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A Beginner's Guide to Canine Enrichment

Enrichment: It’s become one of those buzzwords in dog circles. But what is it, why do dogs need it, and how can I fit this into my already-packed daily routine?

What is it?

Enrichment is the opportunity for your dog to engage in his innate dog-ness. If you’re a little familiar with canine enrichment, then your mind probably goes straight to those toys you can buy in the pet store that have all sorts of drawers and levers and compartments for hiding treats. While these are a product that can provide some enrichment to your dog and should definitely be something you look into, they themselves are not enrichment. Sniffing/foraging/searching for food are innate doggy behaviors, so those food toys provide an outlet for your dog to do that. Enrichment activities also offer mental stimulation or mental exercise, often in the form of a puzzle to solve or a problem to work out. Like a doggy sudoku. Keeps the mind sharp, increases confidence, and eliminates boredom.

There’s more to enrichment than just that, but for our purposes, let’s work with that two-part definition: enrichment is opportunity to do doggy things and opportunity for mental stimulation.

Why do dogs need it?

So much of the life we’ve imposed on our dogs serves to suppress their dog-ness. Don’t bark at that, don’t dig there, don’t chew on this, don’t sniff that, don’t pee there. March down this concrete sidewalk in a straight line, eat this meat cereal I’m setting down right in front of you, keep your teeth off all my stuff, and definitely ignore that squirrel. To be fair, you’re probably not as militaristic as that came across, or at least you don’t mean to be, but dogs have gone a long way to fit themselves into our worlds and our lives and a lot of that has meant giving up many of the behaviors that make them a dog. Or…not giving them up and creating conflict in your relationship. Many of the problem behaviors that I get calls about boil down to dog-ness not fitting into our human world. I’m not saying we’re wrong to have expectations for our dogs. In order for a relationship to work, there has to be give and take. We take a lot from our dogs, so we also need to give them a lot. We need to give them opportunities for enrichment. If we don’t provide it, they will find it for themselves, and then we’re back to those problem behaviors I get called in for.

Another reason dogs need enrichment is for the second part of our definition: mental stimulation. Ask any puppy parent and they will tell you that young dogs have limitless supplies of physical energy. Yes, physical exercise is a necessity and you do need to provide it for your dog. But, in order for your dog’s needs to be fully met, they also need mental exercise. Many clients tell me that they walk their dog three or four times a day but they never seem to get tired. The puppy gets home and tears around the house! Exercise works in dogs the same way it works in humans. The more I work out, the more stamina I have, the longer and harder I can go before I get tired. These dogs need mental stimulation. They’re looking for it by barking and zooming and chewing on you. Give them a better option. You’ll probably find that 10 minutes of engaging with an enrichment activity tires your dog out more than 30 minutes of leash walking around the neighborhood.

But my dog doesn’t like enrichment

You heard that enrichment was good for your dogs, so you went out and bought the food puzzle toy, filled it with goodies, set it down in front of Rover, and gave yourself a pat on the back for being the best dog parent ever. But much to your dismay, Rover gave it a cursory sniff, looked at you like you had just insulted him, and walked away. Your conclusion: well, I guess my dog doesn’t like enrichment.

When we present our dogs with a challenge, we must make sure that they will be able to be successful right off the bat. This is just as true for the challenge of training a new behavior as it is for solving an enrichment puzzle. Rover’s inability to engage with the puzzle is not a deficiency on his part, but rather an error on the pet parent’s part, just like how when my dog fails at a training task, I know I’ve made a training error. He just doesn’t know how to problem solve at this level yet. He’s never had to! Many pet parents’ instinct here will be to jump in and show the dog how it works – let him see you opening the drawers or flipping the levers. Do not do this. Here’s why: what Rover will learn from that experience is not how to solve the puzzle himself. What he’ll learn is how to balk and feign ignorance until Human does the hard work for him. What a good human! Instead, if you present a puzzle that your dog doesn’t believe he can solve, pick it back up. Make it significantly easier so that your dog can’t help but win. Wait a few minutes. Present the puzzle again. Allow your dog to solve it himself. This is how his confidence and problem-solving skills will grow, and eventually you’ll be able to give harder and harder puzzles.

How can I start?

We’ve already talked a bit about food puzzles in this blog, and that is actually where I tell my clients to start. The reason pet parents find it easiest to incorporate enrichment into mealtimes is because they’re already feeding their dog – it’s already a part of their daily routine, we just make small tweaks to the way they go about it. You have to provide your dog with those daily calories anyway, you may as well put them to good use.

There are many great products on the market, a few of which I personally use on a daily basis. I’m not going to name any of those here. You can research what’s available near you and what businesses you feel good about supporting. I’m all about cheap and environmentally friendly, and there are things you already have in your house that you can turn into enrichment for your dog. There are many lists like these available on the internet already, so I’m going to up the ante a bit and give you ideas about how you can customize these games to match your dog’s skill level. The adjustments will start at easiest level and go toward advanced. For each activity, you will fill the item with your dog’s food first (except for the last one). Always supervise your dog when giving them items not meant to be ingested.

  • egg carton:

  • open in the middle of the floor

  • closed but not latched

  • latched closed

  • latched closed upside down

  • taped closed

  • latched or taped closed and hidden somewhere in the room

  • muffin tin:

  • open in the middle of the floor

  • something on top of the food in some compartments (like a tennis ball)

  • something on top of the food in all compartments

  • pour water or low sodium broth into food-filled compartments and freeze

  • milk jug/juice bottle/water bottle

  • top off and several large holes cut into the sides

  • top off and one other large hole cut into other end

  • top off, several small holes cut

  • top off, one small hole

  • top off

  • top screwed on slightly

  • cardboard paper towel roll or TP roll

  • both ends open, food in middle

  • one end pinched closed

  • both ends pinched closed

  • a few placed upright in a box or container with food at bottom

  • many placed upright, tightly packed in a box or container with food at the bottom

  • many packed upright in a container with a towel over the whole thing

  • many packed upright in a container with a mixing bowl covering the whole thing

  • cardboard box

  • open in the middle of the floor

  • a little bit of wadded paper or packing material in the box

  • flaps folded closed

  • flaps folded closed and tucked under each other

  • flaps folded closed and tucked under each other, upside down

  • boxes inside boxes inside boxes!

  • grass

  • a lot of food tossed over a small area, short grass

  • food more spread out over a larger area, short grass

  • repeat, but with long grass

For more, follow us on Instagram. We're posting a new enrichment idea every Monday in a series I've very cleverly named "Enrichment Monday." And let me know which puzzles your dog enjoys the most!