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!
7. Puzzle Toy Puzzle toys are actual puzzles. The dog needs to maneuver the toy to access the food. For instance, there may be a cover that the dog needs to flip up, or slide over. These toys come in a variety of difficulty levels – get an easy toy to start with so as not to frustrate your dog.
8. Food stuffed toy There are a lot of hollow, durable toys created with the sole purpose of stuffing with food and giving your dog an opportunity to chew, slurp and lick to get it all out. Kong was the original toy created for this purpose, but Toppl toys have become increasingly popular as well.
9. Treats in egg carton Finished with your eggs? Don’t toss that carton away just yet! Put some kibble or small treats in the egg compartments and close the lid. Put it on the floor and watch your dog figure out how to get to the food!
10. Treats in empty cereal or cracker box Another way to use recycling before you put it in the bin. Just toss some food in the box and close it up. If your dog shreds the box, who cares? You were going to throw it out anyway.
11. Muffin tin tennis balls For this game you’ll need a muffin tin and a tennis ball for each pocket in which you’ll place food. It’s a lot of fun if you use at least 6 tennis balls! Place 5 or 6 pieces of food, or smear some wet food in a muffin pocket and place a tennis ball on top of the opening. Once you have the entire tin prepared, place it on the floor. This is actually one of my favorite enrichment activities because it’s fun to see the dog use their problem-solving skills!
12. Treat in toilet paper tube Finished with that roll of toilet paper? Don’t toss that tube just yet! Pinch one end closed, throw some treats inside from the other end and pinch that end closed as well.
13. Scavenger hunt toilet paper tubes If you really want to save your toilet paper and paper towel tubes, you can set up a cardboard tube scavenger hunt for your dog. Put treats in some, but others are empty. Scatter the tubes in an area of the floor in a room and let your dog in. This is a great way to get your dog using their nose and do some scavenging.
14. Toilet paper tubes and tennis balls in box Ok, it doesn’t have to be toilet paper tubes and tennis balls, you can use anything you want such as empty water bottles and wadded up paper. The size of the container can range from shoebox size on up. Scatter a handful of dry food on the bottom of the box and then place items on top and watch your dog rummage around for the food. If your dog seems frustrated or nervous, help them out and remove most of the items. As they get better at this game and gain confidence you can add more stuff each time you play the game.
15. Ice cube tray filled with watered down canned food Or just about any dog friendly slurry food such as yogurt, watered down gravy, unsalted chicken or beef stock, etc. Leave it in the tray for licking, or pop the cubes out. This is a great summertime treat!
16. Shell game Get three identical opaque cups out and place them upside down on the floor spaced about a foot apart. Place a treat under one of them and see if your dog can figure out which cup is covering the treat by using their sense of smell.
17. Rolled up hand towel with treats Lay a towel flat and scatter kibble or small treats over the surface. Take one of the short ends and roll it up and place it on the floor for your dog. See if they can figure out how to unroll it to get to the food. Supervise closely if you don’t want your towel shredded. If need be, you can help your dog by unrolling the first few inches to show them how it’s done.
18. Treat scavenger hunt This is a bit like Hide and Seek and Find it combined. With your dog out of the room take about 10 treats and place them throughout the room. The first few times you play this game with your dog make it fairly easy, with many of the treats out in the open. Let your dog in the room and tell them to “Find It” and stand back and watch them looking for their snacks. If there are treats your dog didn’t find you can help by taking your dog to the area of the treat and pointing it out to them. As your dog gets more practice with the game you can start making your hiding places more challenging by putting treats at different levels and behind furniture.
Shredding and chewing and digging
Dogs love to shred things, not to mention chew on things. These are the behaviors of the predator that our pet dogs are at heart!
19. Shred stuffed animal toys There’s nothing worse than spending $15.00 on a plush squeaky toy only to have your dog rip it open and remove all the stuffing within 10 minutes of getting handed the toy. If you have a dog that does this with plush toys, your dog enjoys the destructive activity. You can allow your dog to do this inexpensively by getting toys from second hand stores or the Dollar Store. If you don’t mind spending a bit more money, there are toys on the market that are made specifically for this purpose. These are toys with pieces that are attached by Velcro. Your dog can rip the pieces off to his heart’s desire, and you can just reattach the pieces afterwards, and let your dog detach again.
20. Digging Box Is your dog driving you crazy by digging up your garden? If the digging is just for the enjoyment of digging and your dog isn’t trying to get to underground moles or chipmunks, give them a legal place to dig. You can either dig a pit and fill it with sand, or use a kiddie sandbox. Get your dog interested in their personal digging area by partially burying treats and toys and show them the treasure just waiting for them to dig up. If your dog goes back to the garden, gently take them back to their digging spot. Eventually they should find their digging area preferable if you occasionally stock it with treasure.
21. Elk or Deer Antlers and Bully Sticks Check with your vet before you give your dog these items to chew to make sure your vet doesn’t have any concerns about your dog’s teeth. Dogs do love to chew, and most dogs will be very excited about antlers and Bully Sticks. Not familiar with what a Bully Stick is? Not a discussion for polite company, but suffice it to say it’s from the part of a bull that makes it a bull and not a cow.
Dogs have incredible noses – we humans have about 6 million olfactory receptors compared to a dog’s estimated 300 million! Not only should we let our dogs use their noses, but we should find ways to encourage it! Many of the food games mentioned above do just that. But here are some activities that don’t involve food.
22. Sniffy Walks But aren’t our dogs always sniffing when we take them for a walk? Of course they are! But many times we think of walks as exercise and we urge our dogs to keep moving when they’d rather sniff a bit longer. I sometimes think it would be like going to a museum and when you see something you really want to get a good look at, your companion drags you away because you need to get your steps in. Sniffy walks are about giving your dog the control to sniff to their hearts content (as long as it isn’t something disgusting), letting them set the pace, and even allowing them to direct the route. Sniffy walks are a great stress reliever for a dog, and can many times tire them out as much as an exercise walk since that brain is engaged in sorting out what the nose is taking in.
23. Hide and Seek This extremely fun game is exactly what you played as a kid, except that the dog will always be the one seeking. If you’re by yourself, you’ll have to sneak off when your dog isn’t paying attention. This is a much easier game to play with two people so that one person can hold on to the dog, while the other person goes and hides. Initially make sure you aren’t hiding in a place that will challenge your dog in finding you. I find going around the corner to the next room works well. As your dog gets better at the game, you can make your hiding places more difficult. Once you get to your hiding spot, call your dog’s name. When they find you, make a big deal out of it and celebrate together. If your dog is having trouble locating you, you can call again or clap your hands. Making noise will help your dog locate you. After your dog plays the game awhile, they will most likely start using their nose to aid in their search.
24. Add scents to toys – cinnamon and mint How do you make an old toy interesting again? Make it smell different! Keep in mind that our dogs have extraordinary senses of smell, so we don’t want to overdo it. I suggest placing the scent on a cotton ball and then rubbing the cotton ball on one of their toys. Your dog may not necessarily start playing with that toy again if they hadn’t previously, but they will certainly find it much more fascinating with a new scent.
25. Scents from farm Are you planning on going to a petting zoo? Do you know someone going to a petting zoo or someone who owns a farm? You may not be able to bring the dog to the farm, but you can certainly bring some of the farm to your dog! Take an old towel and arrange to have it rubbed on one of the farm animals. The towel will pick up the scent of the animal, and you can bring it home and put it out for your dog to find. I can assure you your dog will find the towel is extremely interesting!
26. Hunting scents If you don’t know anything about hunting, you may be surprised to find that you can purchase scents such as: doe in estrus, rabbit urine, and grouse scent, among others. These are going to be much too strong for our dog’s very sensitive noses, so don’t use it straight out of the bottle. Put a single drop on a cotton ball, and after the cotton ball is dry you can rub it on to one of your dog’s toys or a rag.
Other ways to enrich your dog’s life
Some of these ideas are simple, and some will take a little more effort on your part. But if it makes your dog happy it’s worth it!
27. Flirt Pole In an earlier blog post I wrote about this toy. Flirt poles are essentially fishing pole toys like cat owners use, but much bigger. The furry predators that live in our homes will love chasing this moving toy around, and it’s a great way to tire them out!
28. Train a trick An idle mind equals a bored dog! Physical exercise is great, but using the brain can be tiring too. Besides, who doesn’t love seeing their dog showing off their tricks? There are a lot of great tutorials on YouTube, or see if a local dog trainer offers tricks classes!
29. Blowing bubbles Blowing bubbles isn’t just something kids enjoy, many dogs love seeing bubbles too! This is definitely an outdoor activity, and you’ll enjoy seeing your dog run and jump after the bubbles as they float away.
30. Kiddie pool with water Another summer-time outdoor activity that a water-loving dog will enjoy to beat the heat. You can also purchase dog sprinkler pads that many dogs seem to love.
31. Obstacle course No, I’m not talking about the dog sport Agility here, but something quite a bit more informal. Teach your dog to walk under chairs, drape a blanket over an end table and have your dog walk through it, set up boxes that haven’t been recycled yet and see if your dog can step inside the open box. Get creative and use what you have at home to create a course your dog has to navigate. Be patient and use a lot of treats for this one! Some dogs may be nervous and you want to respect that, instead of putting pressure to get them to do the course. Remember this is supposed to be fun for the dog! If your dog is really struggling you can help them out by making things easier. Instead of trying to encourage your hesitant dog to push through the blanket hanging over the edge of the table, lift the blanket up and have them go through with the blanket at a level they can handle. As your dog gains confidence with navigating obstacles, you can make things more challenging.
32. Put a mirror at dog's eye level Has your dog ever seen themselves? If not put a mirror down and see if your dog is curious about the strange dog in the mirror. If you have a dog that is reactive to strange dogs this may not be a good idea.
33. Nature sounds app on phone Sit with your dog and play nature sounds such as waterfalls, rain, bird calls, and the wind. You can also play non-scary sounds such as windchimes. There are a lot of free apps and videos on-line to choose from.
34. Rotate toys Are there toys in your dog’s toybox that they don’t play with anymore? Make the old new again by putting some of your dog’s toys away and once a month switching the toys that are out, with the toys that you’ve stored. You may find that your dog regards the toys they haven’t seen for a month as much more interesting!
35. Hanging toy Some dogs really love toys that are suspended by a rope. If you have a large tree in your yard, or a pole such as those used for clothes lines, you can hang a toy at nose level and see if your dog has fun tugging on it. You can also take a Kong toy and thread a rope through the hole on the small end and suspend it upside down. Add some treats to the Kong and show your dog how to bump the Kong around to get the treats to come out.
Even though we think we’re providing our dogs with a life of luxury, after all we’re providing food, exercise, safety, affection and vet care, we may not be giving them opportunities for performing natural behaviors.
The benefits of enrichment for dogs is that it not only makes them happier, but also mentally healthier. By providing our dogs with enrichment activities we really are enriching their lives by encouraging them to practice their natural behaviors.
Try some of these ideas out and let me know how it goes!