* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *
Dogs evolved in an open world. They could act naturally without unfair repercussions — they had space to run, things to sniff, and opportunities to move their bodies freely.
In today’s human society, though, these things are at a premium for our canine companions. While it’s important our pets can fit into our modern lives, it’s also important we meet their needs! Enter canine enrichment: A movement to provide them with the kinds of experiences they evolved for. Proper mental and physical stimulation can be an important way to prevent unwanted behaviors and improve our pets’ overall quality of life.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to enrichment activities for our dogs. Let’s dive in!
At its simplest, enrichment provides animals with opportunities to satisfy their innate urges. These activities “enrich” their lives by promoting mental and physical wellbeing! If you ever visit a zoo or rehabilitated wildlife sanctuary, you might see signs and hear staff talk about the various forms of enrichment they provide their residents, typically in an effort to emulate their natural habitats so they can engage in instinctual behaviors.
While a domestic dog’s natural habitat is living around people, it’s also true that we’ve come a long way from the early days of the canine-human partnership. Common enrichment activities usually give our dogs the chance to safely dig, sniff, and emulate their predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) without causing harm to or disrupting the communities we live in.
Have you ever heard that a “tired dog is a good dog?” While exercise absolutely is important to keep our pets healthy, too much physical activity without appropriate mental stimulation can cause problems. We might create companions whose bodies never feel tired — and who have no idea how to slow down their brains! (Canines tend to develop cardio and muscle strength faster than humans do, so it’s easy to create a dog who can outlast us on the trails.)
Enrichment activities can be the perfect solution here. Paired with appropriate physical exercise, things like food puzzles, snuffle mats, and thoughtful training sessions can keep your dog entertained without running either of you to the ground.
Our modern world can also be overwhelming for our dogs. Their senses of hearing and smell are much more keen than ours — stimuli that we barely notice (like city sirens or apartment building air fresheners) might be absolutely deafening to our pets.
Natural behaviors like sniffing and chewing can help our dogs relieve anxiety and feel more comfortable with their surroundings. In fact, there’s evidence that sniffing lowers a dog’s heart rate even as they walk. What’s more? The simple behavior of eating (food or treats) can also calm our dogs down.
And they don’t just reduce stress from potentially scary or overwhelming experiences. Enrichment activities can also build our dogs’ confidence in the first place! By learning to interact with a range of objects and move their bodies in various ways, our dogs learn that challenges aren’t scary — they often lead to good things.
Which brings us to the importance of thoughtful socialization!
When we think of socialization, it’s easy to picture directly engaging with other people in social contexts: talking with friends and family, playing games on a sports team, or heading to a work happy hour. In reality, though, proper puppy socialization is more about exposure than interaction!
So what does that all have to do with enrichment? Enrichment activities can be the perfect way to gradually expose your dog to new experiences in environments they’re already comfortable with! Instead of feeling pressured to chase all the unique socialization spots in your local community, you can provide puzzle toys or obstacle courses inside your own home.
Every dog deserves enrichment — but the right enrichment activities aren’t one size fits all.
And so on. When in doubt, get in touch with your breeder or professional trainer. They’ll help you understand what your dog was bred to do and how you can fulfill their breed-specific needs!
The opportunities to provide your dog with enrichment are endless. Just because they might not like a popular toy, be as quick with certain games, or have different preferences than your neighbor’s pet doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. It simply means that every animal is an individual!
Experiment with a few different enrichment activities to figure out what your own dog likes best.
We’ve broken down the main categories of canine enrichment, but it’s important to remember that many fun activities will overlap. The best outlets for our dogs combine several of the below elements to provide as much fulfillment as possible!
Food enrichment has become incredibly common. In fact, most enrichment toys are specifically designed to feed our dogs’ meals in new and engaging ways!
Why the surge in popularity? For one thing, food puzzles are a particularly great way for pet owners to first test the enrichment waters. Every dog has to eat — and most of us have plenty of things already lying around the house that we can use to spruce up their meals. It’s often low effort but high impact.
Some examples of food enrichment for your dog:
Giving our dog’s problem-solving challenges is a great way to productively wear them out and build relevant skills for navigating the world around us! These activities are commonly called mental stimulation. At their best, they work both our pets’ bodies and their brains.
Some examples of cognitive enrichment for your dog:
We addressed the potential dangers of too much physical activity (without appropriate mental outlets) above. But there’s no denying that exercise is important for our dogs to live their best lives! The key is to vary the type, length, and intensity of their activities to avoid creating a bored “super athlete.”
Some examples of physical enrichment for your dog:
Dogs are social mammals. While not every dog loves strange people or other animals — and there’s absolutely no reason they need to! — it is important to provide our pets with plenty of opportunities to interact with family members and friends.
Some examples of social enrichment for your dog:
Our dogs have the same main senses we do (though their abilities differ — human eyes are better in the daylight while canine noses and ears put our own to shame). To change up your dog’s enrichment, spend some time thinking about what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel! (After all, variety is the spice of life.)
Some examples of sensory enrichment for your dog:
Anyone who has known the love of a dog will tell you that they make our lives better. They help us learn new skills, meet more people, embrace novel challenges, and ultimately become stronger, smarter, more caring people.
It’s the least we can do to enrich their daily lives, too!
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Beth Joy, CPDT-KA, PMCT
Owner and Lead Trainer Unleashed Joy Dog Training - Mt. Airy, MD.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Sniffspot is a community marketplace that enables anyone to rent land by-the-hour as a safe and private dog park.
Find Sniffspot on your favorite social media