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Enrichment for Dogs – Part Two: Training Games and Interactive Food Toys

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In our previous post, Enrichment for Dogs – Part One: Helping Canines Live in Our Human World, we looked at dogs as social animals, as hunters and scavengers by nature, as problem-solvers, but also as unique individuals, with their own preferences. And we examined how providing an enrichment-centric environment benefits both inquisitive canines and their humans alike. A content and happy dog is a content and happy pet parent! 

In Part Two of this series, we’ll discover specifically how enrichment, in the form of training games and interactive food toys, can help manage behaviors and harness your inquisitive canine’s energy in productive – and super fun- ways. (Remember, dogs are problem-solvers. Unless we provide allowable problems to solve, they’ll likely create their own, which are oftentimes ones humans frown upon, i.e., the couch is not a chew toy!) 

Dog ENrichment Border Terrier and Ball

Let the Training Games Begin!

Whether it’s food, toys or real-life rewards, the common denominator is that providing positive reinforcement (something that your dog finds rewarding) helps establish an enjoyable and enriching learning environment. 

Teaching Skills

Teaching skills for confidence and independence is essential to your pet’s emotional and physical wellbeing. I recommend that guardians continue to work with their dogs, training behaviors they like and want. This is not only fun for the dog (and the guardian), but it helps to set the dog up for success throughout his or her life. 

So, go ahead, brush up on those most-needed skills at home and/or participate in humane, force-free dog training classes or private training. Maybe it’s basic manners, such as sitting at doorways, down-stay on their bed while you eat dinner, sitting on a mat when the front door opens in order to welcome company politely, coming when called, or leaving things alone when asked. Just remember to enjoy your quality time together! 

Get your Game On

Get your game on with enrichment activities that can be especially helpful if your inquisitive canine doesn’t currently like something that you need him or her to like, such as going to the vet, having their teeth brushed, or their nails trimmed. The important thing is to never force a dog to like something or feel a certain way. You can however use things they like as reinforcers and then condition them to be comfortable and enjoy routine care. For instance, check out the Nailed It!! Program, where you can learn how to give your dog a pedi-pedi. 

Need training supplies to help get your game on at home? If you’d like to stock up on some new goodswe love a supplier called Doggone Good Clicker Company. 

Adolescent dogs in particular, are often eager and happy to participate in training games and learn. Take advantage of this life stage by providing for them in a way that is enjoyable yet productive. You can create an indoor obstacle course. Make a list of behaviors your dog knows, and arrange a course. Then, set up stations throughout the house — sit-stay in the bedroom, down-stay in the office, fetch in the hallway, tug in the kitchen, their favorite trick in the living room. It’s like circuit training for dogs!!

The bottom line is that force-free training as enrichment can help guardians set dogs up for a lifetime of success as beloved family pets. 

small dog tricky treat ball

Explore Enrichment Toys for Meals and Treats

The emphasis of meal delivery should be with training or food enrichment toys. Think outside of the bowl and use interactive food toys designed for the dog to sniff out the food or treat. We know that bowls have their place, at times, but when possible, feed meals outside of the bowl. 

It doesn’t have to be for every meal, but food can be used to encourage inquisitive canines to use their predatory skills in a safe and productive way. Again, enrichment toys, like Omega Paw Playtime Tricky Treat Ball, interactive food toys, scavenger hunts and games where dogs have to figure out how to get their food can help expend energy, promote independence, and build confidence. 

Of course, feel free to get creative and go the DIY route too! You can make simple toys for your dog at home – especially handy for folks who are cleaning out their closets. Items like old T-shirts and empty water bottles make for good materials. Here are some DIY dog toy ideas:

  • Sprinkle treats into muffin trays and then cover with tennis balls. 
  • Consider making “snuffle mats” with strips of fleece or T-shirts laced into a rubber mat. Then sprinkle with kibble. This wonderful toy encourages your dog to use their sense of smell to find treats hidden within the mat.
  • Tug toys can be made from strips of old T-shirts. For extra fun, insert hard treats between the braids! 
  • Visit care.com for more ideas for dog toys you can make from items in your house.
  • Need more inspiration? In addition to toys, there are lots of enrichment opportunities for your inquisitive canines. These activities from iheartdogs.com can keep pups physically and mentally busy.

CAUTION: When making your own dog toys, stay away from any items that could hurt the dog, like small pieces they could choke on. Always observe your dog with a new toy to make sure they don’t harm themselves.

Then, there’s always the ‘semi-homemade’ route…

homemade sweet potato dog chews
Homemade Sweet Potato Chews

Kong Stuffing Principles and Pointers

Many people’s Kong stuffing efforts consist of inserting a few dog cookies, and/or smearing the inside with peanut butter, which barely scratches the surface of the creative food acquisition challenges you can cook up for your dog! 

A nicely stuffed Kong is a great indoor energy burner that can keep a dog occupied for half an hour or more doing what dogs do so well: solving a problem to get some food. To bump your Kong stuffing prowess up to the next level, follow these suggestions:

  • Make the difficulty level of the Kong appropriate to the dog’s level of experience and temperament—is he persevering or a “giver-upper”? Any increases in level of difficulty should be done in small increments, so the dog succeeds while developing perseverance and endurance. In other words, start easy—then make it tougher gradually.
    • Easy stuffings are loose and incorporate only small, easy-to-fall-out pieces.
    • More difficult stuffings are tighter with pieces that take concerted effort to get in (and get out!).
  • Employ a matrix (like pureed veggies, plain yogurt, spreadable cheese, canned food, or dog-safe toddler food) to hold the smaller bits in and give the dog side-polishing challenges. Stuff cheese cubes in and then microwave it briefly to nicely coat the insides. (Check with your dog’s veterinarian first to discuss the best foods for your inquisitive canine.)
  • Hide stuffed Kongs around the house so the dog has to hunt around to find them before unpacking them.
  • Clean your Kongs regularly with a bottle brush and/or in the dishwasher.

Pro Tip: Using food for training and enrichment doesn’t mean your dog should be getting extra calories on top of what he or she is already receiving. Using your dog’s real food can help to ensure he or she is meeting, but not exceeding, nutritional needs. Limiting (but not necessarily completely eliminating) high calorie treats can also help prevent excess weight gain.

Kong toy with veggies

Whether through games or toys, providing behavioral enrichment involves sustenance, safety, security, kindness, and a loving hand. Even if your dog is well past being a puppy, providing interactive food toys, hunting/seeking games, and dog training games that encourage decision making, can assist in keeping your pup entertained, help prevent Fido from practicing behaviors you don’t want, and strengthen the bond you share. 

Coming up in Part Three…

We will dig into productive outlets for some common behavior concerns and sniff out the many benefits of K9 Nose Work® and scent games. We will cover enrichment solutions for digging and chewing, and examine how providing dogs with opportunities to sniff and opportunities to make choices are among the most enriching activities we can provide. 

Until then, here’s to pawsitively enriching adventures with your inquisitive canine!

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