Wondering where to start with canine enrichment? Or is your dog’s current enrichment routine getting stale? Here are my top tips to make enrichment activities easier and to keep your dog feeling mentally engaged.
Tip #1: Invest in reusable puzzle toys
If possible, I strongly suggest investing in a number of reusable puzzle toys (like Kongs). These are durable, stuffable toys for dispensing your dog’s food that can be used over and over again. After the initial purchase cost, they only need to be filled with your dog’s regular food or treats, and boom, you have a daily enrichment activity ready to go.
My favorite examples are Classic Kong Toys or West Paw Toppls for soft food, and Kong Wobblers or Planet Dog Snoop for dry food or treats.
Tip #2: Adjust the difficulty level for your individual dog
One of the biggest and easiest mistakes to make when it comes to canine enrichment is making the puzzles too difficult too soon. This can frustrate your dog very quickly. If you’re not careful, you could even teach your dog to dislike puzzle toys by mistake.
Solving food puzzles and unpacking food-stuffed toys is a skill your dog will get better at with practice. Be sure to start out easy, with dry treats or kibble stuffed loosely inside of simple toys like kongs, toppls, or treat balls. You want your dog’s first experiences with enrichment toys to be positive.
Ideally, on the first few attempts, provide them with a toy where the treats practically fall right out of it. This will spark your dog’s interest and encourage them to try harder at unpacking the toy. If you start your dog out this way, by the time you try a harder puzzle, your dog will be excited and ready for more of a challenge.
Some puzzle toys on the market are absolutely brilliant and pose a real challenge, even for experienced puzzle-solvers. But if your dog is brand new to food puzzles, they might get frustrated with the more advanced puzzles if they can’t figure it out right away and give up.
If you notice your dog struggling or losing interest in a puzzle toy, look for ways to make the treats easier to get to to start with. You can even toss them treats for little steps they make in the right direction or any attempts to engage with the toy, such as rewarding them each time they look at, sniff, or paw the toy. Or, switch to a simpler puzzle toy to build your dog’s persistence, problem-solving abilities, and love of puzzles first.
Tip #3: Consider ditching the bowl altogether
This is my favorite tip – and that is to ditch the food bowl completely!
Feeding all of your dog’s meals through puzzle toys is easy and so beneficial for your dog’s enrichment. The beautiful thing about work-to-eat toys is that they take only seconds or minutes to prepare. It can be well worth the tiny bit of extra effort to place your dog’s food into a puzzle toy instead of a bowl or spread their food inside of a kong. Because with only a few extra seconds of your time, your dog can get 10 minutes or more of fun and mental enrichment out of it.
Ditching the food bowl is the single most cost-effective and time-effective way to burn your dog’s energy and add a little fun into their day. You can do it from home, and once you have a supply of stuffable food toys (see tip #1!), no additional supplies are needed. The way I see it is, your dog is going to eat 2 or 3 times a day anyways – so you might as well take advantage of the free enrichment opportunities! This is why, especially for very active or working-breed dogs, I highly recommend the ditch-the-bowl approach to every meal (or as many meals as you can).
Tip #4: Prepare puzzle toys in batches
Ever heard of “meal prepping”? Well, I suggest choosing a day of the week, and preparing puzzle toys for the week in batches, just like it’s meal prep day for your dog.
In dog enrichment circles, a popular way to ease the burden of prepping enrichment feeders is to have “Kong prep day”, where once a week, you set aside 30 minutes and prepare a week’s worth of stuffed kongs and other toys.
Not only is this a time-saver, but it is also super handy to have extra kongs ready to go in the freezer for whenever you might need them. For example, if guests come over, or if you just need your dog to settle for a time, you can grab a Kong from the freezer anytime and you’re good to go.
Tip #5: Switch it up
Don’t be afraid to switch up the routine. Try a new at-home enrichment toy or game; or check out a new hiking trail, or a new neighborhood park for a sniff walk. Making these little switches can make a huge difference in keeping your dog engaged without a lot of extra time or effort.
Put your dog’s usual enrichment toys and feeders on a daily or weekly rotation to keep things fresh. You can also swap out your dog’s chew and tug toys periodically to make chew-time and playtime more exciting for your dog.
And, don’t forget to try new types of treats. Dogs can get tired of the same old treats, even if it’s a food they love. Using a new treat or one they haven’t had in a while can bring out a lot of excitement for your dog.
Tip #6: Get creative to make DIY puzzle toys
There are many ways to reuse materials you have at home and turn them into DIY puzzle toys for your dog. With some creativity, the possibilities are just about endless. Things like cardboard boxes, milk jugs, and plastic bottles can be turned into snuffle boxes or treat dispensers. Just make sure to remove any pieces that could pose a choke hazard or contain sharp edges. And only give out DIY toys if your dog is a gentle chewer and not prone to consuming non-food items.