What is enrichment?
Enrichment is giving your dogs things to do to keep their minds and bodies active, exercised, or engaged.
Dogs evolved to work. First, as their wild ancestors, they had to hunt or forage for their food. Later, domesticated dogs had to work with people as hunting, herding, or fishing assistants, as protectors of the farms or homes, or as racers or vermin catchers.
Today, dogs whose job is “companion” still have the drives that their ancestors had to forage and hunt for their food. This means that what dogs are programmed to spend several hours doing — finding and eating their meals — instead takes them just a few minutes in a day. This leaves most domestic dogs — whose food is plunked down in front of them in a bowl with no challenge — severely understimulated. After they gulp down their meal, what do they do with the rest of their day?
Busy dogs are good dogs; bored dogs are . . . less good dogs
We are not used to thinking of our pets as bored. We see them napping or greeting us happily, and we don’t know what else may be going on in their minds. But our dogs don’t have the language to say to us, as a child might, “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!”
Even if your dog spends half her day sleeping, that still leaves several hours each day when she needs to do something to occupy her mind . . . and mouth and paws. If you’re home and available, you might spend this time cuddling, playing, or otherwise engaging your pet, but when dogs are home alone or when their humans are busy, many find their own “games” to occupy themselves. The activities they come up with to busy themselves — barking at people and cars outside, foraging for food (in the trash or on the kitchen counter), or having a satisfying chew on your shoes or the couch — are often games we do not appreciate!
There are many types of enrichment — sensory, cognitive, social, and more — that can make your dog happier, more content, and less destructive. To learn more about how to offer diverse kinds of enrichment to your dog or cat, pick up the book Beyond Squeaky Toys: Innovative Ideas for Eliminating Problem Behaviors and Enriching the Lives of Dogs and Cats.
This post focuses on one type of enrichment — giving dogs the opportunity to work for their food. This type of enrichment is often quick, easy, and inexpensive for human caretakers and can give our dogs hours of enjoyable fun and mental exercise. It also means that while they are busy working for their food, they are not engaging in other activities we don’t like!
Also, mental exercise can be much more tiring for a dog than physical exercise. If you’ve ever started studying a new language or taken an intensive math class and just wanted to take a nap or zone out in front of the TV after, you have experienced this yourself! A dog who is working his brain is often pleasantly wiped out afterward and happy to take a nap. A tired puppy is a good puppy!
Isn’t it mean to make a dog work for his food?
Just the opposite! Dogs LOVE to work for their food. We can see this excitement at work when we give a dog a food-dispensing toy that they have to paw at, push with their nose, bounce around, or excavate with their tongue; they become very enthusiastic about playing with that toy and getting every last bit of food out.
In fact, most of the time, a dog who has learned the joy of a feeder toy will ignore a bowl of food in favor of a food-dispensing puzzle toy that she has to work to get the food out of! There is even a name for this phenomenon among scientists who study animal behavior: “counterfreeloading”!
Here is a review of the “Kibble Nibble,” a vanilla scented feeder toy, where the owner describes this phenomenon:
Can someone explain to me what magic properties regular dog food has that when you make it difficult to get to, it becomes the most highly desired treat ever??? I have a 1 1/2 year old Golden Retriever that is a freak of nature. She is the kind of dog that you can put an entire day’s worth of kibble out and she’ll just munch on it off and on throughout the day. BUT if you put that EXACT SAME KIBBLE into this toy, she is on a mission from God to get every single piece out this very second….I’ve been laid up after having hip resurfacing surgery so haven’t been able to play with my dog as much the past couple weeks. This ball has definitely helped easy some of her boredom.
Will this take a lot of extra time?
No, not for you. It will take more time for your dog, though. Time that he will NOT spend anxiously awaiting your return or barking out the window, jumping on guests, or shredding the toilet paper.
If you feed your dog a bowl of kibble twice a day, instead you can simply pour their meal into a feeder toy twice a day. If you feed wet food (such as canned dog food or raw ground meat), you can stuff some Kongs with his food, pop the Kongs in the freezer, and hand them out for their meals. A Kongsicle is a delightful challenge for a bored dog!
Always make sure to supervise your dog with any new feeder toy until you are sure they can use it safely. While feeder toys are generally designed to be very safe, some potential dangers are the following: Chewing or taking in the mouth a toy that should not be chewed, breaking a toy that could be ingested or cut the dog, shoving a toy into a closet and ending up locked in (Barnum did this!), etc. Most dogs can play with most feeder toys safely unsupervised once they know how to use it and the area they’re in is “dog safe,” but until you know for sure, it’s best to supervise the first few sessions with a new toy.
Here are some of my favorite toys to feed my dogs from.
- The IQ Treat Ball is sturdy, inexpensive, has adjustable levels of difficulty from easy to challenging, can be “worked” with a nose or a paw or both, and is great for dogs of many different sizes and breeds. (I recommend the large size — five inches — for all but tiny dogs.) What would otherwise be hoovered down in a minute can now make for a half hour of great fun, physical and mental exercise! (Here’s a video of Barnum playing with the IQ Treat Ball.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTG4Dn7mGU
- Another very popular feeder toy is the Buster Cube. This is a big toy (which comes in two sizes) that you can fit a lot of food in at once. It has the advantage of being too big to fit in a dog’s mouth (even a very big dog), making it hard to destroy and very safe for even aggressive chewers. It also has an easier and more challenging setting, though it’s not as easy for people to fiddle with the levels as the IQ Treat Ball. Because it’s so big, you can fit even a large dog’s entire meal into the toy pretty easily. (This is the loudest toy. See quieter toys in the “Troubleshooting” section below.)
- The Kong Wobbler is Barnum’s favorite feeder toy. This is a big, heavy toy that the dog can smack around with a paw or nose, and instead of rolling, it wobbles and skids and gives out unpredictable amounts of kibbles.
Toys to Stuff with Wet (Canned or Raw) Food
- Kongs are the classic enrichment toy. They are made of natural rubber, can be washed in the dishwasher, and last for many years. If you have a very aggressive chewer, get the black Kong. For most dogs, red Kongs are best. It’s also a good idea to go up a size or two because you can fit more in a big Kong, and you don’t have to worry about the dog ingesting it. So, if your dog is small, get a medium or large. If your dog is large, get the XXL, etc.
- There are other versions of Kongs, such as the large and sturdy Kong Stuff-a-Ball, and the smaller and less rugged (but tennis-ball sized) Kong Biscuit Ball.
- There are some other rubber toy manufacturers. The West Paw Tux is an all-natural rubber toy that can be stuffed and will be replaced for free if your dog ever chews through it!
- The Busy Buddy Twist’n Treat works with both wet and dry food and has adjustable levels of difficulty.
Do I need to buy toys? Are there free solutions?
Yes, there are! While the toys listed above are generally around $10 or less each, you can also make food-dispensing toys from things around the house. Here are some tricks that I learned from Beyond Squeaky Toys (and there are more ideas in the book). Definitely supervise your dog with these as some of them can present a choking hazard if they are shredded or chewed.
- Use an empty plastic water or soda bottle. Make sure it’s clean (especially if it had soda or juice in it that had xylitol, which is an additive that is poison for dogs). Pour kibble into the clean, dry bottle, and let your dog bat it around to get out the food! (If you want a more durable version of this, there is the Busy Buddy Tug-a-Jug [vanilla scented].)
- Lick clean the empty jar of nut butter. When you finish a jar of peanut butter (or other nut butter, or applesauce, or anything your dog loves to eat that is safe for him), you can give it to him to lick clean! (Not sure which foods are unsafe for dogs? Here’s a list of foods toxic to dogs from the ASPCA.)
- Tennis ball o’ kibble. Take a tennis ball, cut a few slits in it with a razor blade, and stuff kibble into it.
- Paper bag surprise. Do you have a lot of extra paper bags around the house? Put some food in a few of them. Or put the treat-dispensing toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes for your dog to find and extricate.
- Forage. This is the easiest one and can be done indoors or outdoors. Take your dog’s breakfast or dinner kibble and scatter it on the ground! Then they have to sniff it out with their nose.
This toy is too noisy!
Some toys are much noisier than others. Especially if you have hardwood or tile floors, the Buster Cube, Kong Wobbler, Kibble Nibble, and IQ Treat Ball are very loud. I don’t mind it except when I am on the phone, but Betsy hates the noise. If you like peace and quiet, and you are satisfied that your dog is safe with her toys, you can give your dog the toys right as you leave the house (to give them something to do while they’re alone).
Otherwise, you can try a toy that has a softer outer surface. The rubber Kongs are usually pretty quiet because they are rubber, not hard plastic. There are also kibble feeders that are quieter, though you still usually hear the kibble rattle around inside the toy.
Some quieter kibble feeder toys are . . .
- Busy Buddy Twist ‘n Treat, which can also be used with wet food [vanilla scented]
- JW Amaze-a-Ball [vanilla scented]
- JW Holee Treat Ball
- Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball (one piece toy that may be easier to use for humans with hand dexterity issues)
This toy is too easy! My dog gets all the treats out in a minute!
There are a few ways to make toys more challenging.
- You can put it inside a bag or box or hide it in a different room so the dog has to work to get to the toy.
- You can put food in a few toys and hide them around the house.
- You can use a toy with an adjustable difficulty level, like the IQ Treat Ball or the Kibble Nibble.
- You can use bigger kibble that doesn’t come out as easily from a large hole.
- You can make the hole smaller by putting a piece of duct tape over part of the hole to make the hole smaller (which is what I did with the JW Hol-ee Treat Ball)
- You can soak the kibble in water or mix it with broth or yogurt, put it in a Kong, and freeze it.
This toy is too difficult! My dog can’t get enough treats out quickly and gives up!
In this case, you can do the opposite of some of the tricks above — feed a smaller kibble, make the hole in the toy bigger, or remove some of the barriers (with the IQ Treat Ball, you can take out the white piece that separates the ball in half). For an inexperienced Kong user, put kibble dry into the Kong, and just put it on the floor. If they move it at all, treats will fall out!
If you have a shy, young, hesitant, or low-confidence pup, you can also help them along by nudging the toy a bit with your foot so some treats fall out, encourage them when they touch the toy in any way, and otherwise cheerlead until they get the hang of it.
The toy gets stuck under the couch!
Yes, a lot of these toys are ball shaped and can easily roll and get stuck under furniture. You can solve this problem in different ways:
- Allow your dog to learn some useful skills by supervising and letting the ball get stuck for a little while and then asking them to “Show me!” And going to where they indicate, removing it and giving it back. Some dogs will learn to get faster with their nose or paw to keep the ball from going under furniture. It’s also a very helpful skill for the dog to show you where the hidden toy is stuck.
- Use a toy that is too big to fit under the couch or does not roll easily. The Buster Cube is too big to fit under most couches and some beds. The Kong Wobbler, Tug-a-Jug, Twist ‘n Treat, and other oddly shaped toys will be less likely to roll fast and far.
This toy is too messy!
Some people have had experiences of messy Kongs with peanut butter getting smeared on furniture or floor or dog. If you’re using a kibble feeder toy, as long as your dog hoovers up all the kibbles, there is no mess.
If you’re using canned food or raw meat, freezing it in the Kong usually means there’s not much mess because the dog licks it out as it thaws. I also have had a rule with all my dogs that they only eat a Kong or chew toy in their crate or on their mat. They are not allowed to bounce it all over the house and have raw meat go flying everywhere! If you want the same rule, either give the toy to your dog inside their locked crate or supervise and tell them to take the toy back on the mat or in the crate if they move off (or put it back yourself, if they don’t know what you mean yet).
I feed only raw, whole pieces of food
If you feed raw, most of these toys won’t work, but you can apply a lot of the same concepts to enrich your dog’s eating experience. You can use large bully sticks or dehydrated cow tracheas as a long-lasting chew the dog has to work to eat.
To add challenge, you can hide them in a box or bag, put more than one around the house, or thread a bully stick through one or two or three Kongs so the dog has to remove the toys to get to the chew, etc.
What about enrichment for my cat?
There are cat feeder toys, too:
- Kong Wobbler for cats
- PetSafe SlimCat Food Dispenser toy
- PetSafe Egg-Cersier Meal Dispensing Cat Toy
- and other commercial products.
You can also enrich your cat with many other ideas found in Beyond Squeaky Toys or listed above, such as hiding food in paper bags or boxes.
Giving your dog puzzles to work for his food will make him happier and calmer and therefore less destructive. It is also a lot of fun! I really enjoy witnessing my dog’s excitement and satisfaction when he is working for his food. I bet you will, too!