By Suzanne Denk, Animal Enrichment Specialist at Animal Friends
Pets are a multi-billion dollar industry. We love to spoil our dogs with treats, toys, and even sweaters. Easy enrichment activities can also improve their quality of life with variety and mental stimulation. You may like to know that enrichment activities are based on research in the field of Animal Behavioral Science but your dog will only know that enrichment activities are fun! Enrichment activities reduce stress, end boredom, and provide a chance for you to bond with your pet. The goal is to offer the dog the opportunity to think and use his mind.
Mealtime does not have to be routine and feeding your dog his meals can become an enrichment opportunity. Provide a meal in a Kong, a slow-feeder or puzzle toy. Hide tiny treats throughout the house for your dog to discover during the day while you are at work. Randomly toss treats or kibble into grass, snow, leaves, or around a room and let the dog sniff and search. The challenge is greater when the treats are not easily visible requiring him to use his nose. Treats may also be placed in a trail that your dog can follow with his nose to find bonus treats at the end. Presenting food that is novel with new tastes or textures (homemade sweet potato chips or a frozen low-sodium chicken broth ice cube) can be stimulating for your dog.
Enrichment activities should encourage the dog to use all of his senses. For dogs, the #1 sense is smell. Allow your dog to use his instinctive skills and sniff with scent games and food enrichment. Using the nose requires concentration. While scent games are fun for a dog, they do not over-stimulate the dog. Scent games are mentally tiring for dogs and stimulate their brain in a way that physical exercise does not. A few minutes of a scent game can help a dog relax. With their noses, dogs can find lost people, locate land mines, diagnose cancer, admire your new perfume, and find suspicious luggage content. Those superior sniffing noses should have some fun!
Puzzles, games, or a few minutes of training provide cognitive enrichment requiring thinking and concentration. Working at a game or puzzle can help a dog build confidence while learning a skill or investigating an unusual object. Try one of the following easy scent games:
- Cereal boxes, paper towel tubes, and egg cartons: Dogs enjoy tearing up cereal boxes, paper towel tubes with the ends pinched closed, and egg cartons to find hidden treats. This activity does not encourage destruction! If a dog has appropriate places to channel his energy, he will not destroy the sofa!
- Snack Time Tubes: Gather 6-12 Pringles potato chip tubes. Drop treats into one tube. Pile the tubes together. The dog must sniff to locate the tube with the treats. The long tube then provides a challenge to the dog in removing the treat.
- Twisted Towel Treat Puzzle: Place treats on a towel, roll the towel up, and twist. Let the dog work the towel open to find the food. Too easy? Place the treats in a Kong and then roll up the Kong in the towel.
- Muffin Tin Treat Finder: Place treats or kibble in muffin tin cups and allow the dog to eat the treats. Place more treats and top them with a tennis ball to cover the treat and provide extra challenge. A cardboard beverage carrier with a tennis ball in the cup holes also works!
- Bottle Party in a Box: Drop treats into a box filled with empty water bottles and let the dog search in the box to recover the treats. Because the bottles move and make noise, the game can help build confidence. Some dogs will search for toys instead of treats. Choose whatever motivates your pet!
- Magical Shell Game: You will need treats and three large yogurt containers or clay pots. Place a treat on the floor and cover it with the “Treat pot.” Hold the pot down to keep the dog from tipping it over. Lift the pot when he touches it with his paw and let him take the treat reward. Practice this, rewarding for soft paw touches. Do not direct your dog. Let the pet figure out how to get you to lift the pot. Sessions should not last more than 5 minutes. Once the dog is tapping the “treat” pot with a soft paw, add two more pots. When he chooses the “treat” pot, let him take the treat reward. Shift the pots around to challenge him with slight of hand!
- KONG Wobblers, interactive puzzle toys, and slow feeders can also provide challenge and enrichment for your favorite dog.
Remember to always supervise your pet so you know he can play safely with a new item. Rotating toys and activities will keep them fresh and fun. Enrichment activities only take a few moments so spoil your dog today!