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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!
What exactly is canine enrichment?
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.
Why is it important to provide enrichment for your dog?
Enrichment prevents boredom
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.
Enrichment can relieve stress
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.
Enrichment can build confidence
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!
Enrichment can be a helpful part of puppy 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!
- Socialization isn’t only building social skills with people and other dogs (although that’s definitely part of it). It’s the process of getting our puppies used to things they might encounter throughout their lives so they can feel calm, confident, and capable.
- Because we live in a modern world designed for us people and not for our pets, the list of common things that might be scary to small puppies at first is long. Consider vacuum cleaners, tall people wearing hats, loud sirens…
- A good way to think about socialization is helping puppies feel comfortable with a range of sights, sounds, smells, and surfaces.
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 has unique enrichment needs
Every dog deserves enrichment — but the right enrichment activities aren’t one size fits all.
Different breeds might have certain instincts
- High drive, high energy working breeds will likely need more frequent and varied enrichment than pets bred solely for human companionship.
- Hounds generally love to use their noses.
- Terriers are known for having intense prey and chase instincts.
- Herding breeds enjoy stalking and controlling behavior.
- Northern breeds often have a strong desire to run.
- Retrievers love to chase and carry objects.
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!
Your dog’s age influences what enrichment you should give them
- Puppies should avoid intense physical exercise until cleared by your veterinary team. It’s important to make sure their bones, muscles, and joints get the chance to develop properly.
- Young dogs, especially adolescents, might have a hard time focusing on the same activity for an extended period of time.
- Elderly dogs might struggle with tasks that involve precise or repetitive movements. Their brains might also struggle to process information at the speed they used to.
- Older dogs sometimes lose their senses of hearing and sight. Your pet’s abilities will dictate what types of sensory enrichment are the best fit for them.
Ultimately: Pay attention to what activities your own dog likes most
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.
Types of canine enrichment
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:
- Stuffed kongs (freezing them increases the difficulty)
- Other frozen treats
- Scatter feeding their kibble
- Puzzle feeders, food-dispensing balls, or lick mats specifically designed to test our dogs’ skills (cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, blankets, towels, and plastic bottles can be used to create simple homemade puzzles)
- Snuffle mats (tossing kibble or treats in the grass has a similar effect)
- Food searches where you hide meals or favorite treats around the house to create a nose work game (bonus if they’re smelly at first to make them easier to find)
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:
- Formal training classes like obedience, rally, or agility
- At-home training sessions
- Learning new tricks and behaviors
- Impulse control exercises, like leaving treats or waiting to chase a toy
- Nose work
- Puzzle toys
- Anything else that requires mental focus
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:
- Flirt poles or spring poles
- Interactive games like fetch or tug-of-war
- Physical play like wrestling with you or other dogs
- Dog sports like skijoring, flyball, and more
- Homemade obstacle or agility courses
- Canine conditioning exercises
- A designated dig area
- Paper shredding
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:
- Hide and seek with you
- Playdates with other dogs if they enjoy their company (Sniffspots can be a great way to safely set up meetings with owners you trust)
- Social play with family members
- Intentional social time (like giving a canine massage)
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:
- Sitting and watching the world go by in a public space (parks are great for this)
- Varying the type, size, and taste of the treats they eat
- Using lots of different materials to make your own puzzle toys
- Rolling in the grass
- Playing bird sounds or gentle wind chimes
- Setting up a sensory scent garden in your yard with dog-friendly herbs
Dogs make our lives better — let’s enrich theirs
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!
Trainer Review of this Article
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)