My interest in dog enrichment activities goes back many years. I used to think stuffed food toys like Kongs were all there was to enrichment. After earning my certification as a Canine Enrichment Technician, I’ve discovered a whole new world of ways to enrich my dog’s life!
One of the most important things to know about dog enrichment activities is that they don’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. Often, the best enrichment for your dog is something you can do very simply in about 15 minutes.
As a dog mom to two senior labradors, I’m always interested in finding enrichment activities that are safe for pups with mobility issues. So, the dog enrichment activities in this blog post are suitable for dogs of all ages and abilities.
More benefits to many of these enrichment activities are that they can help make anxious dogs calmer, teach patience and build an attention span for dogs with lots of energy and help your dog stay mentally sharp which studies show can keep your dog healthy longer.
The Benefits of Dog Enrichment Activities
Enrichment is as important for our dogs as a healthy diet and regular vet visits. The word “enrichment” means improving the quality of something by adding something else. That means we can improve the quality of our dogs’ lives by adding easy activities.
Your dog can gain the benefits of enrichment activities with just one extra element added to their daily routine or 15 minutes of playing together instead of sitting on the couch.
I know all our lives are busy and at the end of the day sometimes all we want to do is lay around on the couch. But I promise that if you set aside 15 minutes to do something enriching for your dog, it will enrich your life as well!
An overlooked benefit of dog enrichment is the positive impact it can have on people, too. When I see my dogs engaged in activities or playing and having fun, it brings me so much joy!
That puts me in a better mood, leads to better interactions with other people during the day, and encourages me to do another enrichment activity for my dogs the next day. It’s a great loop to get into!
More benefits your dog will gain from enrichment activities:
- It’s fun!
- Improves and enhances their mental state
- Challenges their brains to figure things out
- Encourage problem-solving
- Helps develop confidence
- Expands their world
- Discourages destructive behavior
- Taps into their natural instincts
- Provides physical exercise
There’s a reason and an activity for every pet! Below I provide dog enrichment activites for puppies, senior dogs, and everyone in between.
Dog Enrichment is Not a Babysitter: Setting the Right Expectations
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear from dog owners is that they want an enrichment activity to keep their dogs busy on their own for a long time.
When something doesn’t last more than 5 or 10 minutes, some pet owners think that means that the activity is a dud.
But I want to tell you that canine enrichment is not a dog babysitter! It’s not like plopping your kid in front of an iPad so you can get something done on your own.
OK… some activities can be like that! For example, a long-lasting chew or frozen stuffed Toppl. But that’s only one small part of enrichment.
If you use enrichment as a way to get away from your dog, you’re missing out on a huge bonding opportunity!
You also miss out on encouraging your dog while they figure something out and build their confidence. Not to mention, a lot of dog enrichment needs to be supervised to make sure your dog is safe.
I’ll get down off my soap box for now, but please consider this my top tip and do dog enrichment activities together with your dog when you can! Don’t be discouraged by things that only last for 5 or 10 minutes. That might be the perfect length of time for that activity.
In fact, even with a long-lasting chew, I recommend taking it away from your dog after 20 minutes. Save the rest for another deep jaw chew session the next day.
Brain Games: Keep Your Dog Mentally Sharp by Mixing Up the Puzzles
Dogs get so much great mental stimulation from puzzle toys! With these brain games, always start simple and work up to making it more difficult for your furry friend. I’ll give you a few examples.
First up, we love Nina Ottosson puzzles! This acclaimed Swedish pet expert creates mentally challenging food puzzles that come with hidden compartments, spinning and sliding doors, and other features to give your dog something to figure out.
The puzzles come in different levels, so you can choose what’s right for your dog. No matter what level of puzzle you buy, there are ways to make them all more challenging or easier depending on your dog’s problem-solving skills.
I love that Nina provides a lot of tricks and hacks on her Instagram account. I’ve seen her tie a ribbon to puzzle compartment lids to make them easier to remove.
I’ve also seen her make puzzles more difficult by freezing the food you hide in them or putting the puzzle on a different surface. I do that with my dogs all the time.
We have the Hide’N’Slide puzzle. I like to put it on top of a box instead of on the floor to make it a little different for my dog to solve. On the floor, my dogs use their paws to open the compartments, but on a box, they need to use their nose.
Want a DIY version? All you need is a muffin tin and some tennis balls or dog toys. You can make your own food-driven brain puzzle by hiding a few tasty treats in the muffin tin wells and then covering them with tennis balls.
Make it easier with lightweight toys instead of balls and use very smelly treats. Make it harder by using less smelly treats or not placing a treat in each muffin well.
Store-bought and DIY brain game puzzles like these are great activities to do alongside your dog, offering a word of encouragement or other positive reinforcement when they find the treats. You can build your bond and your dog’s confidence.
Physical Enrichment: Get Your Dog Moving in New Ways
Physical enrichment can be super simple! Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about the best enrichment being cheap and easy?
A great way to incorporate physical enrichment for your dog is on their walks. Instead of going on a fast-paced daily walk where your main goal is to get them to poop and pee then head back inside, give your dog a chance to explore!
You might hear these called decompression walks or sniffari walks.
Basically, it’s a walk where you empower your dog to decide where they want to go and how fast they want to get there! Of course, you want to guide your dog and make sure they’re safe. Don’t let them take you anywhere dangerous or dart into the street.
Give your dog the opportunity to lead and you might end up walking up a hill you don’t usually go to or standing still and sniffing the same blade of grass for 3 minutes.
It might be frustrating to you at first, but this walk is for your dog, not you!
One day they might want to get their steps in, and the next day they might want to lie down on the corner and chill out.
It’s also wonderful enrichment for us to live in the moment like our dogs! Try to relax, don’t think about what you have to do when you get home and just let your dog live in the moment on a decompression walk!
Another idea for a physical activity is to teach your dog some fun new tricks that get them moving their body.
If you have a young, athletic dog, the sky is the limit to what you can teach them. For older dogs, you can still teach them new physical tricks.
A personal favorite trick for dogs of all ages is spin. A young dog might spin super fast, while a senior dog might spin slowly. That’s OK! Because it gets them moving and curving their spine from side to side is great for lifelong mobility. Make sure that you teach spin and twist – AKA one clockwise and one counterclockwise so your dog gets the bendy benefits on both sides!
Passive Activities: Enrichment Beyond Physical Play
On the opposite end of the spectrum from physical enrichment is passive enrichment. This category includes easy-to-implement activities for when your dog needs to relax.
One of the best ways to add passive enrichment that makes your dog’s day more interesting is to play relaxing dog music or DogTV while you’re out and your dog is home alone.
I love to pull up a relaxing dog music video on YouTube when I go out to dinner or need to run errands. Studies show that calm music with a slow steady beat can actually help your dog feel relaxed.
Playing relaxing music for my dogs at home also helps distract them from triggering noises outside the home like other dogs or the dreaded UPS truck! This is one of my favorite YouTube videos to put on the TV when I’m out.
There are also some great Spotify playlists with classical music that I play when it’s time to groom my dogs.
Want passive dog enrichment activites you can do alongside your dog?
Head outside to your porch, a nearby park, or even a sidewalk to sit and watch the world go by. It can be a new place or a place your dog knows and loves.
Believe it to not, just sitting and watching what’s going on around you is wonderful enrichment for your dog! They can capture the sights, sounds, and smells of their surroundings and get a ton of enjoyment and benefits. My dog loves this activity and asks us to do it on a lot of our walks!
I recommend that you are mindful of setting your dog up for success while watching the world go by. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, don’t sit where a lot of dogs will be passing by very closely.
You can bring along some treats and reward your dog for being calm when triggers pass by. However, this isn’t a training session. Sit and watch the world go by is really just about calming hanging out and watching your surroundings.
Sniff and Search: Fun and Easy Scent Games
We can’t talk about dog enrichment without covering scent games! Your dog’s sense of smell is extremely powerful yet many dogs don’t get the chance to use their scenting superpowers.
We already covered a sniffari walk above, and that uses your dog’s nose. But how about some specific nose work dog enrichment activites that get your dog tapped into their natural ability?
Since dogs see the world through their noses, having unique things to sniff is like seeing a new movie for them!
One fun way to get my dogs to use their noses is a snuffle mat! This can be store-bought or you can make it yourself – I have a super simple and cheap tutorial for you here.
Snuffle mats are how I feed my dogs a few of their meals each week. It helps to slow down their eating and it gives them the added challenge of sniffing out every last crumb of food.
There are tons of snuffle mats available for different levels. You might even have things around your house that can be used as a snuffle mat! In a pinch, I grab a microfiber bath mat and sprinkle it with my dog’s dinner.
I encourage you to stick around for this enrichment activity and watch your dog find all the food. It’s always a few minutes of joy for me to watch my dogs play with their snuffle mats!
Want to try a different kind of scent game that doesn’t involve food? How about letting your dog sniff some tea?
Yes, this sounds pretty basic but giving your dog the opportunity to smell scents they don’t often encounter is enriching because you’re adding something new to their world.
Oftentimes or dogs’ worlds can be pretty limited to their home and regular walk route. Exposing them to unique scents gives them something exciting to do.
For tea time with your dog, here’s how to play:
- Grab a few different types of tea.
- Starting with types that are easy to come by like Chamomile, Ginger, Green Tea or Chai
- Find a clean and empty berry container (these are perfect because they have tons of holes on all sides and they snap shut)
- Put a tea bag inside and close the container
- Hold it out for your dog to sniff.
Your dog doesn’t have to “do” anything, they just get to sniff the new smells and have a unique experience.
DIY Toys: Homemade Fun for Your Furry Friend
I consider myself an expert in making DIY enrichment toys! My post about a DIY Busy Box is one of my most popular blog posts of all time. And it makes sense because it’s low-cost and provides tons of great enrichment for your dog.
For a busy box, all you need is a cardboard box, any leftover containers you have, and some tasty treats.
Before I send things to the curb for recycling, I repurpose all our berry and yogurt containers for busy boxes! You can get more ideas in this post, but basically what you need to do for this game is place some small treats or dry dog food in containers or cardboard boxes and let your dog go to town opening them to get to the treats inside.
If your dog has never done this before, start small and present them with an open cardboard box with treats inside. That will teach them that there are treats in the box!
Next, you can close the box lid. Then make it harder by putting some of the treats in a container inside the box! You get the idea!
I do this at least once a week, usually the night before recycling pick up! This game provides puzzle-solving, food-based and physical enrichment for your dog!
Another low-cost DIY enrichment toy is to roll up treats inside an old t-shirt or towel. I call this a Treat Burrito! Your dog can use their paws, nose, and teeth to unravel the fabric and then sniff out the treats. This is a quick activity that I can fit in when I don’t have the time to make a more complicated busy box.
And since I’m the DIY dog enrichment queen, I have to share a third dog enrichment activites idea in this category. This is a really fun one when it’s raining, snowing, or too hot to be outdoors!
Create an indoor obstacle course!
You don’t need to buy anything special for this. I use kitchen stools, chairs, and blankets to create a “tunnel”. Part of the obstacle course might be asking the dogs to jump up on the couch or go to their “place”.
Sometimes I hide treats around the course and let the dogs find them. Other times I reward them with treats for going through my DIY tunnel or doing a trick between obstacles. Just mix it up and make it fun!
Food Enrichment: Turning Meal Times into Fun Times
I saved the best for last! Food-based enrichment activities are probably what most dog parents think of when it comes to enrichment.
If your dog loves food, these can be wonderful ways to encourage them to lick, chew and figure out how to get the treats out of the toy! You can use these treat-dispensing toys as an afternoon treat or to feed an entire meal.
There are so many great toys that you can buy for food enrichment! A few of my favorites are a lick mat, Planet Dog Snoop and West Paw Toppl. Don’t see Kong on the list? that’s because I actually prefer the Toppl if I’m stuffing and freezing a toy. I think it’s more durable, easier to stuff, and way easier to clean!
Depending on the size of your dog and how much food they eat, you might be able to fit your dog’s food for a whole meal in these toys. The large Toppl or the Snoop are great for this. They slow down fast eaters and add a fun game to meal time so your dog isn’t just eating out of the same bowl every day.
I also love to use our lick mat smeared with peanut butter or plain yogurt when I’m grooming my dogs. Lucy doesn’t love having her nails done and a little peanut butter goes a long way to make that easier for both of us!
This lick mat suctions to the bath wall, so it’s perfect for grooming time enrichment.
Enriching Your Dog’s Life One Activity at a Time
As a passionate Canine Enrichment Technician, I promise that incorporating these fun, diverse, and simple enrichment activities into your dog’s routine will strengthen their mental and physical health. They’ll also help you build a stronger bond with your furry friend.
Remember, enrichment isn’t about expensive toys or time-consuming activities, but creating a world full of enriching experiences, tailored to your dog’s needs and abilities.
From DIY toys, brain puzzles, physical activities, and passive or scent-based games, to food-based activities… there are dog enrichment activities for every dog out there.
By adding just one extra activity or 15 minutes of play into your pup’s daily routine, you enrich not only their lives but your’s too!
Remember, enrichment isn’t about distracting or entertaining your pup, but enhancing their lives. Let’s make every day full of fun, challenges, and learning for our best friends. After all, a mentally and physically stimulated dog is a happy, healthy, and well-behaved dog! That’s my version of “a tired dog is a good dog”.
Find more dog enrichment ideas in these posts:
Under $10 DIY Snuffle Mat
Do you know the 7 Catagories of Canine Enrichment?
What’s a West Paw Toppl and How Do You Use It?
DIY Busy Box for Bored Dogs