Dogs, just like people, have minimum needs for physical and mental stimulation. Anyone with a high-energy dog has experienced the joy of seeing that dog finally worn out after a huge dose of physical exercise. A common dog trainer saying is a tired dog is your favorite dog – because a tired dog is likely too tired to get into any trouble. Physical exercise like walking, running, and rigorous play are only part of the equation to meeting our dog’s needs. Mental stimulation can also be physically exhausting as well as providing great outlets for other natural dog behaviors. Activities that involve directed sniffing, chewing, searching, and problem solving can help burn off specific types of energy that a 5 mile run might not touch. Enrichment is the term used to describe any activity that meets a physical or mental need for your dog.
While all dogs (and other pets as well) benefit from exercise and enrichment activities, enrichment tools can be particularly valuable in certain situations. A dog who has physical restrictions, perhaps while recovering from an injury or illness, may still be able to engage in solving puzzle toys or stationary trick training. New parents may suddenly find it more difficult to get their dog out for trips to the park, but can easily replace the food bowl with interactive feeding toys.
As with most things in life, moderation can be important. While some dogs just crash when they are tired, other dogs can become overstimulated with too much of any one thing. If you have a dog who seems to be more agitated, animated, or out of control after a long walk, consider shortening your walks, or offering more frequent, but brief, access to enrichment activities. When in doubt, check with your trainer for support.
- Walks or hikes. Allow or actively encourage your dog to sniff – these trips are about getting your dog using their senses and access to the outdoors. Traveling to a new or different location also makes a walk much more fun and stimulating.
- Training new or practicing known skills and tricks. Positive reinforcement-based training is a phenomenal way to maximize your time. Not only can you incorporate physical exercise in a training session, but learning (mental exercise) is also amazingly exhausting. Not only does teaching new skills or practicing old skills exercise your dog, but you also get the benefit of improved communication and a dog who is good at doing what you ask!
- Puzzle toys. There are an ever-growing number of toys specifically designed to engage your dog by hunting for food or squeaky toys. Some puzzle toys you prep and give to the dog, others you use to play with your dog. There are also wonderful and simple home-made toys, like a DIY Snuffle Mat.
- Appropriate interactive play. Good play, either with another dog or with people, is wonderful. Fetch and tug are two well known games, but there are a plethora of other wonderful games to try. Treasure hunting and hide and seek are two examples of games that combine having fun with teaching useful skills – why not have your play time do double-duty and also work to improve your dog’s recall or impulse control?!
- Nosework/ScentGame. Many training facilities are embracing specialty classes that employ your dogs powerful scenes of smell. Taking a tracking or scent work class is a great way to improve your own skills, bond with your dog, and is sure to be very enriching for your pup. Games like Treasure Hunting or even something as simple as hiding your dog’s dinner in tiny piles around the kitchen floor, are simple do-it-yourself ways to engage your dog’s nose.
- Classes. Taking a positive reinforcement-based training class from a qualified (and ideally certified) trainer is a wonderful form of enrichment for you and your dog. While not every dog is appropriate for a group class, most are. And these days there are class offerings that cover a huge range of topics so you won’t be limited to “Basic Manners 101”. Find a topic that interest you and that you think might be something your dog will enjoy. Flyball, agility, tracking, trick training, barn hunting, triball, Rally-O, skiijoring – the list goes on and on. What peeks your interest?
- A great video with some neat examples of puzzle toys: https://youtu.be/HBm_x_gBqKg
- Emily Larlham (KikoPup and Dogmantics) has a great free video library on training a huge variety of fun (and useful) skills/tricks: www.dogmantics.com/free-videos or https://www.youtube.com/user/kikopup
- Kong 101 and recipes: www.kongcompany.com/101/kong-101/
- How to guide to Stuffing Kongs to use as your dog’s meal by Paws Abilities
- Kong videos (on introducing and using Kongs or similar food-dispensing toys):
Kong Wobbler review and demo
- Dog Sports (check out the Dog Sports page for even more ideas)
- Link to my Neat Stuff page for treat/toy ideas
- Stationary Toy Page
- Treasure Hunting (Click to expand)– a great game that can easily be adapted or varied based on your situation and goals (the example in the video involves interaction with children, but you can use the same game with 2 dogs, a single dog, a dog plus distractions, etc.)
- Flirt Poles can be a great tool for some dogs (Click to expand)