Food Enrichment for Dogs
Lets talk about food enrichment! What is food enrichment? Food enrichment can be toys or puzzles that dispense small portions of food and as the dog interacts with it, it helps stimulate their brains through problem solving! “Dogs were designed to spend hours each day working for their food,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates. When you give your pet food in a bowl, you take away their natural instinct of foraging.
The goal of enrichment activities for dogs is to provide them with more mental stimulation which can help fill their day. Enrichment activities can help curb boredom (destructive behavior) and ease anxiety.
Tips for Picking an Enrichment Activity
Make sure the item is the appropriate size: A Great Dane might not be able to figure out the puzzle, but they surely can pick it up and drop it. Effectively rendering the puzzle toy concept useless.
Start at a lower difficulty: If your pet has done puzzle toys in the past it’s okay to start with a higher-difficulty toy. If your pet is new to puzzle toys, start off with an easier toy.
Experiment with what is in the activity: Some pets go nuts for puzzle toys when a specific treat is inside. Others may only use it if dry food is inside. Try different rewards and see which ones your pet likes the most.
Supervise when giving a new activity: It’s important to see how your pet interacts with a toy. Supervise them to make sure they are using the toy properly and to give them a helping paw if they seem to be getting frustrated.
Show them how to do it: Putting a puzzle toy in front of a pet may work but often times with more complicated toys, you may have to show your pet how they work.
Types of Enrichment
If you're new to the enrichment world, here are 5 types of food enrichment puzzles to get you and your dog started:
1. Puzzle Games
Puzzle games not only keep your dog mentally stimulated, but they are also intentionally made to keep you dog physically engaged. Many games are designed to be pushed, rolled, chased, picked up, bounced, or flung around. When these actions occur, food is dispensed. What a rewarding way for your pets to earn (and possibly burn off) a tasty treat!
While not as interactive as some of the other games, LickiMats provide stimulation for your pet and help them slow down when eating. Great for pets that do a lot of canned food since not all puzzle toys are designed for wet food. Licking is a great decompression activity and helps by tapping into their natural calming and self-care instincts.
Note: There are tons of LickiMat options! Some come in bowl forms, suction cups, grooves, etc..
You’ve heard of this one, KONG! Kong toys are a simple puzzle and a classic option for any dog’s toy box. Fill these with you dogs favorite treats and spreads and pop it in the freezer to last longer. Kong provides puppy, classic and extreme depending on your dogs chew strength.
4. Snuffle Mats
What is a snuffle mat? A snuffle mat is designed to help mimic your dog’s natural instinct to put its nose to the ground by foraging for food. There are loads of snuffle mats on the market, so experiment with different ones. If you have a fenced in yard, you can take advantage by spreading their meal in the grass, leaves, snow, etc..
Hunting for food is a fun game for dogs and taps into a cat’s natural predatory instincts. You can hide treats or toys in various boxes or tubes and encourage your dog or cat to hunt for them. I suggest letting them watch you do this the first few times. Once they get the hang of it, keep them out of the room while you hide the “treasure.”
If you don’t have boxes and packaging on hand, try laying a towel folded in half lengthwise on the floor and dropping treats inside as you roll it up. Then let your dog figure out how to unroll it to get the treats.