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Environmental Enrichment Activities for Your Dog

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Does your dog have a rich and stimulating environment? Enriching your dog's activities and surroundings can help keep them from getting bored or frustrated.

Why Is Environmental Enrichment for Dogs Important?

Our domesticized dogs were built for a different kind of life. Their wolf ancestors (as well as wild dogs today) were busy! They had to spend much of their time searching out fresh water and hunting for food. They also needed to keep themselves safe from predators, which could be challenging when they needed to rest.

By comparison, our domesticized best friends have it made. They enjoy easy and continuous access to food, treats, and water, along with plenty of cozy spots to rest their heads. However, they often still have the urge to stay busy, which can make them restless, particularly if they live a fairly sedate life. They're also typically curious and energetic by nature.

Dogs who don't have anything to occupy themselves for long periods of time can get bored. That boredom might lead your dog to get into a little harmless but annoying trouble, such as knocking over the garbage can or chewing up a shoe. But it can also lead to anxiety and obsessive behaviors, like excessive barking, pacing, spinning, digging, or fur pulling. Luckily, there are plenty of dog enrichment activities and other ways you can enhance your dog's environment to help avoid these problems.

Home Enrichment

Home enrichment is important, especially if your dog will be alone for long stretches of time or expected to entertain themselves on their own while you're busy. For instance, if you work at home, you likely won't be able to play with your dog all day long—no matter how much you or your dog would love that. In this situation, it can help to play with your dog at set times, so they get used to your schedule and know when they need to leave you be.

Store-bought Toys

There are all sorts of dog enrichment toys that can help your pup stay busy. Puzzle toys filled with treats or a bit of soft dog food that they have to work out are great ways to keep them occupied. Plush toys that squeak can be fun for dogs to chew on and comforting when they want to curl up for a nap.

Browse your local pet store or shop online where you'll find plenty of options. If you're overwhelmed by the choices, ask your dog-loving friends which ones their dogs like the best.

Please choose toys that are sturdy and safe for your dog. You don't want them choking on ripped out stuffing or pieces that could come off. Plus, if they swallow something, they could end up with an intestinal obstruction that requires surgery.

DIY Toys

You can get creative with everyday household objects to entertain your dog. Keep in mind that you may need to supervise your dog with some of these ideas. You can set your dog up with them when you're nearby on your laptop, folding laundry, or cooking dinner.

  • Make your own treat-dispensing toy with a plastic PVC pipe. Drill small holes in the pipe, sand the rough edges, and put in the dishwasher to clean it. Put some treats inside, place PVC caps securely on either end, then let your dog shake the treats out.
  • Don't have PVC pipe? Use a plastic soda bottle and follow similar steps to create treat dispensing fun.
  • Freeze a few dog toys in plastic container. Dump them out for your dog and see how long it takes for them to get at the toys. Of course, you'll want to do this somewhere you don't mind getting wet.
  • Knot up clean old towels or rags to make a toy that they can chew on.
  • Place an empty soda bottle in a large sock and securely knot the end. Now you have a fun crinkly chew toy for your dog.
  • Put a few treats in a muffin tin then cover each spot with a tennis ball. Your dog will have to use their brains and maybe a little brawn to figure out where the treats are hiding.

Two-way Video

Does your dog miss you terribly when you're not home? Do you feel the same way? Then a 2-way video may be the perfect purchase for you both.

These gadgets let you see and chat with your dog any time with an app on your phone. Some even let you use the app to toss out treats. Others alert you when your dog is barking so you can check in and see what's going on.

Hide and Seek

You can hide treats or small bowls of food around the house for your dog to find. Your dog might love this game since it lets them eat like their wild ancestors who would have to hunt and eat smaller portions of food.

Just be sure you're not overfeeding your dog with this game or treat-dispensing toys. If your dog overeats, they could put on weight, which can lead to health issues like joint pain and diabetes.

Digger Dog

Does your dog love to dig? Tap into that natural instinct with toys that let your dog dig out surprises. You can make your own by filling a kiddie or doggie pool with sand and burying some of their favorite toys. Obviously, this one needs to be set up outside, and you or your dog walker should keep an eye on your pooch while they play in the sand.

two golden retrievers paying tug-of-war with a rope in the snow

Social Enrichment

Some dogs need to socialize. If your dog likes a social life or you can't make it home to walk them during the day, you may need to hire a dog walker or sitter—or ask a dog-friendly neighbor or family member to stop by in a pinch. You may also want to consider using a doggy daycare a couple of times a week so your pooch can run around and socialize with other dogs.

Sensory Stimulation

Don't forget your dog's other senses.

For instance, you can leave the radio on with soothing classical music or calming bird sounds. Or turn the television on to your dog's favorite program. We're guessing it's a nature show. Remember to keep the volume at a reasonable level for the sake of your dog and your neighbor.

Also, make sure your dog can retreat to a quiet place if they want a break from all of that auditory stimulation.

You can play into your dog's keen sense of smell with scent games. If you have a friend with farm animals, lend them a t-shirt or small blanket to hang in the barn for a few days. When you get it back, let your dog play with it and enjoy the enticing scents.

Some dog parents have even created dog enrichment gardens for their best friends to enjoy. These sensory gardens may offer safe herbs and flowers such as lavender, chamomile, and mint for dogs to sniff, touch, and even eat.

Dogs also enjoy new flavors of treats or add a topper to their regular old kibble. Be sure to offer any new foods gradually to make sure your dog doesn't have an allergic reaction or get an upset stomach.

westie playing with a blue ring toy

Safety Tips

You should make sure anything you offer your dog is safe for them. For instance, pick toys that are designed for dogs and check that they're the right size for your pooch. A big dog may be able to swallow a toy that would be fine for a smaller dog.

Avoid giving your dog bones or rawhides to chew on when they're alone. Pieces could break off and cause your dog to choke. They can also swallow those bits, which can lead to an obstruction.

If your dog gets hurt or swallows something they shouldn't, pet insurance can help you manage the costs of care. Find out why pet insurance is worth it for so many dog parents.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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