I can’t tell you how often our dog’s annoying behaviours are simply a symptom of them being bored. Boredom is a massive problem in our society’s pet dogs.
This post is about products and activities you can give your dog for more mental enrichment during the day so that they are not so bored and can be happier, more content dogs!
The reality is that a couple of short, on-leash walks a day are not nearly enough activity for your dog to be fulfilled and well-behaved.
Well, maybe for the odd dog that is out of shape, or a senior dog. But most healthy young dogs simply need a lot more.
Mental enrichment can be achieved in so many ways. It can be getting out into the world to observe and experience new things, it can be getting out and about to socialize along with you, play with other compatible dogs, interact with different people and see new places. It can be through continued training, dog sports, and learning new skills and tricks. It can also be through toy games, enrichment activities, chewing bones, and toys that make your dog problem solve, and think, and that take time to enjoy.
Dogs are active, inquisitive and social animals and often we expect them to be on their own or be quiet and out of the way for most of the day. We expect them to be calm and peaceful on their bed after a quick 20-minute walk around the neighbourhood. Our dogs need more than this, they deserve more than this. And often our busy schedules and limited engagement with them just aren’t enough to keep them calm and satisfied. Dogs, just like us, need both physical and mental stimulation for a good part of their day, and without both, they will likely misbehave in a variety of ways out of frustration and boredom!
Let’s face it, our lives are busy. We love our dogs and are likely doing the best we can with the time we have, but between work, school, children, social lives, self-care and everything in between, our dogs often get the short end of the stick when it comes to our attention and giving them what they need. Dog parent guilt is a real thing! So many of us want to do more with our dogs but we are just too busy.
Luckily there are a ton of different toys and products that have been invented for these reasons. We’re going to list the ones we love below.
One of our dog’s primary motivators is food. And yes, some of you will say that your dog isn’t very food motivated. However, let me assure you that they are. They need to eat to survive so food IS a motivator. That said, if you have struggled to get them jazzed up about the treats you’re using, or perhaps they are picky eaters… that doesn’t mean they aren’t food motivated, it just tells me that they either have a food sensitivity, or you have yet to find something they like. If that’s the case for you, chat with your vet and rule out any dietary or medical issues. If you get the all-clear, then start experimenting with different types of proteins and foods that your dog might like.
Be creative! It might be that the kibble you use is dry and tasteless. It might mean that they don’t like the protein in their food. It could be that the food you have has gone stale or off (if you store their kibble in your own container and don’t clean it often, perhaps bacteria grew in there?). Maybe you haven’t yet tried the right treat yet, like beef liver, or dehydrated chicken. A lot of dog treats are not perceived as high value by dogs and they need something with more flavor, a different texture, or just something more stinky and meaty! Or, like a little chihuahua I know, your dog will end up preferring something really random, like dried sardines or yam, more than anything else!
So either way, let’s use their primary motivator of food to our advantage and give them some mental enrichment that will fulfill them when we don’t have the time to do so ourselves. Food activities are great ways to provide mental enrichment for your dog. They help your dog calm down, as well as provide opportunities for them to keep busy and have something to do on days when you are extra busy.
I suggest you use their meals as enrichment with these toys. Why waste a perfectly good portion of food in a bowl that will be devoured without thought when you could use that same food in a way that makes your dog feel involved, interested and then tired and satisfied when they’re finished? You can use treats too but I would use those more as a bonus part that is sprinkled into their meal, as if you stuff a toy filled with treats, that‘s a lot of treats and a lot of calories!! You can portion out their meals and add extra treats to the food so that they work to get their food but also some tasty treats fall out once in a while too.
Below, we’re going to list a bunch of toys and products that we love for enrichment. These are just some of the products that we use with our own dogs and recommend to our clients as we have seen firsthand how great they are and that dogs love them.
Remember that to see success with these activities, you’ll need to find a food your dog loves to put inside, and it needs to be an appropriately sized product for your dog.
You also need to clean dog toys regularly as bacteria can grow on them quickly.
Quick tip #1: keep them out of sight until you are going to offer them. If they are lying around all the time, their novelty wears off and your dog will lose interest.
Quick tip #2: These toys are made to be paired with food, they are not meant to provide entertainment for your dog without food in them. However, if your dog does play with them when they are finished, that’s just a bonus!
Quick tip #3: Remember to pick the toy up, clean it and put it away until next time as soon as your dog is finished.
Quick tip #4: I recommend having approximately 5-10 of these toys pre-stuffed and stored in the freezer. With a little bit of proactive meal prep planning, you can make your life a lot easier… when you need one, you have it at the ready and are way more likely to use it.
Enrichment toys are great for when you want to give your dog something to do on a quiet day, or if you have a young pup that still can’t be left unsupervised, you can use it as a pacifier and give them one when you are not able to be watching them. You can use them on hyperactive dogs as a means to help calm them down, or you can just use them as a fun activity for any dog that needs some more mental enrichment during their day.
Here are some of our favourites!
Topplers: A great toy made by West Paw. It comes in different sizes and provides more access to the food compared to a classic Kong toy where sometimes the last part of the food can be hard to reach.
Kongs: Also come in different sizes and durabilities, depending on how much of a beast your dog is with their jaw. Kong now makes many variations of food enrichment toys and is also a great resource for creative food recipes to put in the toys.
Wobblers: This is a harder plastic toy that wobbles around and as they push it the food falls out. This will keep them busy for quite some time as they work to eat their meal. This tends to be better for medium to large dogs as it is a bit of a heavier toy.
Puzzles: There are so many great dog puzzles out there. Buy a few and keep rotating them!
Snuffle Mats: Buy them at a pet store, on Etsy, or make your own. They engage your dog’s natural instinct to search for food in the grass.
Lick Mats: Great for a little snack and something to keep them entertained for a short while. You can be creative with what you smear on it. Owners often use them while grooming their dogs.
Snuffle balls: Same purpose as a snuffle mat but a different shape. You can throw it around for them, or even better, ask them to sit and stay and go hide it! Then they have to find it before they can enjoy it.
Treat dispensing toys: Go to any pet store and you’ll find a variety of toys that you can stuff kibble or treats into and then let the dog figure out how to get the food to fall out. Buy a few and find out which ones your dog loves. If you use treats they love, I’m sure they’ll like most of them and then you can rotate which one you give them.
Hide-a-toy toys: These toys are so fun. They come in all different kinds and you can stuff them with the toys they come with, as well as any other toy that you can fit in there. Pro tip: sprinkle in some kibble or treats and bob’s your uncle. Watch your dog rip it all out.
Rolled up and tied up blankets: Here’s a DIY game that is easy and fun. Sprinkle some food and treats into an old blanket or beach towel as you’re rolling it up. You can even tie it in a knot for an extra challenge. Then let your dog have at ‘er!
Chews: Use at your own risk as any hard chew has the risk of damaging your dog’s teeth, and always take it away before it becomes small enough to choke on. Be aware of resource guarding as your dog may like it so much that they will not want anyone else to touch it. Never leave your dog unsupervised around children or other pets when they have access to a high-value chew as there is always a risk they may bite anyone that approaches.
Yak Chews: These are a great durable chew alternative to a bone or meat-based chew. Once they are down to the end of it, you can stick the last nub of the chew in the microwave for 30 seconds and it will puff up to be a crunchy snack!
Antlers: If you are a hunter, or have hunters you may get these yourself, however, you can also buy them at your local pet store. We suggest getting the ones that are cut open so the marrow is exposed as this makes it a bit easier on your dog’s teeth (and tastier as well!).
Gorilla Wood: A safe alternative to chewing on sticks. They are made from wood that is grown and intended for this product and specifically. It is made not to splinter and therefore is safer than the average stick and can be chewed on indoors since it doesn’t make a mess. A much better alternative to your chair leg!
A head of iceberg lettuce: if your dog is into shredding, this is a great healthy option to shred in your backyard!
Enrichment toys work wonders when added to your dog’s day, but when you have the time nothing beats proper mental enrichment and training. ReadyDog has course and enrichment activities on demand, making it easier to fit games and training into your schedule!