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DIY Enrichment Ideas for Dogs

Posted in Client Service @ Aug 24th 2017 - By Gillian Shippen, Pets Need A Life Too
Diy Enrichment Ideas For Dogs 10a 1

Pet enrichment is finally becoming the flavour of the month. Toys don't have to be expensive as there are quite a range of DIY options

It’s been a while since I produced an article on enrichment and time seems to have just slipped away. Work has been so busy that by the time I get home, I just want to vegetate on the couch; that’s my new couch mind – a new dog in our household ate my last couch, but that is a whole other story.

Below you can see just part of my destroyed couch – this was one of the heaviest pieces of a modular couch that had been dragged across the room (and ripped apart). This was also only the first couch he destroyed, as a few months later he destroyed a second couch. He’s not allowed home alone anymore.


Nuh uh – was’n me (Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth!)

We were originally only looking after him for a short time for his owners  but we have since officially adopted him…….whhhhhhy??? We love him though.

Flavour of the month...

It’s so exciting to see that pet enrichment is finally becoming the flavour of the month! So many pet people are now embracing the movement of providing behaviour enrichment for their pets. There are now Facebook groups and other web pages dedicated to promoting and sharing enrichment ideas - both commercially available toys and homemade ideas. I find this interest so gratifying as I have been advocating behaviour enrichment for over 10 years now.

Pet Enrichment Information - Online

To start with, here are some of my favourite online resources that are great sources of information on pet enrichment:

For example, here is a simple enrichment idea that I found on Pinterest. Glue a number of plastic cups together (in the image they are stapled together but I wouldn’t be keen on using staples unless you could find a way to protect them from injuring your pet and stopping them from being ingested). Next, put kibble or small treats in folded up fabric and stuff them into each cup. You could also put some paste in the bottom of the cups for extra enrichment.

Even though ‘Pets Need A Life Too’ is focused on finding the perfect commercially available toy I also love to work with what I have at home and utilise other forms of enrichment for my pets.

Some months ago, I stepped outside my comfort zone and spoke at a community public event about pet enrichment and the majority of my talk was on cost effective and/or homemade enrichment ideas. The talk was well received and I was subsequently asked to write an article on the cost effective ideas I had spoken about…..and I am finally getting around to it!

Feeding time – a good place to start

Obviously the biggest component in enrichment is utilising feeding time to provide some fun. It is also one of the biggest obstacles we face when discussing it with pet owners, as they struggle to grasp the concept of making their pet work for their food. Perhaps the secret is in changing the wording and suggesting that we let our pets “play with their food”.

There are many great commercially available Food Dispensing Toys (FDT’s) but sometimes the best way to convince people of the benefits of FDT’s is to offer a cost effective option that pet owners can test out with their own pets.

Cost effective food dispensing toys

One of my favourite products at the moment is a new edible product for dogs available through selected specialist pet food outlets. Tracheas – lamb or beef depending on the size of the dog - can be purchased either raw (usually frozen) or dehydrated. Both ways are fine, and they can be eaten on their own or stuffed with food, in effect giving you an edible Kong. The frozen ones can also be used as a nice cool popsicle for hot summer days.


Preparing the stuffed  tracheas

Boston enjoying a frozen stuffed trachea

Stuffed Apple

Then there is the Apple Kong – all you need to do is remove the core out of an apple and then stuff it with food or peanut butter (a favorite amongst many dog people).

Frozen treats

Some of the very simplest enrichment ideas can be made in the freezer. Favourite items can be frozen in ice cube trays, or bigger containers depending on the size of the animal. For example, muffin trays can make great frozen food makers.

You can:

  • purée pumpkin or other veggies and freeze them into veggie popsicles, or
  • put mashed banana or chopped up bits of apple in ice cubes – mmmm these sound like thing I would like to eat!

Dehydrated treats

Dehydrated apple rings can make great replacements for rawhide chews. You can also make home-made “chippies” from zucchini or sweet potato, pop them into a dehydrator and they can then be used as healthy treats in FDT’s.

Snuffle Mats

Snuffle mats are also all the rage at the moment. Although easy to make, they are time consuming and so you can also purchase them commercially (including from me).

What is a Snuffle Mat I hear you ask?  

It’s a great tool to get animals interested in foraging for their dry food and treats. A rubber mat with holes has strips of polar fleece threaded through to create a lovely mat for snuffling.

Boston and one of our boarders sharing the snuffle mat.

The snuffle mat is used in our house every day and all our dogs look forward to using it. It was the only way I could get our old dog Diesel interested in dry food and for the French Bull dog in the image, it was his first exposure to the snuffle mat and he loved it.

Even a simple Shag Pile Rug (a really shaggy one) would do the trick and I suspect you could probably purchase one for a reasonable price.

I’ve also created a new snuffle creation called the Snuffle Ball. It’s a similar concept to the Snuffle Mat but is made from a cage ball with material threaded through the exterior. The JW Hol-ee Roller range lends itself very well to this purpose as it’s malleable enough for dogs to squash to get at the treats or food.


The JW Hol-ee Roller in its original state & "tricked up" to become the Snuffle Ball

Another great idea was demonstrated in a video posted on the canine enrichment Facebook Page that showed someone making use of an old pair of jeans for some exploring work. They placed treats in pockets and tears in the jeans, lay them on the floor and let the dog have some fun. You can watch that video here.

You feed your pet every day so why not make feed time fun for them? When owners get involved in feeding fun, they often tell me how much enjoyment they experience from watching their pet have so much fun.

What about digging?

One activity that most dogs just love to do is – Digging!

Dogs have so much fun digging so why not encourage dog owners to provide a special digging pit in the garden for their beloved pooch? Owners can then teach their dog that this is the spot to dig by encouraging digging in the area. It must however, be a defined area, that is easily distinguishable to the dog (a bit like saying to the dog to go to its bed or mat) so he or she know that this area is its space to dig. Hiding bones and toys within the digging pit will help the dog learn that it’s his area.

There is also a new take on the digging pit which can be used indoors or outdoors and is awesome fun for all creatures – including humans! Providing dogs with a pit full of plastic balls offers a highly entertaining proposition for dogs to just crash around in but you could also hide treats and food inside the pit for the animals to snuffle through.

You can find many videos on YouTube of dogs enjoying ball pits but click here to watch my favourite.

And then there’s…Sniffing!

Other than eating and digging, what else are dog’s good at? SNIFFING!

Us hoomans (sic) really do under appreciate the value of a jolly good sniff – something dogs just do not understand about us. Let’s face it, how many times have you seen people walking their dogs and trying to drag the poor dog away from sniffing something and I’m sure you’ve heard someone say to a dog “stop sniffing me!”. We predominantly get information visually & audibly whereas dogs get their information by sniffing, utilising that wonderful olfactory organ for good and exciting activities

Do you get the idea I’m pushing sniffing?

Over the years all my dogs have given me a good sniffing when I get home from work as the glorious smells of other dogs and cats are all over my clothes. And to be honest, I deliberately stand so my animal patients can have a sniff of me too before I touch them, and I am more than happy for them to sniff me over as they’re being examined. I also often spray myself with the “special” perfume – Adaptil and Feliway. Some owners get distressed that the sniffing might be unwanted, but I reassure them that I smell DIVINE!

Nosework fun and games

Nosework is starting to become very popular and I have some very dedicated clients who go to great lengths to give their dogs some great sniffing opportunities. It’s easy for us animal workers to simply bring home towels etc. from puppy preschool or even surgery days (not too soiled of course) and bury them deep under piles of other great sniffing opportunities.

Creating Nosework games in the backyard – and then the dog can tear apart the boxes for more fun.

One of my very dedicated customers tells me that they collect animal faecal matter of various varieties which they then individually soak in water for a couple of weeks so they can really ferment. They then put them in spray bottles and create scent trails.

Another person collects road kill or other dead critters and uses them to creates a “soup” – it sounds gruesome but it works and it works very well.

There are now clubs devoted to Nosework in dogs where people get together with their canines to do Nosework or even tracking. Nosework games can be enjoyed by all……particularly blind dogs that tend to miss out on other more physical games.

It doesn’t have to be hard and can be an indoor or outdoor game – any item can be used to carry a scent. The photo above use boxes to hide things in and or hold a scent but other things can also be of use. You can use cleaned containers from the recycling bin with a lid that you can cut some holes in. Whatever you use make sure your dog is safe around them and cannot pop off the lid to get at what is inside.

Clean empty spice containers also seem to work well but stay away from using food inside the containers to avoid encouraging a dog to snatch the container and try to chew it or break it open.

Look for items with a scent that may interest your dog and place the containers around the house so your dog can find them. You can have your dog do this passively on their own (when the dog catches a whiff after some time has passed), or you can place them in a room specifically for this game and send the dog in to have a sniff.

Suggested items to use include: rabbit poop, goose poop, leaves from a tree, pine cones, the scent of other pets and some essential oils.  To gather the scent from other pets, you can use sterile gauze pads and wipe the face, ears and body of the other pet. Just be sure not to transfer any parasites from pets of unknown health.

Scent from other animals (ie fur) won’t last more than a couple of days so you could place the items in a sealed freezer bag and freeze for several months. I even think you could interest some cats in this game

I have mentioned in a previous blog about creating a Sensory Garden which can be enjoyed by all animals in the household. Click here to read Sensory Gardens - another great pet environmental enrichment idea.

But don’t forget …touch!

Finally, one very much over looked behaviour enrichment for dogs is touch. Sitting down at night, watching the TV and gently stroking and or massaging your pet is not only therapeutic for your dog, but it is also very rewarding for you!

Stroking your dog is a fantastic way to help release tension and anxiety and can help some nervous dogs to enjoy touch. I had one dog who took 2 years before I could touch him without him flinching, but slowly and surely we built up trust and helped him enjoy his gentle massage. Massage and touch is possibly under estimated as a tool to help bond and create trust between animal and owner – particularly with rehomings.

Just as in people, touch and massage can help release anxiety and stress. There are now fully qualified Canine Myofunctional Therapists available that you can refer clients to that might already have mobility issues but I also use massage therapy to help de-stress and calm my dog with his anxiety issues. If that’s not an option for dog owners they could spend time gently stroking their dog or using gentle massage techniques themselves (the Kong Zoom Groom is great to assist with this) whilst sitting watching a movie or their favourite TV show. Some Canine Myofunctional Therapists also offer classes to dog owners to teach them how they can help massage their dogs at home.

Canine Myofunctional Therapist at work

In the next instalment we’ll be discussing feline enrichment...

About Gillian

Gillian Shippen is a Nurse Manager and the owner of 'Pets Need A LIfe Too, a website that advises on and sells a wide range of environmental enrichment toys for animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and horses as well as wheelchairs for dogs. She has spoken at conferences on the importance on environmental enrichment for all animals and  has also written a book: 'Pets Need a Life Too - A Guide to Enriching the Life of Your Pet - Series One: Dogs'.

Click here to visit: Pet's Need A Life Too! Page in the Vetanswers Business Directory



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