Mental stimulation: 5 simple and cheap enrichment games to make your dog calm and confident
As many of us are staying at home right now, with only one walk a day to keep ourselves and our dogs entertained, you might find yourself getting a little frustrated at times. Keeping a hyperactive, disobedient, or anxious dog entertained all day is a tough ask. But what if there was a way to keep your dog calm and relaxed through a whole conference call, homeschool session, or film on Netflix, without having to tell them off?
That's where enrichment comes in; and before you ask, no, it's not going to take up all your time, attention, or money. In fact, it's likely to free up some of those things, whilst helping your dog learn to be calmer, happier, more confident, and less needy.
I'm going to walk you through what enrichment is, why you and your dog need it, and then share some of my favourite go-to enrichment games that you can play right now - without having to head to the shops.
What is Enrichment?
Canine 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 you've heard of one of the biggest brands in dog enrichment: Kong.
Kong are best known for their hollow rubber dog toys that you fill with biscuits and pastes. Your dog then has to work to get the food out of the toy by chewing, licking, and tossing it around. This is a form of enrichment known as a food puzzle or activity toy, and most people have at least one of them lying around somewhere!
Enrichment means improving your dog's welfare by giving them more outlets for their natural behaviours. Even more simply, 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 same place, at the same times, every day.
Whilst this routine might be simple and convenient to us, there are a huge range of other ways that we can feed our dogs and satisfy their minds as well as their stomachs.
Without a lot to do some dogs become destructive and bored, finding their own entertainment (what I would call a 'self-employed' dog!). But 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. Think of it like meditation for dogs!
Enrichment can also help your dog to eat the same amount of food much more slowly, which is great for dogs who inhale their food in three gulps. As an added bonus, since your dog is spending more time eating their food they're naturally going to spend less time getting bored and creating mischief. This means your dog can be happy and settled whilst you get on with the things you need to do, like working from home and eating dinner, in peace.
But 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.
To get you started, I've listed some ideas below that are quick and easy for humans, and simple for dogs who are new to the world of enrichment.
Ready, set, play!
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 for a lengthier game
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
The options are endless!
2. Destruction boxes
This is hands-down my dog's favourite way to eat his meals. 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
Now that he's had a lot of practice, my dog's go-to destruction box is an empty milk carton with the lid screwed back on. Much tougher, but also (apparently) much more satisfying! However, 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.
Subscribe to the mailing list and get a free Enrichment PDF with 45 different brain games and ideas you can try with your dog right now.
3. Digging pit
Many dogs love to dig, but many humans don't love finding holes in their beautifully manicured garden. The solution is a digging pit, and it doesn't have to be messy or expensive.
A simple outdoor option is to fill a children's paddling pool with sand and hide your dogs toys, bones, chews, and other fun things inside it. They'll very quickly realise that digging in their new pit is way more fruitful than digging up your flowers, and they'll come back to it again and again.
If you prefer a cleaner or more temporary solution, try grabbing a large cardboard box and filling it with toys, empty bottles, crumpled paper balls, and a handful of smelly treats. The effect will be very similar, with your dog rooting through the box and moving things out of the way to find their food.
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.
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.
I like to start this 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.
If you or someone you know is fond of DIY, you can even make a bottle swinging game to really up the challenge level! For this, cut a hole in the neck of several bottles and put a wooden rod through the holes. Then just make a little frame to hold the rod so the bottles can spin freely, add some treats to each bottle, and release your dog to have a go.
Enrichment is one of the best things you can do to help your dog become calmer, happier, and less anxious. In fact, it's the first step in any training plan I give my clients, because it so often has a massive positive effect on a dog's behaviour without adding any additional training or exercise.
You absolutely don't need to hike a marathon up a mountain each day to help your dog settle at home. Instead, use your dog's food in smart and creative ways to build their problem-solving skills and optimism, whilst being more mindful of when you can offer your dog choices to build their confidence.
Remember, subscribe to the mailing list and get a free Enrichment PDF with 45 different brain games and ideas you can try with your dog right now.
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If you're concerned about your dog's behaviour, or are looking for an accredited dog trainer, please reach out to see how I can support you. I offer free phone consultations to discuss your needs, alongside in-home dog training, behaviour consultations, and dog training walks across Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.