselves.  These types of behaviors are often ones you may not appreciate… and you may refer to them as “bad” behaviors. This is where canine enrichment comes into play… and why it’s so important! Continue reading for a list of enrichment ideas for dogs… perhaps some of these may work for you and your dog.

What is Canine Enrichment?

Enrichment has been used in zoos and aquariums for years, but only relatively recently has become a focus as far as our dog’s well-being.  It looks at each animal and what their natural – or species specific – behaviors are.  The process continues by finding activities for those needs to be met, but in ways that are suitable for the animal’s environment.

Ensuring that your dog receives both mental and physical stimulation can really help alleviate both boredom and anxiety.  However, when it comes to enrichment, a key to it being successful is to understand that it is not up to you to determine what your dog should find enriching.  You need to look past your own beliefs of what you think should be enriching… and let your dog decide what is enriching for them.  In order for an activity to be enriching it must increase your dog’s behavioral well-being.

When beginning to look at creating an enrichment plan, a good place to start is with diet.  In our own lives, diet can affect us in a number of ways and your dog is no different.  Ensuring your dog is eating a proper, nutritionally balanced diet, is important.  If your dog’s diet isn’t meeting their nutritional needs, it can affect them not only physically, but behaviorally.

Moving on to activities, there are so many possibilities to help meet your dog’s needs. The most important thing (other than letting your dog determine what is enriching for them) is to choose activities that work for you and your family as a whole.  Making a plan that isn’t sustainable doesn’t help you or your dog.  Here are a few ideas that you could try:

Take your dog to a training class

This is a great way to provide both mental and physical stimulation for your dog. If you haven’t done any training, enroll in a basic obedience class.  Try an advanced class if you already have the basics down.  You can switch it up and try a scent/nose work class… or even a trick class.  These are becoming very popular!  If an in person class is not an option – whether due to scheduling or behaviorally – try some online or private training with a force-free trainer.

Give dog sports A Try  

There is an ever growing list of dog sports out there… agility, flyball, dock diving, frisbee, canine freestyle, herding, and the list goes on.  You don’t need to participate at a competitive level – there are plenty of organizations that offer these activities for simply recreational purposes.

Build a Doggie sandbox

Digging is one of those instinctual behaviors, and some breeds (i.e. terriers) will be much more likely to exhibit this type of behavior. A great solution for managing digging is to provide your dog with an appropriate digging spot – build them a doggie sandbox!  You can bury items such as chew toys (KONG, Nylabone, etc) in the sand so that when you dog digs they will find lots of rewarding treasures!  This makes digging in their sandbox more rewarding than digging in your yard.

Keep Cool in a Doggie Pool

A doggie pool in the summer can be a fun way to cool off in those hot summer months. You don’t need to buy a special dog pool… a kiddie pool would work just fine. Placing toys in the pool and having your dog retrieve the toys can be a fun game.  Be mindful if you have a puppy that you take the time to safely introduce them to the pool and water. 

Play games! 

Lots of opportunity under this category. Most dogs love to play games and interact with their human(s)!

  • Fetch
  • Fun game of Tug
  • Play some scent games (i.e. Find the Hidden “Treat” Game).  Begin by hiding food/treat in plain sight and ask your dog to “Find It”.  Gradually increase the level of difficulty (i.e. perhaps start with letting your dog see you place a towel over the treat and then give the cue “Find It”.  Remember, as with any behavior that you want your dog to do again, provide lots of praise… and potentially more treats!  Continue to increase the difficulty to make it more challenging for your dog.
  • Have some fun with Hide and Seek… just make sure that if your dog can’t seem to find you, make the game easier so that it doesn’t become frustrating for your dog.
  • Try a flirt pole: 

Flirt poles should not be used for puppies, dogs whose bones are still growing, or dogs with joint problems. Be mindful of jumping and twisting… if you have concerns, speak to your veterinarian first. This is a great activity, but play safely!

Interactive Feeding and Chew Toys

These toys can come in very handy if you need to keep your dog busy while you are out… or eating a meal… or, as is commonplace today, on a Zoom call for work!  They can also slow down eating for those “chow hounds” while giving your dog a chance to forage for their food.  Foraging is another of those species specific behaviors that your dog will benefit from having the opportunity to participate in. Having different types of interactive toys on hand is a great idea as it allows you to switch them out for variety.

Some of the more popular interactive food toys are the Classic KONG and KONG Wobbler.

KONGs have been around since 1970, and I, like many others who have dogs that love to chew, can’t say enough positive things about the ever growing list of KONG products.  Having had many dogs over the years that love to chew, originally KONG was the only toy that would stand up to our aggressive chewers.  

The Classic KONG is great for stuffing with either kibble or small tidbits of food, like cheese or turkey… or you can create recipes that you can stuff into the KONG and freeze for a treat that will keep your dog occupied… and mentally stimulated… for a much longer time.  Using small tidbits of food is great for beginners – encourage them to play and interact with the KONG and as they start to move and roll it around, treats fall out!  What could be better than that?!?

Already have a KONG for your dog? It’s summer time – why not share a refreshing summer smoothie with your dog!  You don’t need to put yours in a KONG however… a glass will work just fine for yours!

SWEET SUMMER SMOOTHIE

  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Plain yogurt
  • KONG Peanut Butter Easy Treat

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Split mixture between KONGs and freeze for greater challenge.

Find this recipe and more on the KONG website.

When purchasing KONGs (or similar style chew toys) for your dog be sure to buy the appropriate size and strength to match with your dog’s chewing!  Puppies through to senior dogs… as well as your dog’s breed… are things that should be taken into consideration when buying these toys.  As with most toys, it’s also important to supervise your dog to ensure that they are not able to chew and swallow any pieces that can be a danger to them.

The West Paw Toppl, for moderate chewers, is a similar idea to the KONG in which it can be stuffed and you can even connect the small and large one to create an even more challenging puzzle for your dog.  

Try making a pumpkin pie smoothie and stuffing the Toppl, then freezing it for an extra challenge for your dog:

PUMPKIN PIE SMOOTHIE 

(makes approx. 5 – 2 1/2 Tbsp servings)

  • 1 cup plain greek yogurt
  • 1 – 15 oz. pureed pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

In a medium bowl, combine yogurt, pureed pumpkin, and applesauce.  Spoon into a West Paw treat toy and freeze until solid.

Find this recipe and more on the West Paw website.

NOTE: be aware that some foods are toxic to dogs. They can’t eat everything that we do.  One very specific ingredient to watch for is Xylitol.  Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that is very common today.  It can be in gum, candy, foods like peanut butter, toothpaste, etc. For a list of other foods that are not safe for your dog, visit the ASPCA’s website

A snuffle mat is another fabulous idea as it encourages both sniffing and foraging… activities that most dogs love to do!  And, as far as enrichment goes, they need to! 

Snuffle mats are something that you can DIY and make yourself or, you may find it easier to buy one from someplace like Etsy. 

You can place your dog’s whole meal into the material of the snuffle mat… but always make sure you are providing supervision with these. Once they are done foraging, remove it and store it away until the next use.

Other products, such as a LickiMat, are another popular option. They are said to reduce anxiety and promote calmness in your dog. Remember what I shared about your dog deciding what is enriching?  When trying a LickiMat be sure to pay attention to your dog to ensure that they are not finding it frustrating rather than enriching.

Go on a Sniffari!

When you take your dog for a walk, vary your route.  This provides new smells and sights for both you and your dog.  Better yet, go on a sniffari!  What’s a sniffari?  It’s simply a walk where you let your dog’s nose lead where you are going to go… as long as it is safe.  This is an activity that is excellent for mental stimulation… a 10 minute sniffari will likely be much more enriching that a 60 minute walk where your dog is walking by your side.

Plan a Social Activity

Arrange a doggie play date with a suitable dog friend. Who doesn’t love to hang out with friends?!?

Hire Someone to lend a hand

While you are at work, or if you are to be away for a longer period of time, consider hiring a dog walker or canine enrichment technician that will take your dog out for a walk and spend some enriching time with your dog in your absence.

If you happen to have a dog with specific behavioral challenges such as:

  • aggression (toward dogs or people)
  • leash reactivity (lunging, barking, etc on leash)
  • excessive barking
  • excessive digging
  • destructive behaviors
  • separation anxiety
  • shy or fearful behaviors

… or any other behaviors you may feel are excessive or concerning we recommend that you contact a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant as soon as possible.

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