There’s so much more to canine enrichment than stuffing a Kong (although we love that). In fact, there are seven different categories for dog enrichment ideas. See how many styles you can add into your dog’s day or week to make their life a little more interesting!
Part of enriching activities is tapping into your dog’s senses. You can come up with activities that use sight, hearing, touch and smell. They’ll be either Passive Enrichment or Active Enrichment and fall into one or more of these 7 categories:
Visual, Auditory, Food Based, Physical, Environmental, Olfactory, Cognitive
When I began studying for my certification in canine enrichment I was excited to learn more about these seven categories. Like I mentioned, there’s so much more to dog enrichment than a peanut butter stuffed Kong! When we know about all 7 categories, we can provide a more fulfilling life to our dogs.
Why provide enrichment for your dog?
First of all, it’s fun! I love to play with my dogs and see how excited they get in just 15 minutes. Those are 15 minutes that we could have been sitting around while I scroll through TikTok. Instead, we can use that time to make the dogs’ day a bit more interesting.
Beyond fun and games, enrichment activities for your dog can improves and enhance their mental state by challenging their brains and encouraging problem solving.
With senior dogs it’s important to keep them sharp by using their minds.
For younger dogs or rescue dogs, enrichment activities can help develop confidence and empowerment. When your dog solves something or discoverers that they’re comfortable in a different situation (through environmental enrichment), that can be a huge boost to their self esteem!
Enrichment activities like sniffing and licking are naturally self-soothing. So those might be enriching for an anxious dog. (The photo below shows aSodaPup eMat, we’re big fans!)
There’s a reason to do enrichment activities for every pet. What is your pet’s issue? Hopefully this blog post will get you thinking about easy dog enrichment ideas you can do that are perfectly suited for your dog.
Remember the golden rule of dog brain games: Enrichment should be FUN, never frustrating.
By the way, if you’re looking for a community of pet parents who love coming up with brain games, join the Canine Enrichment Community on Facebook.
7 Categories for Dog Enrichment Ideas
Enrichment isn’t just about adding more food and snacks. It’s about mental stimulation. Sometimes that might involve food, and when it does we want to choose the healthiest options for our dogs. You don’t want all your fun enrichment games to make your dog overweight. So use healthy treats for these activities, and when necessary, feed smaller meals to even out their overall food intake.
Within the 7 categories or types of canine enrichment, they’re broken down into Passive Enrichment and Active Enrichment.
Passive Enrichment for your dog are sensory experience with no direct contact. I’ll explain more about these below!
Active Enrichment requires your pup to perform some kind of activity and interact with an object. Here’s where stuffed Kongs and Toppls come in, but it’s so much more than that! Some activities, like a sniffari walk, will fall into several different categories.
Passive Enrichment Categories
I want to start with these two ideas because I think they’re the most often overlooked when it comes to dog enrichment ideas. You can improve your dog’s quality of life by simple putting up some dog art or playing their favorite music!
Visual – This can mean changing the look of your dog’s environment. Kind of like interior design for dogs! You could place a mirror at their eye level, turn on the television, arrange photos or artwork where they can see it. We’ve all seen cute videos of dogs looking in the mirror at their “new friend”, Well, this is actually a type of enrichment that a dog of any ability can participate in!
My senior labs love to sit in the backyard and watch the birds moving around. You might call it porch sitting, and yes it counts as canine enrichment!
Auditory – Engage your dog’s powerful sense of hearing by playing sounds they enjoy, such as classical music. A study done with shelter pets by Dr. Deborah Wells, an animal behaviorist, shows that dogs relax when exposed to classical and soothing music.
Look for songs within the range of 50-60 beats per minute to get the greatest benefit. You can turn on this types of music while you leave your furry friend home alone, or play it when you’re encouraging them to have some calm alone time. Just search for “music with 50-60 bpm” and you’ll find a ton of options!
Active Enrichment Categories
Moving on to more well known dog enrichment ideas. These tap into their sense of smell and problem solving skills. Any of these ideas can easily be adapted for dogs of any ability, from puppies to seniors. If you’re new to enrichment games, start slow with a puzzle or Kong and gradually make it more difficult.
Although I mentioned leaving music on while your dog is home alone, in general, enrichment is not a babysitter. It’s not meant to supervise your dog or keep them busy while you’re gone. I see a lot of comments from pet parents who want something for their dog to do by themselves for 30 minutes or an hour. If that’s what you need, I would recommend hiring a dog walker!
Food Based – There are so many ways you can work in food based enrichment with your dog. Since your dog eats every day, those are multiple opportunities per day you can make their life more fun! Instead of just putting a bowl in front of them, you can make meal time a scavenging game. Dogs are instinctually programmed to work hard for their food. Dogs love searching for their food!
Their food can be scattered, hidden around a room or the backyard or stuffed in enrichment toys such as a Toppl. As with any kind of enrichment activity start small with something like a slow feeder bowl. From there you can move up to DIY busy boxes and backyard scavenger hunts!
Physical – Think of this as the enrichment category that involves the more physical exercise. You can do this on your daily walk by mixing up the routine. Instead of doing the same walk you do every day, turn it into a sniffari! Let your dog’s nose lead the way and take plenty of breaks for them to investigate the grass, a wall or anything else they find interesting.
You might hear this referred to as a decompression walk. If your dog is new to this, they might not know what to do. That’s OK. Take your time without trying to hit any step count. Just let your dog’s natural instinct lead you around to what they’d like to investigate.
Environmental – With this category of enrichment, you add interesting items to your dog’s environment. These items might help mimic their natural habitat or their favorite place. Items can be switched out so they don’t get bored. For example, put some of your dog’s toys away and swap them out rather than having everything accessible at once. That old toy is a lot more exciting when they haven’t seen it in a few weeks.
For another idea, you can being stones back from hikes and put them in your yard to add a novel experience to your dogs environment. Believe it or not, those stones will carry all kinds of smells that fascinate your dog. Of course, be respectful of natural at all times and don’t take items from places that are protected.
Olfactory – This is our scent work category! This could be dozens of blog posts on its own, but let’s get started here with a few simple ideas. The sniffari walks and scavenger hunt dinners I mentioned above would fall into Olfactory Enrichment. You can also train your dog to find a scent that you hide in a box or somewhere around your home. There are scent work starter kits that you can get with all the supplies for an activity like this.
Beyond doing scent games at home, there are tons of nose work dog sports to get involved in! Barn Hunt and AKC Scent Work are two sports that host training clinics and trials. You can also train to be a volunteer search and rescue dog team!
Cognitive – This is another category that is pretty common for doggy brain games! All your fabulous puzzle toys (I love this one from Nina Ottosson) and a lot of the treat dispensing toys require problem solving that helps your dog stay sharp. The more you do consistent cognitive enrichment, the better it is for your dog’s mind as they get into their later years.
There are lots of DIY enrichment puzzles you can make. I love using a muffin tin to hide small treats covered with tennis balls. My dogs love to solve that puzzle! Check out my Amazon storefront for more dog toys you can give your dog to challenge their problem solving skills!
What kind of Dog Enrichment Should You Try?
There you have it! We covered the 7 categories of canine enrichment:
Visual, Auditory, Food Based, Physical, Environmental, Olfactory, Cognitive
Which one should you try with your dog first? I want to say all of them! But you need to find what works best for your dog. Do you have a rescue who needs a confidence boost? Food based and cognitive activities could be very rewarding!
What if you have a dog recovering from surgery or a senior dog with limited mobility? The visual and auditory enrichment activities are a no-brainer.
The best thing about all of these dog enrichment ideas is that you get to be creative and see what works for your dog and your lifestyle. Experiment with different combinations. There are no rules! As long as you’re having fun with your dog and they’re safe, then it’s going to add something positive to their day.
One of my favorite ways to enrich my dogs’ lives every week is by feeding them dinner on a DIY Snuffle Mat. You can follow my tutorial to make your own or buy one already made. A snuffle mat is an example of something that fits into several canine enrichment categories. It’s food based, olfactory and environmental!
The food based one of obvious, your dog wants to find the food or treats hidden in the fabric. It’s olfactory enrichment because they will use their nose to find all those treats! And third, I think it counts as environmental because it’s changing the environment in which your dog eats their meal. I always do snuffle mats in the living room, so it’s a change in routine that the dogs love!
I hope this post has inspired you to do more enrichment activities with your pup! If you’re looking for a community of pet parents who love coming up with brain games, join the Canine Enrichment Community on Facebook. I started this group in late 2020 and it already has over 3,000 members! There are a lot of great ideas and resources shared there.