Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Ditching the food bowl can make your dog's life more interesting and fun. Increasing physical and mental enrichment can also prevent destructive behaviors rooted in boredom.
Note: always supervise your dog with any new toy. If your dog is prone to ingesting non-food items, talk to your vet about safe options for enrichment.
What is enrichment?
'Enrichment' is a general term used to describe anything that adds interest, curiosity, or creativity to your dog's day. It works your dog's brain and gives him an opportunity to practice creative thinking and problem solving, building confidence and decreasing behaviors rooted in boredom, like chewing shoes or getting into the garbage.
Enrichment also satisfies different aspects of your dog's prey drive. The prey drive is an innate behavior (meaning that your dog is born with it; we can train it into him or out of him) made up of a series of steps: search/forage, stalk, chase, bite-hold, bite-kill, dissect, and consume. Each dog will find more satisfaction in some areas than in others; for example, while one dog may really enjoy chasing a toy but not much care about it once he catches it, another dog may find the chase a chore, but find a lot of satisfaction in pulling the stuffing out of the toy once he has it (dissect). Visit this article for more information on prey drive and how we can satisfy each dog's individual needs.
Providing a variety of enrichment to your dog is important to maintaining physical and mental wellbeing. Rotating between activities helps keep things interesting; consider providing a different activity for each day of the week, or switching to a new activity every 2-3 days. This will help maintain the novelty of each activity; that toy that's not so exciting today may be the best toy ever after it's been out of sight for a month. Don't worry - you don't have to spend a ton of time or money to provide a wide range of activities. There are tons of easy, real-life activities that can be enriching to your dog.
While this post will specifically address food-related enrichment, there are all kinds of things that are enriching to dogs! Smells, textures, activities, and novelty can all be great options.
If your dog is new to enrichment, he may need some help learning how to think creatively. Check out this video on teaching your dog how to enjoy enrichment.
There are so many fun things that you can make at home without too much skill or special tools.
• Enrichment box. A quick and easy project, the enrichment box has endless possibilities! Fill a cardboard box with newspaper, fabric, grass/leaves, tissues, other boxes, or anything else that doesn't present a choking hazard. Mix in your dog's kibble and/or treats. At first, you may have to help your dog pull things out of the box, but as he gets more confident, you can increase difficulty by taping the box or wrapping it in paper. This satisfies your dog's need to tear, rip, pluck, and forage for food.
• Bottle spinner (pictured). Gather a couple of clean plastic bottles; pop off the lid and plastic ring and remove the label before cutting two holes on opposite sides of the bottle. Slide the bottles onto a dowel rod and prop up on a stand (or a pile of books, two chairs, etc.) and fill with kibble and/or treats. You might also cut different sized holes at the top or on the sides of the bottle and place different sized treats in the bottle. This is a great toy for encouraging your dog to think creatively as he pushes the bottles with his nose and paws.
• Snuffle mat. Though available commercially (we love the Paw5 snuffle mat), you can also make your own! All you need is a plastic grid (dish mats like this work well) and fleece or old t-shirts cut into strips. Tie the strips one-by-one to the grid; once they are all secured, fluff with your fingers. Place kibble and/or treats between the fabric strips for your dog to sniff out.
• PVC toy. You can create a durable toy with a few of inches of PVC pipe with end caps. Cut the PVC pipe to about 6" long and drill a hold or two into the side. Cap each end (you may also drill holes in the caps) and fill with toys/treats. Your dog will have to move around and get creative to knock the food out of the holes.
• Paper braids. Use newspaper or tissue paper to create braids, tucking pieces of food in as you go. You might also tie in some knots, create small braids that you braid together into one large braid, or place these braids in a cardboard box. Your dog will get to rip and shred the paper to get to the food.
There is a HUGE selection of enrichment toys out there. Below are a few of our favorites.
• Classic Kongs. The Classic Kong is the first thing that most people think of when they think about enrichment toys. Made of rubber, it can be stuffed with just about anything you can imagine - kibble, yogurt, peanut butter, cream cheese, veggies, berries, canned food, anything that your dog enjoys! Switching up the contents and freezing the stuffed kong can make it that much more exciting for your dog. There are different strengths, too, from softer Puppy Kongs to Extreme Kongs for strong chewers. There are countless toys on the market these days with a similar concept, and we've yet to find one that we don't like. Find it on Amazon.
• Kong Wobbler. This toy is great for kibble. Screw it open to fill it, then replace the base. Your dog will need to bat it around (or, if they're clever, knock it all the way on its side to roll it around) to get the food out of the smaller hole. Find it on Amazon.
• Bob-a-Lot. Similar to the wobbler, the Bob-a-Lot is also great for kibble. It has two adjustable openings to increase difficulty as your dog gets good at knocking the food out. Most dogs are also able to pick it up by its smaller end to toss it around, which can be a whole lot of fun (albeit noisy!). Find it on Amazon.
• Puzzle toys. There are so. many. puzzle. toys. out there! They vary widely in difficulty, from things that take a novice dog just a couple of minutes to things that can keep an expert puzzle dog busy for awhile. They also come in a variety of materials, including plastic, rubber, and wood. Dogs do tend to get quicker and quicker the more they use a particular toy, so you may want to rotate them quickly or trade toys with a friend every so often (which is also great scent enrichment!). Here's an example of a puzzle toy on Amazon.
• Slow feeder. This is the closest thing to a bowl that you'll find on this list! Slow feeders are similar to puzzle toys and do exactly what you'd think - they slow down your dog's pace as he eats. This is a great option for dogs who basically inhale their food, but also offers an enrichment opportunity for any dog. Here's an example of a slow feeder on Amazon.
• Lickimat. The lickimat is a soft rubber mat with different textured grooves. Fill it with any soft food, including canned food, peanut butter, pumpkin, or whipped cream. You can also find rubber potholders with similar textures, which is a good low-cost alternative. Find it on Amazon.
• Soft stuffies. For dogs who love to pull stuffing out of their toys, a soft toy filled with their kibble can be tons of fun. While you can use any stuffed toy (as long as you are sure that your dog won't ingest any stray fluff), you can also purchase soft toys specifically made for food. Here's an example of a soft treat toy on Amazon.
If you're looking to incorporate a more physical component, there are fun ways to keep your dog moving while he enjoys his meal.
• Food Hunt. While your dog is out of the room or sitting and waiting, hide pieces of food under cones (find the pictured cones on Amazon), boxes, towels, or anything else that's convenient; put a couple on the arm of a chair, coffee table, or another spot near your dog's head; and tuck food into any little corner of the room. Once everything is hidden, invite him to find the food. For a dog who is new to the game, you may need to help direct him. Once he gets the hang of it, you'll be able to increase difficulty by putting the food in harder-to-find spots or having him wait in another room while you hide the food.
• Find it. We love to use this game in training. Not only is it fun, it's a great way to distract your dog when needed in a force-free way. Start by saying "find it!" and dropping a piece of food right under your dog's nose. As he gets the hang of it, you can start tossing the food a little further away, eventually working up to tossing the food across the room. This is a great way to get your dog running around as he eats.
Let your dog be creative.
There's no "right" way for your dog to enjoy enrichment. Your dog may discover that he can pick up the snuffle mat and shake all the treats out, or that he can flip over his puzzle feeder to open it up. Allowing your dog to find his own solution helps build his confidence and encourages him to problem solve in other situations in the future. Check out the article Let Them Shred for more on allowing our dogs to be creative.