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Enrichment provides the mental and physical stimulation dogs need to be happy and healthy. Providing your dog with enrichment activities can help prevent boredom that can lead to destructive behavior while helping calm anxious pups during times of stress.
While we'd all like to buy our dogs the best toys and spend all our free time with them, most of us can't. However, there are ways to enrich your dog's life using materials you already have in your home. Creating DIY dog enrichment games, puzzles, and training activities can reduce anxiety while providing them with tasks they can do independently or with you.
Keep reading to find our top DIY dog enrichment ideas that prevent boredom and improve their emotional health.
The Importance Of Canine Enrichment
Mental and physical stimulation are crucial for humans and dogs. It's often much more exhausting to use your brain to think than it is to go for a run or exercise. Have you ever noticed how tired your dog is after a training session? That's enrichment at work. The main goal of enrichment is not to make your dog feel exhausted, but it can help them calm down enough to fall asleep.
There are several types of enrichment for dogs, including social, nutritional, occupational, sensory, and physical.1 All of these types of enrichment are geared at keeping dogs happy and healthy. For instance, social enrichment promotes contact with other dogs, pets, and humans to create positive interactions.1 Meanwhile, nutritional enrichment encourages your dog to use their natural foraging behaviors to get rewarded with food.
Occupational enrichment gives a dog a job that promotes mental and physical stimulation, sometimes one more than the other. On the other hand, sensory enrichment is used to stimulate the senses, and physical enrichment refers to the dog's physical living space and environment, including having safe toys, allowing adequate time outside, and getting enough physical exercise.1
Several activities can provide different forms of enrichment. For instance, taking your dog on a walk provides mental and physical stimulation while allowing them to practice their social behaviors.
5 Enrichment Ideas For Dogs
Unfortunately, we can't spend thousands of dollars purchasing our dog's toys every year. However, we can create DIY dog enrichment activities that provide enough physical and mental activity to promote calmness, prevent some undesirable behaviors, and give them something to do when we're not able to play with them. Here are a few DIY enrichment tips for dogs that you can try at home:
1. Food Puzzles
Food puzzles are a type of nutritional enrichment that focuses on making your dog work for their meal, much like wolves do. However, instead of asking that your dog forage outside, you can use their natural instincts inside by letting them play with their food, so to speak.
The easiest way to use food puzzles is to purchase them from your local pet store or an online marketplace. You can find many different types of food puzzles available, but one of the easiest for dogs is a snuffle mat. Snuffle mats tap into your dog's natural instinct to forage, with fabric acting like grass and allowing your dog to sniff through it to find their food.
You can make your own snuffle mat using some fabric or even an old t-shirt or sheet. The Animal Humane Society recommends using a rubber anti-fatigue mat with holes in it, scissors, and a yard of fleece fabric.
When you're ready to begin, you can cut the fleece fabric into strips and double-knot them along the edge of the mat, looping them through each hole.3 Then, hide your dog's favorite food or treats and let them sniff their way through the mat to find them.
If you don't have the materials, you can make pupsicles for your dog instead. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine suggests creating these frozen treats with healthy ingredients like canned pumpkin, chicken broth, yogurt, crushed blueberries, and peanut butter in ice trays.2 Once completely frozen, your dog will have something to lick for a few minutes that keeps their attention focused on a task.
2. Scent games
Scent games allow your dog to use their most powerful sense to find treats and other objects hidden around the home or outside. It's essentially hide and seek with food! All you need to play scent games with your dog are treats, which you can hide around your home or your dog's outdoor environment to let them use their powerful noses.
The ASPCA recommends starting slow since it can take time for dogs to understand the games. First, choose an environment like a room in your home. Then, when your dog isn't looking, hide some treats and tell them to "find it." Next, you'll lead your dog to the treats and repeat this until they can look for them on their own.4
You can also create a dig pit for your dog to use their natural instincts to dig without destroying your home or yard. According to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, you can create a dig pit outside with buried treasure like toys and treats by portioning a section of your yard or creating a sandbox.2
Another way to enrich your dog's senses is to let them sniff on walks. We understand you may be in a hurry sometimes, but taking the time to let your dog sniff while they're doing their business outside gives them time to learn about their environments through their noses and explore a variety of new and interesting scents.
Of course, you should always watch your dog on walks since you don't want them to sniff anything that could be potentially dangerous, like another dog's feces.
Agility is another type of enrichment that focuses on occupational and physical enrichment, giving your dog a job while encouraging them to stay active. Agility training is a great idea for active dogs, especially those from working or high-energy breeds. If you don't have a yard, agility can quickly become your dog's favorite activity because it allows them to expel lots of energy in a short amount of time.
We recommend agility training at a facility if you don't have a space of your own because you'll work with professional trainers who can provide tips to make the process easier, especially for beginners. However, you can also set up your own agility course at home by buying supplies that allow your dog to run, jump, and climb.
Training is good for your dog in more ways than one. It teaches your dog desirable behaviors and how to act in certain situations, but it's also mentally stimulating. Let's face it — learning is hard! By teaching your dog new tricks or different commands, you can keep them mentally stimulated to prevent undesirable behaviors while keeping them happy and healthy.
Dogs love to learn, so training is something you can continue doing with them regardless of their life stage. If you're unsure where to start, you can try online dog training courses that can help you teach your dog to do almost anything, from basic training commands like "sit" and "stay" to more advanced commands like "watch me."
You can also work with a trainer on the behaviors you want your dog to learn, such as how to walk on a leash, come when called, or go to their sanctuary space when there's a stranger in the home. Trainers also have classes dedicated to a certain type of training, such as training for puppies, fear-related behavior, separation anxiety, kids, and so forth.
5. Flirt Pole
A flirt pole is a toy and exercise tool that encourages your dog to hunt. Ultimately, it's a toy on a string attached to a long pole. The pet parent holds the pole and teases their dog with the toy at the end of the string, making them want to chase and hunt it, satisfying your dog's prey drive. Flirt poles are good for mental and physical stimulation and can be used inside or outside.
According to the ASPCA, you can make your own flirt pole with a PVC pipe or broom handle, rope, and dog toy.4
When you're ready, you can hold it out in front of your dog to encourage them to pounce and play. You can also use it as a training tool to curb impulsive behavior. For instance, if your dog has a strong prey drive and tries to chase squirrels outside, you can use the flirt pole to practice commands like "leave it."
What can I give my dog for enrichment while they're home alone?
Many activities should only be done while you're at home and can supervise your dog. For instance, while chewing bones and playing with toys is enriching for dogs, they can also be choking hazards. Instead, you can try safer DIY dog enrichment activities like sensory enrichment to enrich your dog's senses.
For instance, many people like to leave the television or radio on at home for their dog while they're away. There are even channels dedicated to television for dogs.
You can also use treat dispensing toys with caution. For instance, if your dog destroys every Kong you've ever given them, don't give them one while you're away because the broken pieces can be a choking hazard. However, if your dog doesn't destroy their toys, a treat dispensing toy can be a good option.
Does exercise provide mental enrichment?
Exercise can provide mental enrichment depending on the activity. For instance, agility training is both mentally and physically stimulating for dogs.
However, you can make a simple walk more mentally enriching by allowing your dog to sniff their environment. Sniffing is how your dog learns about the world around them, so next time Fido stops to smell the grass, let them because it can provide mental stimulation that promotes calmness.
DIY dog enrichment activities can help keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated while promoting calmness. However, they're not necessarily a treatment for anxiety. Many veterinarians suggest more mental stimulation and enrichment to treat anxiety and behavioral issues. However, while mental and physical stimulation promotes a happy, healthy dog, some dogs suffer from anxiety issues that affect their quality of life.
If your dog suffers from anxiety, physical activity and brain games might not be enough to help them stay calm. Dutch's telemedicine for pets can help you find the right solution for your dog’s anxiety to help them live a happy, healthy life. Try Dutch today.
“Why Do Dogs Need Enrichment?” College of Veterinary Medicine, https://vet.purdue.edu/discovery/croney/files/documents/enrichment.pdf.
“DIY Enrichment Ideas for Dogs.” College of Veterinary Medicine, https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Fear-Free-DIY-Enrichment-Handout-c
"How to Make a Snuffle Mat." Animal Humane Society, https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/resource/how-make-snuffle-mat.
"Canine DIY Enrichment." ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/canine-diy-enrichment.