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 Cognitive Enrichment Activities for Dogs?
Cognitive enrichment activities are toys or activities that stimulate your dog’s mind. They might involve physical activity, they might not.
Some cognitive 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 Cognitive Enrichment for Dogs Help Them . . . And You!
Cognitive enrichment activities engage and stimulate your dog’s mind. You are giving your dog a chance to use their natural instincts, explore new smells and textures, and problem solve.
These dog enrichment ideas challenge your dog, preventing boredom, building confidence, and relieving stress. Best of all, cognitive enrichment activities are mentally tiring, and help manage your dog’s energy – which leads to calmer behavior.
Bonus: Cognitive enrichment activities can help you make progress with behavior issues!
If your dog has behavior issues, enrichment activities have an added bonus: when your dog is mentally tired – and mentally enriched – many times you make more progress in their training and experience less of the behavior issue.
I have one reactive dog and one highly sensitive/fearful dog. If I do cognitive enrichment activities before our walks and before our training sessions, they do much better!
Bottom line? Cognitive enrichment activities make your dog happy, more content, and better behaved.
DIY Enrichment Toys for Dogs
Let’s start with DIY dog enrichment toys.
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 cognitive enrichment ideas for dogs contains easy, inexpensive options that you can make for your dog.
DIY toilet roll tube food toy
Put some treats inside a toilet paper tube, then fold the ends of the tube shut (see picture). Give it to your dog and watch them try to figure out how to get to the yummy-smelling treats inside!
Cardboard box hide and seek sniffing enrichment toy
Fill a cardboard box with a mix of crumpled-up paper, some treats or kibble, and toys, and let your dog dig out the hidden treasures! Make it easier the first time, then increase the difficulty once they understand that treats are hidden inside the box: you can roll up the kibble in towels, crumple it up in paper – you get the idea!
Rolled-up-towel food dispenser
This is a great way to feed your dog their dinner.
Hide treats or kibble in a rolled-up towel and let your dog figure out how to unroll it to get them out. Watch the video below to see my dog Rose as she figures it out; you can literally see her processing as she first tries to get to the treat through the towel, then keeps sniffing and starts to figure out how to unroll it.
You can hear my other dog – who was gated out of the room – whining in protest!
PVC food tube
The UC Davis Shelter Medicine Program posted these instructions for making an easy food dispensing toy out of PVC pipe.
You can buy the PVC materials at your neighborhood home improvement store, then simply drill holes big enough that your dog’s kibble or treats will fall out when the dog rolls the toy.
Stuffed busy ball
This toy is hands-down my dog’s favorite!
It requires you to purchase the JW Pet Hol-Ee Roller ball, but it’s only about $5. I recommend getting the small size. The medium works as well, you will just need to cut larger strips of fabric.
You can cut any fabric into strips to stuff inside the ball, but what worked really well for me was to cut up some polar fleece remnants I had in my sewing box. (You can buy polar fleece remnants for cheap at a fabric store as well.)
When you first start, stuff the ball with your strips of fabric and pieces dog kibble here and there. Leave longer strips of fabic hanging out to make it easy for your dog to grab them.
Your dog will smell the food and start pulling on the strips to try and get to it.
Once your dog figures it out, stuff more of the fabric strip into the ball, and eventually stuff all of the fabric inside the ball – your dog will have to figure out how to grab it and pull it out!
I don’t use food anymore, my dog loves the activity of pulling all of the strips out without any food inside.
This one is also 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:
As with the PVC food tube, you can buy all the parts at a home improvement store – so this toy is easy and inexpensive.
Enrichment Activities for Dogs
In addition to using these DIY enrichment toys, you call also use DIY dog enrichment activities to engage your dog’s brain and mentally tire them out.
An cognitive enrichment activity is anything you do with your dog that requires the dog to think, sniff, or problem solve.
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 toy.
Once he brings me the toy, 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. Take a look!
Clicker training your dog is another great enrichment activity.
There are so many ways you can use clicker training as an enrichment activity for your dog.
One idea is to 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.
Another option: instead of a fun trick, work on a skill you want your dog to have (sit-stays, for example).
I’ve been using clicker training to help my highly sensitive/fearful dog. He is terrified of his harness each time I put it on, and also terrified if his leash touches his legs or back end during a walk, and I want to change his feelings about both.
I’m using clicker training to make the harness and leash become “fun” for him – to change the negative association he currently has. I started with the harness. First I clicked and treated for looking at the harness, then for touching the harness with his nose, then grabbing it and letting go with his mouth. And today, we progressed to this!
“Guess the Behavior” 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 understand that when my daughter got out the clicker and waited, 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.
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.
I like to bring part of my dog’s meal on walks as part of his reactive dog training. When he sees another dog that is a little too close and might make him get worked up, I toss a handful of kibble into the grass or among the leaves and sticks in the woods and Tico transfers his attention to sniffing each and every piece of food out so he doesn’t miss any.
In addition to distracting him, sniffing actually calms his brain (this has been proven in studies), so it’s a win-win for this situation.
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:
This toy is GENIUS! It comes with a starter pack of “pupsicles” for you to use, but it also has a tray if you want to make your own. I also love it because the pops have limited ingredients and aren’t full of preservatives or unhealthy additivies.
They even offer calming pops with natural calmers like Passion Flower, Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Tryptophan, Dried Hops, and Magnesium.
Update: My daughter bought one of these for her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and the dogs LOVED it! She had a few tips I wanted to pass along:
- Her dog chewed on the green plastic after finighing the pupsicle pop and was able to chew some small green pieces off. Fortunately they have a heavy chewer version, so if your dog might chew on the plastic I would opt for this one, it comes in 3 sizes:
- She also noticed that when she made her own pupsicle treats of canned pumpkin and yogurt, they did not last as long as the pupsicle chicken ones. So she plans to use the Pupsicle ones when she needs to keep her dog busy for longer, and use her homemade ones for other times.
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 is a fun one, the dog has to spin the plastic bones to make food come out.
The interactive spinning food dispenser 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.
I used this toy for a foster dog that hated going in his crate, but was very food motivated. Each time I left the house, I would push kibble into these balls, and eventually the second he saw me take the ball down and start to fill it he would run to the crate, happy as can be.
I would be wary of this one if you have a heavy chewer though, one of my dogs chewed pieces of the rubber off and ate them so we had to put them away for supervised use with non-chewers.
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.
Check Out These Other Enrichment Activities For Dogs!
Want to see more dog enrichment toys? Check out these articles for a great variety of activity and toy ideas, including one that will play a treat dispensing game with your dog while you’re not home!
Want to Learn More About Cognitive Enrichment For Dogs?
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.
A friend of mine 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 that helps high-energy dogs, anxious dogs, and dogs with compulsive behaviors. Plus they are just plain fun for any dog!
Have fun playing with your dogs—
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