Enrichment activities for your dog have so many benefits. In addition to occupying their attention so you can get some work done or draining their energy so they’re not so wild in the evening, they can encourage them to relax, build problem-solving skills, and give them a break in their sometimes monotonous experience. There is a plethora of potential enrichment toys and activities out there at a variety of prices, difficulty/engagement levels, and different ways to engage your dog’s brain. The list below includes our favorites! But while enrichment can have many benefits for us, it is ultimately to make your dog’s life better, so find the things that excite them the most!
Fillable hard toys: These toys are for strong chewers or dogs that tend to eat the things they destroy. Many of these toys cannot be torn apart easily and are designed to keep chewers engaged in a safe way. There are many of these on the market, but our favorites are:
The Kong Classic – This stuffable toy has long been a go-to for crate training and engagement. We have another Underbite Journal post with “stuffing ideas” and recipes. Designed to be a high-value reward to occupy your pup for a longer period of time, we find that making a few Kongs ahead of time and freezing them makes them last even longer and reduces potential mess! You’ll need to make sure you get the right size for your pup’s mouth so they can’t swallow the thing whole, but they have a very helpful sizing guide as well as some tips and tricks on their website! You can find Kong toys in nearly all pet stores (we encourage you to shop local!), but they’re also available on Amazon.
The Yeti Puff and Play – We originally discovered this enrichment toy thanks to our friends at For Healthy Pets in Montgomery! Designed as a companion toy for the Yeti Himalayan Dog Chew (a hard chew made from Yak’s milk), the Puff and Play takes a small nugget of the dog chew and then uses your microwave to make it puff up inside the toy. Your pup then gets to go crazy slowly chewing and removing the cheesy treat from the toy! The Five Freckle Pack LOVES this toy, and while I do need to spot-vacuum afterwards, it gives me at least an hour of uninterrupted time if I need it!
The Woof Pupsicle – This is our current favorite and a new discovery in the Five Freckle house. Made from a tough silicone that seems virtually indestructible, it comes with a freezable mold that you can fill with just about anything your pup finds valuable. I mix together mashed sweet potatoes, shredded chicken, and yogurt for a healthy, frozen treat. I fill the mold every week and pop out the “pupsicles” when I need them. I place the frozen treat into the Woof toy and let them go to town licking out the goodies! And like both the Kong and Yeti, it is dishwasher friendly! This is a little more new-to-the-market, so you can only buy directly from their website.
Fillable soft toys: These are typically reserved for pups that need some engagement, but aren’t as likely to destroy and/or eat their toys.
Stuffed toys with interactive elements make great enrichment toys for the dogs that aren’t destroyers. I’ve had the most luck finding these at stores like TJ Maxx, but some pet stores carry them as well. The Zippy Paws brand tends to be my favorite because they have multiple stuffers per toy. I take all of the inner toys out, fill the shell with dry treats or kibble, then add the smaller toys back in to make accessing the treats more challenging. You can also add to the challenge by stuffing strips of cloth or other stuffed toys in there. But again, make sure your pup won’t eat the things that aren’t meant to be eaten!
Lickmats are an excellent option for crate training because licking can be a soothing activity for dogs. Lickmats can be loaded with many of the same things as the Kong or Woof Pupsicle. You just spread and mash yummy things into the grooves and then let them lick it clean! Just like with the Kong, freezing makes it last longer! You can get them at just about any pet store or online, but your local For Healthy Pets carries a great brand!
Snufflemats have gained in popularity recently and for good reason! They encourage and reward foraging and sniffing, both of which are incredibly enriching for your dog because they are natural behaviors! There are many versions of this toy online, but you can also make your own easily and cheaply!
Puzzles and wobblers are a popular category of enrichment toys and there are many awesome brands and designs. Some dogs can figure these out very quickly, some don’t really show a lot of interest, and others learn to “cheat” by just picking the whole thing up and spilling it! But we encourage you to at least try one or two to see if your dog enjoys the process! Our favorites include: Kong Wobbler, The Outward Hound brick puzzle, or even a simple homemade game with some tennis balls and a muffin tin!
Where the above toys are designed for dogs to engage themselves, there are many enrichment games and exercises that will help you build your relationship with your dog by engaging them with YOU! These games make you valuable and fun in your dog’s eyes and encourage them to look to you for rewards, feedback, and interaction!
Hide and seek is a really fun game to play with your dog because it encourages them to problem solve and use their nose, but the payoff of finding you is so much fun if you throw a little party! To start, throw a handful of treats on the ground and while your dog is eating, sneak away to find a good (but not too difficult at first!) hiding spot. Slipping behind a door in the next room is usually a good place to start. When your dog finishes the treats, they’ll start looking for you. It’s ok to call their name to give them a hint or encourage them to come find you. When they do locate you, throw them a little party with praise and some more cookies. They’ll feel confident and awesome for having found you and you’ve inadvertently encouraged a check-in that you can build on for recall skills!
Scent work games are designed to encourage your dog to use their noses and brains. One of our favorite simple games involves just a handful of Amazon boxes and some yummy treats! You want about four boxes that are big enough that your dog can comfortably fit their head inside, but not so big that they will have to jump over the sides. You will load one of those boxes with some yummy smelling treats. The loaded box is called the “hot box” because it now carries the scent of the treats. The other three boxes remain empty. Scatter the boxes randomly around your living room, then release your dog to explore the boxes. Don’t give them any hints if you can help it! Allow them the space to try to figure it out on their own. After a little bit, they should find the “hot box” and eat the treat. Praise them and then repeat the exercise a few times. Once they skip all of the empty boxes and go straight to the hotbox, they’ve figured out your pattern! Praise them, then change the locations of the boxes and let them try again! Over time, you can gradually make the pattern of boxes more and more complicated by adding boxes, spreading them further apart, or elevating the hot box on a higher surface like the couch. It is SO MUCH FUN watching them use their noses and brains for problem solving and it will drain as much energy as a walk, so this is a great game for rainy days!
A flirt pole is an awesome tool for draining energy in dogs with high prey drive. It is helpful in training impulse control, drop it, and discouraging puppy biting! It also builds stamina and muscle control in sports dogs if you want to take that route! Pupford.com has an excellent article that explains the ins-and-outs of this fun toy!
Tricks training: If you really want to build engagement and relationship for your pup, one of the absolute best ways is tricks training. It doesn’t really even matter what tricks you want to teach them – from shake to roll over, spin to crawl – the interaction that comes naturally with training fun tricks with your dog is one of the most rewarding ways to build relationship. Tricks training encourages impulse control, engagement, problem solving, attention span, and value-building. Your dog is learning a new behavior, yes, but they are simultaneously learning that engagement with you is fun and rewarding. They are learning that working for you, figuring out the “thing” that earns that treat, is rewarding beyond the treat itself. It is FUN for the dog and for you! And then you can channel those tricks into things that are more practical (a hand shake can eventually lead to an easier nail trim or a “back up” can lead to a better threshold stay at the door). We have a whole article on this topic if you’d like to check it out! We REALLY believe in the benefits of it!
All of the enrichment in the world cannot replace experiencing the world itself. If your dog never gets the opportunity to leave the house or backyard, you will struggle to give them a fulfilling life. As our “dog culture” advances, there are many awesome opportunities to give your dog fun experiences!
“Sniffari” is a fun name for a walk or outing that prioritizes your dog’s desire to sniff and explore (are y’all picking up on this theme?). A sniffari can be in your neighborhood, in the park, walking around downtown, or even in a dog-friendly store. My girls LOVE going sniffari in the garden department of Home Depot or Lowe’s. They have to mind their manners, of course, but the goal isn’t obedience. The route, the pace, the interactions are all determined by them. They get to sniff anything they want (within reason, of course – nothing that can harm them and nothing that will be a nuisance to others) and they get to choose what they interact with. If we do a sniffari at the park, I bring a long-line so that they can have a little more freedom to explore. I find, too, that this often drains more energy than a walk where physical exercise or distance takes priority, because their brains are engaged as much as their bodies.
Exposing your dogs to new environments (in a positive way, of course) is also extremely enriching and encourages calm behavior in more places than just home. There are many people who do pretty well in training the commands at home, but then they’re surprised that their dogs don’t behave in public. When I ask if they’ve ever been “in public” before, the human goes, “well no, but he should know what ‘sit’ means!” I have to advocate for the dog and explain that he does still know what ‘sit’ means, but his brain is so overstimulated in this new environment that he literally can’t focus on your commands. The only way to get them over this is to take them out and let them experience new environments. Make it fun and positive, and then work your obedience back into the rotation.
And finally, we have dog sports and group classes! Dog sports at their best are designed to do two things: provide outlets for natural dog behaviors and build teamwork and relationships with their handlers. Yes there are many other reasons that dog sports exist, but these are the most important to us, especially as far as enrichment is concerned. A dog could care less about a first place ribbon, but being able to run her heart out and play with her human is the highlight of her life. We have written a spot-light on a few dog sports, including agility and dock diving, but there are a plethora of options out there and we encourage you to try a few out, especially in the areas that your dog seems to love!