Anyone who’s ever owned and loved a dog knows how smart, and eager to please (or find their place in the pack), and needs to burn some energy. Another fun fact about dogs: they’re derived initially from wolves and genetically programmed to work for their food.
While we always advocate for humans and dogs to get out and exercise together - walks, trips to the dog park, hikes, play sessions, fetching a ball or frisbee, and so on - we also understand that isn’t always possible. That’s where DIY enrichment (make your dog work for their food) comes into play.
That said, dogs deserve a chance to be busy, active, and challenged daily. And, if you have a dog breed known for its high energy, busy mind, or working nature, that’s an understatement. DIY enrichment, a process that activates the planner, hunter, and learner in your dog, benefits dogs in several ways:
Kongs are one of the best-known and most straightforward examples of DIY enrichment. If you aren’t familiar with Kongs, a general description is that they are rubber toys with a hole in the middle filled with treats or other enticing food stuffs (peanut butter, carrot sticks, frozen bone broth, etc.). The dog has to chew, lick, toss, play with, and creatively manipulate the toy to get the food.
However, there are all kinds of ways to enrich a dog’s diet with healthy treats they have to work for, and we want to share some of those with you today.
If you don’t already, begin buying eggs in undyed paper cartons. When you finish the eggs, put a few pieces of your dog’s favorite kibble or healthy snacks (lightly soaked dry, rather than wet, for this one) in three of the wells. Then, shut the box and let your dog go to town.
Of course, this one grows old after they get used to it. Once they do, up the challenge ante by:
If you don’t own a muffin tin, find one for cheap at a local thrift store. Smaller dogs might prefer a 1/2 dozen tin, while larger dogs have more fun with the full dozen; smaller dogs prefer mini-muffin tins. Avoid non-stick options since Teflon is toxic.
Fill some of the muffin wells with a few small pieces of raw kibble in each one and cover/seal it with the tennis ball. Once they get used to that, you can bait some cups, leaving the others empty, forcing your dog to use smell to determine which ball(s) to remove to get to the goodies below.
You can use so many different objects for this. Examples include the remaining cardboard tubes from toilet paper or paper towels, kleenex boxes, or any other small, non-toxic cardboard box.
FYI: This one comes in very handy if you’re traveling with a dog and forget a store-purchased version of a cognitive enrichment toy since these items are found everywhere from hotel rooms to train restrooms or any restaurant server that can find an old paper towel roll in their stash.
To turn these tubes into DIY enrichment toys by closing off the ends (even folding them over on themselves is enough to do the trick). Then cut holes slightly larger than the kibble pieces or treats - the larger the tube or box, the more holes you can experiment with. Once you put the box on the ground, dogs have fun moving and tossing it around, waiting for treats to come out.
Have a dog that always wolfs food down or that needs to be occupied for quite some time? Use an empty kiddie pool and fill it with tennis balls. Then sprinkle a handful of kibble on top of the balls. As your dog moves through the balls to eat kibble, the kibble gets redistributed over and over, keeping them busy for a while.
We mentioned a busy box for dogs when we talked about the egg carton DIY enrichment toy. A busy box for dogs is just like a busy box for kids - but it uses the dog’s favorite toys and treats. The goal is to make it as interactive as possible.
To start, simply get a cardboard box and fill it with your dog’s favorite toys, a few balls, and some of the treat-oriented enrichment things like the egg carton or a kong. You can also use a dish towel (small dogs) or a beach towel (large dog) to roll, fold, twist, and knot treats inside (this is actually a great DIY enrichment toy all by itself). Put these in the box, close the lids, and let your dog begin to forage. If it’s a hit, you can make different-sized busy boxes and nest them inside one another for extra-engaging fun.
The team at Alternative Canine Training has all kinds of tricks up our sleeves, and we’re happy to share them. But remember, enrichment toys are no substitute for daily exercise and human-dog bonding. Those should always be the priority.
Ready to schedule a group or one-on-one training class to improve your relationship with your dog? Contact us to schedule a consultation.