When it comes to canine enrichment, think inside (and outside) the box

dog with barkboxBy Allison Kao, CPDT-KA

In the zoo world we use the term “enrichment” a lot. We define it as any item that encourages natural behaviors. Because zoo animals are provided with everything they need to survive, we need to give them ways to practice the natural behaviors they would use in the wild. As pet owners we also do this, because dogs, although not wild animals, have primal instincts as well. Chewing, hunting, sniffing, and more are all behaviors dogs need to practice in order to live a happy and healthy life. Many pet owners buy their dogs toys to help meet these needs. At the zoo, because money is always tight, keepers need to be creative with what they have. Some commonly used enrichment items include boxes, bottles, scents, and purchased toys (when possible).

Although I do go to the store and buy my dogs toys all the time, I find the best toys are the ones I create with my zoo keeper state of mind.

My dogs have never eaten out of a bowl. Utilizing meal time as enrichment time is a great way to mentally stimulate your pups. Think of it this way – no animal can just have their food handed to them the way our domestic animals do. Even humans have to work in order to make money so we can buy the food we eat. So why do we make it so simple for our pets?

Another great thing about enrichment for our pets is that it makes them think, which in turn helps you with their training and gives you a smarter dog. It’s also fun to watch them learn and figure things out! This allows you to challenge them with more difficult enrichment items as they progress.

Here is a list of a few favorite enrichment toys that I use for my dogs:

  • Store bought puzzle feeders. There are so many of these out on the market, and as your dog gets good at them it will become more and more challenging to find harder ones.
  • Homemade puzzle feeders. You don’t need to spend money to get your dog thinking and working for his food. I love to use boxes with paper and kibble scattered inside, milk jugs without the cap and food inside or with the cap and with holes cut out on the sides, and any other container that will challenge the dog to retrieve his food.
  • Ice blocks. Made with kibble frozen in plain or flavored water.
  • Hide and seek. Play this by hiding treats, or simply hiding regular dog food, around the house.
  • Training. Training is a form of enrichment as well. You can use your dog’s normal meals to train, and it gets them thinking and moving.

When starting anything new with your dog, it’s important to remember that they need to learn it first. If you start out with something too hard, your dog will get frustrated and give up. Help them learn, and when they start to understand, challenge them with harder things. Most importantly – have fun!

What are some of your favorite creative enrichment tools? Let us know in the comments!


AlisonKao-220x300Allison Kao is a Senior Trainer at AnimalSense/Paradise 4 Paws, and is a Behavioral Husbandry and Enrichment Manager at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.  She has worked with and trained a variety of species at different institutions and organizations including Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Pueblo Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, and Canine Companions for Independence.


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