Our lives with dogs have never been closer—nearly half of the 69 million dog-owning U.S. homes report that their canine companions sleep in their beds, 77% of owners have celebrated their pet’s birthday, and 44% have fed their dog from their own plate. Along with these trivial things, we share our increasingly sedentary lifestyle—which is costing our dogs their physical and emotional health.

Physical and mental inactivity is a known contributor to a host of canine health and behavior problems, including anxiety, reactivity, obesity, chronic disease, and decreased longevity. Fortunately, you don’t need to take up running or upend your professional career to share a better life with your pup.

All your pet needs is enrichment. Learn how in this guide to canine enrichment from Premier Pet Hospital.

What is canine enrichment?

Enrichment is a modern buzz word among pet-savvy groups, but its practice began in conservation settings (e.g., zoos, sanctuaries). In a nutshell, enrichment is an animal husbandry strategy that is informed by the species’ native habitat and instinctive behaviors, on the premise that captive animals who can express natural behaviors (e.g., climbing, hiding, foraging) are happier, healthier, and less prone to stress.

As enrichment has made its way to our domestic canine friends, the pet industry has taken note, and have released food-dispensing pet puzzles, maze-like food bowls, and sensory-stimulating toys that engage, entertain, and challenge our four-legged friends in a whole new way. 

How can enrichment benefit my dog?

Daily enrichment activities positively influence your dog’s behavior and health by providing an outlet for their energy and curiosity while naturally relieving stress. A few minutes a day can lead to visible benefits, including:

  • Increased confidence
  • Improved digestive health
  • Calmer, more relaxed behavior
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Decreased destructive and reactive behavior 
  • Better sleep
  • Improved mobility
  • Enhanced pet-owner bond

The enriched life—4 beginner enrichment ideas for dogs

Successful experiences will grow your dog’s confidence and curiosity, while frustration can create unnecessary stress. Gradually introducing enrichment activities by beginning with easy challenges and slowly increasing the difficulty will build your dog’s skill and motivation.

Here are four simple ways to add enrichment to your dog’s daily routine: 

  • Bye-bye bowl — Your dog’s meal times are the ideal enrichment opportunity. After all, their ancestors had to hunt, scavenge, and forage for their meals—they were not served their food in a bowl. Engage your dog’s inner hunter by ditching the bowl and loading kibble in a food-dispensing ball, toy, or puzzle. Or, create a hide-and-sniff foraging experience—scatter their food in a snuffle mat or onto clean untreated grass, or hide food throughout a room, and watch your dog’s nose do the rest.

For another food-based enrichment activity for your dog, consider occasionally adding a new, healthy pet-safe food. Examples include a dollop of plain, nonfat yogurt, pureed pumpkin, leafy greens, blueberries, or a jicama slice. However, never feed your dog grapes, raisins, nuts, chocolate, or sugar-free products containing xylitol, which are all toxic to dogs.

  • Training — Nothing engages your dog’s mind like learning something new. Training gives your dog a focus and purpose, builds confidence, instills self-control, and decreases undesirable behavior. 

If your dog has already mastered basic obedience, trick training is a great way to strengthen your bond, boost your dog’s IQ, and increase their body awareness. Teach each trick in small steps and keep your sessions positive and brief (e.g., one to three minutes maximum) to prevent frustration and boredom. Praise often and reward your dog with small, high-value treats—no more than 10% of your pet’s daily calories. Check out YouTube for trick tutorials, sign up for a local class, or consider beginner agility, flyball, or rally obedience classes if your dog is athletic and has a clean bill of health.

  • Supervised “meet-pups” for social dogs — If your dog enjoys interacting with other canines, schedule pooch play-dates with familiar dogs who are well-behaved, vaccinated, and similar in size and age. Positive social interactions allow dogs to safely express themselves, rehearse play behaviors, burn off energy, and improve their canine communication skills. Fully supervise dog play at all times, remove rambunctious or overly aroused dogs, and avoid dog parks and other public gatherings.
  • Environmental exploration for dogs — Your dog may not know “Sit,” but they’re privy to a world of olfactory information humans will never access or comprehend. The canine sense of smell is roughly 10 to 100,000 times more acute than ours, and conveys more than mere odor. With every sniff, your dog’s nose is collecting a range of environmental data—including the age, health, gender, mood, and reproductive status of every dog that has passed nearby. Sniffing is a self-rewarding behavior that naturally relieves stress and anxiety—but, unfortunately, stopping to smell the roses is often discouraged in today’s on-the-go culture.

Regular sniffing opportunities can dissipate nervousness and tension, help dogs feel more comfortable in their surroundings, and improve their overall mood. If you don’t have the time for a leisurely “Sniffari” through the local park, set a 10-minute timer, clip your dog to a non-retractable long line, and let them sniff to their heart’s content until the alarm sounds. Before exercising your dog, allow them to sniff for 5 to 10 minutes before your walk or active training.

Canine enrichment is a simple yet powerful way to enhance not only your dog’s emotional and physical wellbeing, but also your own. Canine enrichment is mutually beneficial—an invisible gem that teaches the “other end of the leash” how to slow down, act with intention, learn from experience, and live in the moment. Now that’s something worth sharing.

Enrichment activities are the perfect gift for your dog this holiday season. For additional canine enrichment resources, general behavior questions, or local trainer recommendations, contact Premier Pet Hospital.