Last fall I wrote an article about decompression walks for dogs. People told me what a difference decompression walks made for their dog’s anxiety and reactivity and asked about other enrichment activities for dogs.
So today we’re going to look at cognitive enrichment for dogs, including how to make your own dog enrichment toys.
Canine enrichment ideas are a growing trend in the dog-owner world. Trainers are starting to understand that cognitive enrichment for dogs is a tool they can teach their clients that helps with numerous behavioral issues.
Enrichment for shelter dogs is another great application. Dogs in shelters are living in a very stressful environment with little mental or physical stimulation.
Shelter staff and volunteers are coming up with dog enrichment ideas to lessen shelter-induced stress and make shelter dogs more adoptable.
What are Enrichment Activities for Dogs?
Enrichment activities stimulate the dog’s mind. They might involve physical activity, they might not.
Some dog enrichment activities involve solving some sort of puzzle, i.e. problem solving in order to gain access to food or a toy. Others stimulate the dog’s senses, such as scent games.
How Enrichment Activities for Dogs Help
Cognitive enrichment activities engage and stimulate your dog’s mind. The problem solving mentally tires him out and increase his confidence.
Bottom line? Enrichment activities make your dog happy, more content, and better behaved.
DIY Enrichment Toys for Dogs
There are a ton of dog enrichment toys hitting the market. But if you’re on a budget like I am, you can’t afford to buy all the toys you want.
This list of DIY enrichment toys for dogs contains easy, inexpensive options that you can make for your dog.
Toilet roll tubes
Put some treats inside and squash the ends of the tube shut.
Cardboard box of treasures
Fill a cardboard box with a mix of crumpled up newspaper, treats or kibble, and toys and let your dog dig out the hidden treasures!
Towel Food Dispenser
Hide treats or kibble in a rolled-up towel and let your dog figure out how to unroll it to get them out.
PVC food toy
Sheltermedicine.com posted these instructions for making an easy food dispensing toy from PVC pipe.
This requires you to purchase the JW Pet Hol-Ee Roller ball, but it’s only about $5.
Cut some old t-shirts or other fabric into strips, then stuff the ball with your strips of fabric and some dog kibble here and there.
This one is great for stuffed animal shredders, they get the satisfaction of pulling the guts out of the toy, and you get the satisfaction of getting to stuff it again instead of throwing it away!
Spinning PVC toy
This idea is genius! Tracy Donaldson of the_bryis_dog_trainer posted this video on her Instagram:
Enrichment Activities for Dogs
In addition to enrichment toys for dogs, enrichment activities can also engage your dog’s brain and tire him out.
Instead of feeding your dog its kibble in a bowl, use meal time to provide your dog with a fun activity! You can scatter and hide your dog’s kibble around a room in the house, or scatter it around your yard.
Hide the toy or treat
This game is hands down my dog’s favorite.
Each night after dinner we go to his toy basket and he chooses one. Then I put him in a down stay, go to a different room, hide the toy, and release him to come and look.
Start with the toy in easy places then gradually get harder if the dog is doing well. I can hide it in really hard places now, it’s fascinating to watch him catch of whiff of the toy then start methodically sniffing the area to hone in on the location.
Clicker training your dog is a great enrichment activity.
Teach something fun that you can show your friends and family – like fetching the newspaper, picking up toys and putting them back in the toy basket, giving a high five, or sneezing! (Yes – sneezing. You sneeze and your dog sneezes back, it’s hilarious!)
Work for 5-10 minutes at a time, make sure you keep it fun and stop before your dog is bored or frustrated.
Free Shaping Clicker Game
This one is a little harder to learn, but really fun, especially if you have a crazy smart dog. The goal is to get the dog to guess what you want it to do by clicking successive approximations of the desired behavior.
When we taught this activity to our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever (crazy smart dog), he started to know that when my daughter got out the clicker and waited that he had to guess what activity would earn him a reward.
Sometimes it was climbing on the couch, sometimes putting feet on a box – he would zoom all over the room trying to get a click and treat clue to help him figure out what behavior produced it.
Karen Pryor has an excellent article about it called Free Shaping With a Clicker, I would recommend reading it so you are doing it correctly, otherwise it may be frustrating for your dog.
Too Busy to Make Enrichment Toys for Dogs?
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If you have some extra cash to spend, there are some really fun enrichment toys for dogs on the market. Here are a few to consider:
The snuffle mat is one of my staple enrichment/feeding toys. It slows down fast eaters, and mentally stimulates each dog that uses it.
This one is a fun one, the dog has to spin the plastic bones to make food come out.
This is similar to the PVC do it yourself toy in the above section.
This is a great toy to keep your dog busy in a crate. They are about the size of a tennis ball, and the rubber is very flexible, just pull open the “jaws” and slide in the kibble.
The supersize interactive squirrel toy is great for dogs who love to de-stuff their toys. Mine learned to bring me the trunk once she had emptied all the squirrels out to get me to refill it!
This is a “level 3” toy, i.e. it’s more complex and really gives the dog a mental workout.
Want to Learn More About Dog Enrichment Activities?
If you want to learn more about dog enrichment and why it’s so beneficial for your dog, or if you want to expand your dog enrichment activity list, here are 3 great resources:
1. Join the Facebook group Canine Enrichment
2. Brain Games for Dogs: Fun Ways to Build a Strong Bond with Your Dog and Provide It with Vital Mental Stimulation
Enrichment Activities for Dogs Will Strengthen Your Relationship and Help Calm & Balance Your Dog
Each night after I play Hide the Toy with my dog, he is so incredibly happy. Check out this grin:
If it’s one of those days when he’s being a pain in the butt, I will play a short game of it in the morning. It levels out his energy and gets his brain to stop bouncing all over.
Another person I know noticed that when she took her dog on a decompression walk that the dog didn’t obsessively lick his leg afterward (which he normally does). I would bet that adding some other enrichment activities and toys would also have a beneficial effect on his anxiety and obsessive licking.
Dog enrichment activities are clearly a great tool which helps high-energy dogs, anxious dogs, and dogs with compulsive behaviors. Plus they are just plain fun for any dog!
Want to see more dog enrichment toys? Check out this article about mentally stimulating activites for dogs article for a great variety of toy ideas, including one that will play a treat dispensing game with your dog while you’re not home!
Have fun playing with your dogs!