Dogs are always looking for something to do. When they’re not sleeping, eating or going for walks, they’re usually chewing on something or playing with a toy. While this can keep them occupied, it’s not always the most mentally stimulating activity. Here are four enrichment activities that will help keep your dog’s mind active and engaged.
A decompression walk
Let’s kick off with an enrichment tip for humans: if you’re feeling down, go for a walk. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of walking will lift your mood. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that your dog needs this, too. More specifically, they need something called a decompression walk.
In a nutshell, a decompression walk is a walk in nature. Should the leash laws allow it, let your dog off the lead. If the leash laws do not allow this, just take them out on a long lead. The objective is to free your dog from the structure of human civilisation and to get them back to nature. In untamed or unstructured natural environments, your dog is free to sniff, explore, run, and roll around in the dirt!
These sorts of walks are simultaneously stimulating and calming. They’re among one of the most critical enrichment activities for dogs, and they don’t even involve food! If possible, try to fit in decompression walks on the daily. Your dog may not be the only one who needs it.
Fun fact: dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses. Humans, having only six million, can smell a mere fraction of what dogs can. So the next time you see a dog sniffing another dog’s butt, you’ll understand why. Other people’s and animals’ scent profiles is how dogs make sense of the world. Not only that, but sniffing is how dogs calm themselves. More to the point, it’s also a powerful source of canine enrichment.
Image: Stylish Hound
To help your dog follow their nose, you can hide kibble or other dry treats around the house or throughout the backyard. Think of it as an Easter egg hunt but with dog food. Or, even better, you could buy your dog a snuffle mat: a mat made from layered, ruffled fabric and a holey plastic sink mat. What do you do with it? Well, you place pieces of kibble under the loose cloth strands. Doggy then sniffs beneath the layers until they find all their treats! (Think of it as an Easter egg hunt on a much smaller scale.)
Playing with their food
We tell our human kids not to play with their food, but it’s a different story for our fur kids. Food is a strong source of enrichment for doggos, so combining food with play is a powerful way to enrich them. Stuffable chew toys are the physical embodiment of this concept.
Image: Stylish Hound
So, what’s so good about stuffable chew toys? For starters, chew toys promote and preserve the dental health that dogs deserve. Dogs love to chew, so wouldn’t you prefer they had an outlet for this? Otherwise, your slippers or the couch could become casualties!
Finally, if a chew toy is stuffed with their favourite food, this will occupy them for hours. It will also exercise their mental faculties as they work the food out from the toy and into their mouth! This turns snack time into a puzzle game, which is a great source of mental stimulation and enrichment all round.
Food for thought
Another food-related enrichment activity? Well, dogs are walking garbage disposals. Remember, they’re like overgrown children, and one thing children love is tasty food!
When we feed dogs at mealtimes, we tend to serve their food on a literal silver platter. This is not inherently wrong, but it’s the opposite of how it works in the wild. Dogs are natural foragers all about the hunt. Their wolf ancestors would work hard to earn their food. The snuffle mat taps into this instinct.
Imagine feeling your tongue against a surface like that! Image: Stylish Hound
Another way to make mealtime an enriching experience is to deliver it in a lick mat or other slow feeder. Lick mats are textured food receptacles with grooves. Spread Doggy’s favourite food throughout the grooves and they’ll be forced to enjoy their food rather than woof it down. By licking clean every last nook and cranny, your dog will think about food in a more strategic way, more so like a wolf. This is a mentally stimulating activity, and the silicone grooves against the tongue will bring additional sensory stimulation.
Just how important is enrichment?
Enrichment is a vital aspect of any animal’s physical and psychological wellbeing. By building your dog’s mental faculties, you also build their confidence, problem-solving skills, and perseverance. Just as you would for a child, bring a puzzle down a peg if it’s proving to be too difficult. We want them to feel as engaged as possible!
If base needs—like eating and sleeping—are the soil for growing a healthy puppy dog, think of enrichment as soil improver. It enhances growth by adding some good stuff into the mix! Confidence and perseverance are also the building blocks to great mental health. So the next time you take your doggy out to play, don’t just throw them a bone. Play just as hard as you can and reap the reward of one seriously enriched pup!