Enrichment for Dogs: What is it and why do they need it?

Enrichment for Dogs: What is it and why do they need it?

Enrichment is a bit of a buzz word at the moment. Is it just another way for the big brands to make more money? What even is it and why do we need it? Here we are going to look at what enrichment is, why you and your dog need it, and then share some great games that you can play right now - without having to head to the shops.

What is Enrichment?

Dog enrichment has boomed in popularity over recent years but, despite it being something that most dog-owners practice every day, many people haven't actually heard the word. However, I'm sure when you have gone to the pet shop you have noticed the ever growing displays by big brands of enrichment toys. Special bones, toys you fill with treats or special pastes that your dog has to work out how to get the food out. Activity toys like this can be a great way to keep your dog busy and focused when you're doing other things.

Enrichment means improving your dog's welfare by giving them more outlets for their natural behaviours. Basically, letting your dog be a dog! It's something that you already do without ever realising it. Letting them sniff on a walk, giving them a chew, or teaching them a new trick, these are all things that enrich your dogs life and provide mental stimulation.

Why you should practice enrichment with your dog?

Dogs are natural scavengers, evolving alongside humans around 30,000 years ago by making the most of our scraps and leftovers. They would spend most of their day searching for food, and this is a sharp contrast to the life of the average pet dog today. Many dogs spend their days at home on their own, and are fed the same food, in the same bowl, in the sameplace, at the same times, every day.

Without a lot to do some dogs get bored, often finding their own, often destructive, entertainment. This is where enrichment comes in. Giving your dog puzzles to solve and new things to explore can not only help you avoid coming home to a mess, but can make a huge difference to your dog's mental health and welfare too.

Behaviours like licking and sniffing are known to have a calming effect, helping dogs to focus on something positive and de-stress. Sniffing in particular helps to lower your dog's heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, all of which helps to reduce anxiety and hyperactivity.

However, enrichment isn't just about food - it's also about interacting with other dogs and people, having variety in their toys and physical exercise, and experiencing new things. Even simply giving your dog a choice between going left or right on their walk is enrichment, and can give them much more control over their life than they may have had previously. Here are some activities to get you started ...

1. Scatter feeding

Probably the simplest form of food enrichment, scatter feeding is exactly what it sounds like. Scatter your dog's food over an area rather than feeding them from a bowl. This not only makes their meal last longer, but helps them engage their sense of smell to find every last piece of food.

Try experimenting with different textures and surfaces for your scatter feeding:

  • Use a snuffle mat for low-mess enrichment

  • Toss a handful of food into the garden

  • Hide treats in a blanket, twist it up, and let your dog unfurl it to find them all

  • Sprinkle biscuits across a yoga mat and roll it up

2. Destruction boxes

This is so much fun and cheap as chips! Start by taking an empty cereal box and putting your dog's food inside, leaving it open at one end to make sure it's not too difficult for them. Then let them chew, shred, and/or toss it around to get all the food out.

If your dog is new to this game, be sure to keep an eye on them to make sure they don't eat anything that's unsafe for them. If you find that they rather enjoy the taste of cardboard or plastic, you can try using a holee ball (a hollow ball with a honeycomb pattern) and stuffing it with treats and fleece strips. They can pull the strips out of the ball to find the treats inside, scratching that same shredding itch as a destruction box would.

Start with thin cardboard and leave the ends open, and over time you can progress to tougher objects as your dog builds confidence. Here are some more ideas:

  • Toilet roll tubes

  • Delivery boxes

  • Butter tubs

  • Milk cartons

Remember that you're trying to make this fun, not frustrating, so resist the urge to keep making puzzles harder for your dog if they get really good at them.

3. It’s a Knockout - 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. You don’t have to be an agility expert and 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. Simple objects like blankets, some dog toys, broom, cushions can all be used. For example, if you 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? Get them to walk through objects you place on the ground. 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.

4. Sniffari

How often have you found yourself on a walk, rushing to get back home and tugging on your dog's lead, whilst they're completely engrossed in sniffing? To you there's nothing interesting there at all, but your dog is 'seeing' a huge amount of information about anyone who's been there recently. Everything from their age and gender, to their emotions and what they've eaten recently. To help you visualise just how good their sense of smell is, a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-size swimming pools worth of water. Wow!

A sniffari is a walk where you allow your dog to explore, sniff, and investigate to their heart's content. Let them lead a walk, choosing the route you take. Most importantly, your aim is to allow them to sniff as much as they like. This is particularly beneficial for puppies, rescue dogs, elderly dogs, and dogs with more anxious personalities.

It doesn’t matter if you only make it 15 feet from your house in 30 minutes, as sniffing is incredibly beneficial for your dog's mental health. It lowers their heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, helping them to de-stress and calm down.

5. Spin the bottle

This is another great game for building confidence, but it also helps with patience and problem-solving skills! Simply grab an empty drinks bottle, making sure to rinse and dry it thoroughly before you start. Pour your dog's food or treats into the top, and carefully cut some holes down the side of the bottle for them to fall back out of. Start off with lots of large holes so the treats fall out very easily, and as your dog becomes used to the game you can make the holes smaller and space them farther apart.

As your dog moves the bottle around the treats will rattle inside it, so make sure to keep an eye on them if they have sound sensitivities as it might be a bit much for them initially.

So there you go, 5 simple activities with little to no cost ... enjoy.

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