Most dog owners are aware of the importance of the exercise, nutrition, and attention that they give their dogs. However, one term has become increasingly popular – dog enrichment. Many dog owners don’t know what this term means, why it’s important, and how to do it.
With the increasing popularity of being a pet owner, as well as the drive towards humane and ethical treatment of animals, it’s good to understand dog enrichment and how it improves the life of your dog.
What is Dog Enrichment?
To put it simply, dog enrichment is an activity you do with your dog to stimulate their minds and keep them physically fit. Dog owners are already doing it as part of their day-to-day routine, with walks, exercise and play.
However, enrichment is an under-appreciated part of a dog’s life, so much so that we often underestimate just how much enrichment most dogs really need.
Think about it this way: before humans domesticated dogs, their ancestors would have had to constantly navigate through the world, hunting or scrounging for food and overcoming varied physical and mental challenges. This would have been their routine, giving them near-constant stimulation throughout the day.
In comparison, modern dogs live sheltered lives with a very set schedule. They wake up, go potty, eat, relax, etc. Many dogs get bored with this lack of stimulation, and may develop destructive or unwanted behaviours. Responsible dog breeders from Perth to Sydney know that the key to a happy, well-behaved dog is to keep them entertained and engaged.
There are several types of enrichment that you can do with your dog:
Of these, the only one that is really difficult to do at home is social enrichment, as it requires other people or animals. All the other types are easy!
Dog Enrichment Exercises You Can Do at Home
1. Muffin Tin Dog Puzzle
This is one of the classic dog enrichment exercises, and it’s super easy to set up – you only need three things:
- A muffin pan
- Dog toys/balls that fit into the muffin tin
The original version uses tennis balls, but some owners prefer not to use them. Any appropriately sized ball will also work just fine. This enrichment exercise is great for dogs of all sizes. If a normal muffin pan is too big because your dog is a toy or miniature breed, simply use a mini muffin pan.
When teaching your dog how to play this game, you may leave the muffin pan uncovered. Simply fill the cups of the pan with some treats and let your dog explore – they’ll eventually figure out that all the cups have delicious treats. Once your dog understands that the muffin pan is full of things that they want, you can progress to the real game.
Now you can cover the treats with the balls – your dog will have to somehow move the balls out of the way to get to their prize. A more advanced version of this game will involve filling only a couple of the cups with treats. The dog will have to ‘hunt’ for the treats by smell, and this easy scent work training can help prepare them for more difficult games.
2. Box games
This is a simple scent work game that you can do once your dog has got the hang of the muffin tin game. All you’ll need are the following:
- Boxes of various sizes and shapes, or some other form of container
For this game, all that’s required is that the dog finds the treats. To give them a challenge, you will bait some of the boxes with treats. Then arrange both the empty boxes and the baited boxes on the floor. Your dog will have to figure out which ones contain yummy treats, and which ones are empty.
To do an easier version of this game, you can leave some of the boxes slightly open or poke holes in the tops. A dog that has mastered this game will leave the empty boxes completely alone, and only go for the ones that have treats.
A more advanced version of this game is to have boxes within boxes! You can put the treats inside the smallest box, or one of the intermediate boxes, or only within the largest box. Put boxes in each other, or have boxes by themselves. The goal for the dog is still the same, to figure out which boxes contain their prize.
3. Scatter Feeding
This is the enrichment activity for owners who are in a hurry and need something to occupy their dog. All you really need is your dog’s normal kibble. Scatter feeding is exactly what it sounds like: you scatter your dog’s food around a surface or area, instead of putting it in a bowl.
There are a number of different approaches to this, depending on your level of tolerance for a mess. The neatest form, and one that we like, is a snuffle mat. You may either make your own snuffle mat or purchase one – they’re not expensive, but we know some dog owners are crafty and like making their own supplies.
Simply place the kibble in the nooks and crannies of the snuffle mat, and let your dog try to find the food. It’ll keep them entertained (and fed), and slow down dogs who tend to gulp down their entire meal in one go.
The other approach we like is towel feeding. All you need is a clean old towel that you don’t mind your dog slobbering on – you can use the towel that you use to dry your dog after a bath. Place the kibble in the middle of the towel, then roll the towel up so that the kibble is contained. You can then give the towel to your dog and let them try to figure out how to get at the food.
For an increased challenge, you can even tie the towel into loose knots, taking care to ensure that the kibble doesn’t completely fall out.
The messiest approach, and the simplest, is to scatter your dog’s normal allotment of food on the floor. Of course, nobody wants to be picking old, manky bits of kibble out of their living room carpet – this works best if your dog has their own space where they can eat. For owners with a dedicated room for their dog, they can just toss a whole fistful of kibble onto the floor and let their dog have at it.
The dog will have to smell out every little bit of kibble, replicating how they would normally have scavenged back before humans came along.
There you have it – 3 simple dog enrichment exercises (and variations) that cost little to nothing. Keeping your dog engaged and entertained is one of the keys to a healthier and longer-lived dog. There are also an endless number of other exercises you can do for enrichment – the only real barrier is your creativity and the effort you put into it.