Thirty-Five Dog Enrichment Ideas
Updated: May 2
In the old days it was common to go to the zoo and see animals pacing back and forth in cages made up of concrete flooring and metal bars. Zoos started changing the design of housing to make the lives of the animals in their care richer by creating more natural habitats, and by providing enrichment opportunities.
While it seems like a good deal for a captive animal for their food to be provided without their needing to forage or hunt for it, the fact of the matter is that animals are designed to practice behaviors such as seeking food, making nests or dens, and practicing needed survival skills through play.
When captive animals are prevented from using those natural skills it’s not a kindness, but inhumane treatment. Keeping animals happy includes giving them opportunities to practice the natural behaviors of their species. By meeting these needs in a safe, appropriate way, we’re providing them with the outlet they need in order to maintain a measure of control over their behaviors, despite being captive.
From creating habitats that encourage natural behavior, to feeding in a way that requires animals to eat as they would in the wild, to creating enrichment opportunities, zoos work extremely hard to provide species appropriate enrichment opportunities for all the animals in their care.
Go to just about any zoo’s website and you’ll see wonderfully entertaining photos and videos of some the enrichment zookeepers provide.
Benefits of enrichment for dogs
In comparison, providing enrichment for our pets is a relatively new idea. I think part of it may be that decades ago dogs were more likely to be able to roam the neighborhood, thus creating their own enrichment opportunities. Another reason may be because it’s only within the last few decades that the dog is left alone during the day. A two-parent working home is something relatively new within the last 30 or 40 years.
Dog professionals are realizing that our dogs may not be getting all of their needs met, even if they get daily walks, a game of fetch a few times a week, and attend training classes. While not captive in the same way zoo animals are, our dogs are not furry humans and have retained many of the behaviors and instincts seen in wild canids.
Natural behaviors for a dog include scavenging, chewing, licking, shredding/ripping, sniffing, digging, running, chasing, rolling on scents, and investigating things in the environment.
Some of these things we actively prevent our dogs from doing; we really don’t want our dogs scavenging through the garbage, shredding the couch cushions, and rolling on who knows what disgusting thing.
While preventing our dogs from practicing these behaviors in situations where it’s problematic for us is justifiable, preventing these behaviors 100% of the time is not only unreasonable, but it’s inhumane.
When we make a decision to keep animals as pets, it isn’t just about providing their food, exercise, safety and medical needs, it should be about providing for all of their needs. Making sure our dogs are both happy and healthy includes giving them opportunities to practice the behavior that is normal for their species.
I’m not advocating that you allow your dog to shred the couch pillows, dig up your petunias, or chase the neighbor’s cat. But I do believe that we should find ways to create enrichment dog enhancing opportunities for natural behaviors.
If you’re having trouble thinking of how you can do this, I’ve got a list of easy and cheap dog enrichment ideas below. Some require purchasing items, but most can easily be accomplished for free with items you most likely have around the house.
Dog enrichment food ideas
It’s easier for us to just dump our dog’s food in a bowl and put it down on the floor. You’d think that would be the dog’s preference too, but dogs actually enjoy working a bit for their food. The nice thing about food enrichment is that many times it creates a situation that encourages the dog to use multiple natural behaviors: scavenging, smell, shredding, chewing and licking are some that the dog may use in food enrichment games.
1. Scatter kibble or small treats inside on the floor This is so easy to do, and so much fun to watch a dog zig zag in an effort to get every bite. Just take a small handful of dry food and scatter across the floor. Be careful it doesn’t roll under something that will be difficult for your dog to access. If you have multiple dogs that may snap at each other, it’s best to do this with one dog at a time.
2. Scatter kibble or small treats on grass This is just like doing a kibble or treat scatter inside, but slightly more challenging because it’s harder for the dog to find the food in grass. Often dogs will use their noses while they search!
3. Find It Similar to a scatter, but you’re just tossing one piece of food at a time, and adding the verbal cue “find it.”
Say "find it", and toss a treat on the floor.
Repeat and vary the direction you toss your treat.
Once your dog understands, take the game to a different room.
Start playing the game outside on easy surfaces such as pavement, but without distractions.
Increase the difficulty of the search by tossing the treat into the grass not too far from the dog.
As the dog starts to find the treat quickly, toss it farther and farther away to make the search more difficult.
4. Slow Feeder Slow feeders can be purchased just about anywhere pet supplies are sold. They are bowls with raised ridges that come in a variety of patterns. The design causes the dog to have to eat the kibble located in different sections, and makes it so they can’t gobble their food.
5. Snuffle Mat A snuffle mat is a mat with pieces of fabric several inches long tied to it. Snuffle mats are another way to get a dog to slow down when they eat, but with the additional benefit that the dog literally has to snuffle their way through the mat to find all the food. If your dog tends to shred things, or is a big-time chewer you may want to supervise your dog closely when using a snuffle mat. The mat should be removed from the dog’s access when they’re done using it. There are a lot of instructions on-line as to how to make a snuffle mat, or they’re easily purchased.
6. Licki Mat or Bowl Licki mats are small silicone mats with raised ridges. You can smear food on it for the dog that likes to lick food. I’m partial to using peanut butter, but you could also use canned dog food, creamed cheese, or just about anything else that is edible and can be smeared. To make it last longer you can freeze the mat before giving it to your dog. Make sure you supervise your dog when using, as my dog actually chewed a corner of the mat before I was able to stop him!