Looking for some ways to keep your dog happy, healthy and busy? If so try adding in a few mentally stimulating canine enrichment games & activities to your dog’s daily routine.
Mental stimulation enriches our dogs lives by giving them something meaningful and challenging to do. And because these activities alleviate boredom they decrease the likelihood of our dogs developing behavioral issues such as excessive chewing or barking.
The Benefits of Canine Enrichment Games
We’ve all heard that a “tired dog is a good dog,” and for the most part it’s true — if I play a 10 minute game of frisbee with my dog she will get tired. But after 20 minutes? We’ll she’s up and ready to go again.
That’s pretty much the story of raising Laika. I kept adding more and more physical exercise in hopes of tiring her out, yet she kept bouncing back and waiting for more.
Then one day I happened to try something different — instead of just adding more physical exercise to her routine I added in a few short brain games such as “find the treats” and hide and seek. And you know what? It made a huge difference.
Rather than bugging me every 20 minutes for more things to do she started settling down for an hour or two at a time. Turns out finding the right balance of physical and mental exercise for your dog makes a world of difference
So if you’re looking for a way to help keep your dog happy, busy and entertained throughout the day add in a few activities that stimulate their mind aka canine enrichment games. Not sure where to begin? I’ve got your covered. Here’s 10 of my favorite canine enrichment games & activities.
If you’re wondering what the heck a snuffle mat is you’re not alone. Until last year I had no idea what they were either, and I consider myself a pretty dog savvy individual.
A snuffle mat is basically a rubber mat with lots of fabric strips (usually fleece) tied to it. They’re designed to mimic grass, and they’re used to give your dog a fun yet challenging way to sniff out food and treats. They encourage your dog to use their natural sniffing and scavenging abilities, and they’re a fun way to have your dog work for their food.
If you’re not convinced that your dog will love sniffing out treats there’s a simple way to gauge their interest — try hiding some treats in a rolled up towel. Put it on the floor in front of your dog and encourage them to “find the treats,” and praise them every time they find one. If your dog enjoys the towel game they’ll also enjoy a snuffle mat.
I mention stuffed Kongs a lot on this blog, and for good reason — they’re one of the easiest ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated and entertained with minimal effort. It’s as simple as filling it up with treats in the evening and letting it freeze overnight.
The next day you’ve got an interactive toy that should keep your dog busy for at least 20 minutes. (will be much longer depending on how much you fill it up, and how much of a pro your dog is using food dispensing toys)
Not sure what to use for Kong stuffing? I prefer using peanut butter or sodium free broth for the “base,” and then adding in some healthy treats such as chopped up carrots or apple slices. If you’re not sure what to use check out our list of 39 healthy treats to stuff in a Kong.
I recommend Kongs because they’re dishwasher safe (easy to clean) and pretty tough. We’ve had ours for years and my dog hasn’t been able to put a dent in it. If you’re not a fan of Kong toys check out the West Paw Tux toy — it’s my favorite alternative. It’s just as tough and easy to clean, but it is much smaller.
DIY Obstacle Course
If you’ve ever watched canine agility trials you know one thing for sure — those dogs are getting a great mental and physical workout. I’m no expert in agility, but I can tell you that making your own homemade obstacle course isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds.
Teaching your dog something new, such as jumping over a pole or weaving through an obstacle is quite a mental workout for them. And the best part of it is you can do these activities at home — including some mini obstacles in your living room.
I’m not crafty enough to make my own agility course, so I opted for using alternatives at home. I use a blanket, some dog toys, and a few little orange hazard cones I picked up at the local thrift store. And with those objects I’ll have my dog “go to your blanket,” “bring me blue bear,” and “weave through the cones.”
You can use your creativity here. Want to teach your dog to jump over something? Prop up a broomstick with some books on either side. Want to teach your dog to bring you something specific? Teach them the names of a few toys and have them “bring you red bird.” Want to teach your dog to weave? Have them walk through objects you place on the ground. (you can also teach your dog to weave through your legs)
Use items that you’ve already got on hand, and work on teaching your dog to use them in specific ways. In other words create your own obstacle course for your dog. The benefit of putting these obstacles together like this is that it’s a really big mental workout for your dog. You’re not just asking them to do one thing, you’re asking them to do one thing after another.
Food Dispensing Toys
Another fun canine enrichment activity for dogs is using food dispensing toys. A food dispensing toy is any toy that can be used to place food inside of, and one that requires your dog to engage with it to obtain that food. As with other food related games they give your dog a chance to use some of their natural scavenging abilities in a fun and challenging way.
To use a food dispensing toy you simply fill it up with some treats/food, and encourage your dog to engage with it. Most of them have holes that the food will come out of as your dog starts to move it around. If the treats coming out aren’t enough to keep your dog’s interest keep up the praise — let them know how awesome they are by using it.
My dog Laika gets her dinner out of a food dispensing toy nearly every day. It doesn’t take any extra effort from me, and it’s an easy way to give her some extra mental stimulation. She loves it; having to “work” for her food makes her one happy pup.
It may seem weird to have your dog “work” for their food, but remember that to them it’s natural. In the wild their ancestors had to hunt and scavenge for their meals. Using a food dispensing toy mimics those instincts, and gives your dog an opportunity to use their natural abilities.
My favorite food food dispensing toys are the Bob-A-Lot & the Kong Wobbler. I like those ones because they’re easy to clean and big enough to use for my dog’s dinner. There’s plenty of DIY options as well; you can make your own out of an old plastic container, bottle, or PVC.
Nose Work Games
One of my favorite indoor activities to play with my dog is some basic nose work games. They’re great for keeping your dog mentally stimulated, and they help your dog hone in on their natural sniffing abilities. And the best part? The only thing you need to get started is some treats.
A good game I like to start with is called the “which hand” game. Grab a couple of treats and have your dog sit in front of you. Let them watch you as you place one treat in one of your hands. Extend both of your hands out with closed fists and ask them to pick “which hand.” If your dog gets it right away and signals to the correct hand open up your fist and let them have the treat. If they choose the wrong hand open up your fist to show them the treat isn’t there and ask them “which hand” again.
At first your dog may be relying on visual cues, but after a few rounds they should be able to start figuring out that they can smell it in your hand as well.
My personal favorite nose work game is called “go find it.” I’ll chop up a carrot or two into small bits and hide them throughout the house. You can use any treat you like, but when you’re first starting out I recommend sticking to something smelly to make it a bit easier on your dog. And if you’ve never done any nose work games before I’d start with some easy spots that are in plain view.
Have your dog sit in the stay position while you go off and hide some of those treats around the house. Once they’re hidden release your dog and tell them to “go find it” (or “find the treats” if you prefer). Keep it fun and encouraging for your dog by praising them every time they find a treat. After they start to get the hang of it and they know exactly what “go find it” means you can start hiding them in harder to find spots, further encouraging them to use their nose more and rely less on visuals.
A flirt pole (also called a flirt stick) is a long pole with a lure attached by rope to the end. You hold onto the pole and move it around, in turn making the lure move around and enticing your dog to chase. They provide great physical exercise, and they’re quite mentally stimulating. (here’s a great video of one being used)
Flirt poles let your dog use some of their natural instinct to chase in a non destructive manner. And they’re great for those of us who have a hard time keeping up with our high energy dogs — it’s an activity where your dog does all the hard work. Your dog will be running around like crazy trying to get that lure while you have the easy job of just moving the pole around.
Pick an area where there’s plenty of room for your dog to run around. Pick up the flirt pole and start moving it around for your dog. Encourage them to chase it, and encourage them by using praise. And to keep it fun for your dog (and to avoid frustration) remember to let them catch the lure from time to time.
Depending on how fast you move the lure this activity can be extremely tiring for your dog. It’s also pretty high impact. (not recommended for dogs with arthritis or mobility issues) When first starting out I recommend keeping the sessions short to avoid injury and overexertion.
One of the easiest ways to give your dog some more enrichment is by letting them do one of the things they do best — sniff. Your dog’s sense of smell is what helps keep them up to date on what’s going on in the neighborhood, and it’s a big part of how they explore the world around them.
Your dogs walk is (usually) the only time they get to go out and explore each day. Give them a little extra time to sniff around.
When you take your dog out for their daily walk set aside some time for designated sniff breaks. Tell them to “go sniff” and let them move on from one interesting smell to another. Giving them the opportunity to sniff around not only provides them with plenty of mental stimulation, it’s providing them with information about what’s going on in the neighborhood.
Some scientists argue that we’re doing a disservice to our animals by not acknowledging the importance of smell for their well being. You can make walks more meaningful & enriching to your dog just by giving them a few extra minutes to sniff around.
Frozen Dog Treats
When it comes to canine enrichment it doesn’t get any simpler than using frozen dog treats. They’re easy to make, and they’ll keep your dog busy for quite some time.
The only downside is that they’re seasonal. They’re not always a great choice for indoor use (they can be quite messy) — so for those of us that have cold winters they may not be a great option all year round. I still use them in the winter, but I do encourage my dog to eat them in the kitchen (a room without carpet) for easy cleanup.
Most frozen dog treats are made with a “base” of yogurt, peanut butter or pumpkin puree. You then fill up an ice cube tray or bundt cake pan with the base and put it in the freezer overnight. The next day you’ve got a yummy, frozen dog treat for your dog to enjoy.
Giving your dog a frozen treat may seem overly simple, but don’t underestimate the amount of effort it’s going to take for your dog to finish it. They’re mentally stimulating, and they’ll keep your dog busy and engaged for a long time.
Not sure what treat to make for your dog? Some of my favorite frozen dog treats include watermelon pupsicles, banana pup pops, frozen watermelon treats, frozen apple treats and the pb & ice fruit treat.
Give Your Place a Dog to Dig
Does your dog love to dig? If so you’re not alone. Digging is a natural canine behavior that they enjoy, yet it’s one we don’t often encourage because we don’t want them to dig up our entire garden. For this there is a rather simple solution — give your dog a designated place to dig.
If your dog likes to dig there is a way to let your them do it without having to worry about your tulips — give them a designated digging area or box to use. A designated digging area will allow your dog to dig in a controlled environment. You can use a sandbox, a certain area of your yard, or if you’re handy you can make one of your own.
Encourage your dog to use it by burying one of their toys, or by digging yourself to show them how it’s done. I don’t know about your dog, but if I dig at anything with my hands my dog will gladly join in. Praise them when they use their designated digging area, and pair it with a phrase such as “go dig.” After a few sessions your dog will know exactly what “go dig” means, and where they’re expected to do it.
Puzzle toys are an easy way to keep your dog entertained. And since they’re interactive they’ll keep your dog focused on a specific task, giving them plenty of mental stimulation.
I love puzzle toys because they give my dog a chance to use some of her natural problem solving abilities. Watching her enthusiasm as she figures out how to solve it is contagious; I think I enjoy it just as much as she does.
Now keep in mind not all puzzle toys are loved equally by all dogs, and not all of them take a long time to solve. A frozen Kong will keep my dog busy for 30+ minutes, while a simple puzzle toy will only last 1 minute. If you’re not sure how long a puzzle toy will keep you dog busy (or how much they’ll enjoy it) I suggest making one out of a muffin tin & tennis balls to gauge their interest and skill level. (if you’re crafty this DIY bottle game is another great option)
If they solve it right away by knocking the whole thing over (like my dog) you might want to opt for a more complicated puzzle that has multiple solutions. They come in a wide variety — from single layer puzzles that lay flat on the floor (generally easier to solve), to ones with multiple layers and treat hiding spots that take longer to solve.
In conclusion don’t be like me — don’t keep adding more and more physical activity to your dog’s routine and expect them to just tire out, settle down, and act like a complete angel for the rest of the day. Add in some canine enrichment games as well.
Physical activity is wonderful for your dog (and there’s plenty of ways to help tire them out), but it’s not the only kind of exercise that dogs thrive on; they need mental exercise as well. You can tire out your dog’s body, but don’t forget that your dog’s mind needs a workout as well.
What Are Your Favorite Canine Enrichment Activities?
What canine enrichment activities and games do you love? Does your dog have any favorites? Does your dog enjoy puzzles? Let me know in the comments.
Resources & Recommended Reading
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