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Dog Enrichment: Toys, Games, and DIY Ideas

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how to make your own dog puzzle toys for enrichment
Providing enrichment for your dog is one of the most important aspects of pet care and it's easy to incorporate into day-to-day life.

Just like you, your dog needs a variety of activities to spice up their life and keep them happy and healthy. Enrichment helps to prevent boredom and can help with dog behavior problems, such as anxiety.

Enriching your dog's life is simpler than you might think, and it doesn’t require a large budget or huge time commitment.

There are many ways to enhance your home environment quickly, cheaply, and involve the whole family in fun activities that have a big payoff. (We haven't forgotten about our feline friends either — click here for enrichment ideas for your cat.)

We asked dog trainer and owner of Affinity Canine Education, Sara Paulik, to share her favorite enrichment tips and tricks below that you can easily do at home.

We've also compiled our favorite enrichment toys, DIY dog toys, training games, and other activities below so you never run out of ideas!

Dog Toy Safety

Whenever you're making your own puzzles and toys or using store-bought toys, make sure that they are safe for your dog and always supervise their use. No dog toy is truly indestructible. Many toys and puzzles have small pieces that could be easily chewed off and swallowed. Supervise your dog while they are playing with their toys and throw away toys that are damaged.

For example, the Food Tube Puzzle (further below) should not be used with Brachycephalic (or "flat-faced") dogs, or any other dogs with bulging eyes, as their more prominent eyes are likely to get scratched on the tubes. This can lead to damage to their corneas (clear surface of their eyeball) requiring medical care. You also don't want your dog chewing up and swallowing any piece of a toy or DIY puzzle that's not meant to be eaten!

When choosing appropriate toys and enrichment activities for your dog, take into account their “chewsonality.” If your dog has a “destroyer” chewsonality, choose enrichment toys made specifically for chewers (such as the KONG Extreme). If your dog is an inhaler, use judgement in what materials you use for enrichment toys, and take any toy away before it’s small enough to ingest. For the nibbler dogs out there, supervise any use of toys that have pieces that could be nibbled off and swallowed.

If your dog has issues with grabbing non-toy items around the home, make sure the toys you make or buy don’t resemble those items (and you’ll also want to start practicing good environmental management and training to prevent that behavior from happening).

DIY Dog Enrichment Toys

Take advantage of what you have around the house to make your own dog enrichment toys. Get your creative juices flowing — making DIY toys for your dog is enrichment for you, too!

"Anything that can hold food can be part of your enrichment program," says Paulik. "Cardboard and paper, and so many other items you have around the house can be used ... The possibilities are really only limited by your imagination!"

Here are some of our favorite DIY dog enrichment toys:

Food Tube Dog Puzzle

All you need for this fun game are some extra toilet paper rolls (or paper towel rolls cut to size), and a box to arrange them in. Shoe boxes work the best, but any box will do! Watch this video to see how easy it is to make:

DIY Food Tube Puzzle v1.0

DIY Lick Mat

You can create a lick mat for your dog from a variety of items you might have already. Spread a thin layer of peanut butter (make sure it's xylitol free) on a cutting board and freeze before giving to your pup. Silicone pot mats or trivets also make great lick mats due to their texture and can be tossed in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. Ice cube trays, silicone baking sheets, anything with a non-porous and non-abrasive surface can work. I prefer silicone since it's so easy to clean afterwards and the material is gentler on a dog's tongue.

PRO TIP: If your dog prefers to just pick up the lick mat or wants to chew on it instead of lick it, place it in a baking pan slightly larger than the mat. The sides of the pan make it harder for your dog to get a grip on the mat edges to lift it up. Remove the mat once they’re done licking all the good stuff off.

See an example of a DIY Lick Mat in this video:

 

Muffin Tin Dog Puzzle

I adore this enrichment puzzle because it's so simple to do but really works a dog's brain. Grab a muffin tin, tennis balls, and a few dog treats, kibble, or even a vegetable or two! You can put these in every tin and cover it with a ball — or as your dog gets better at this puzzle with practice, only put the food in a few of the tins but cover them all with balls. It's a great way to work their sense of smell and practice problem solving.

diy dog muffin tin puzzle supplies dyi dog puzzle muffin tin setup

Preventive Vet pup Finnegan (a Portuguese Water Dog puppy) loved trying out this muffin tin puzzle. He even got the added socialization benefits of experiencing the feel of metal, the noise from the environment around him, and practicing problem solving.

puppy with DIY ball in muffin tin game

Knotted Old Clothes Dog Toy

If you have old clothes that you aren't planning on wearing anymore, you can repurpose them into dog toys — and no sewing skills are required! From T-shirts to ripped up jeans, there are a variety of ways to cut and tie the fabric into a dog toy.

You can even add in squeakers or tennis balls inside the fabric as you knot it to add some variety. This is a great project to get the kids involved and it's very eco-friendly since it helps reuse things that otherwise might go in the trash!

SAFETY TIP: When making dog toys out of old fabric, make sure to launder the item first to remove scents, then cut strips from it and create a non-clothing-item looking toy. If your dog already has a habit of stealing your clothes to chew on, avoid these types of DIY toys. You’ll want to practice safe management to prevent grabbing inappropriate items, practice the Leave It and Drop It cues, and provide lots of alternative outlets for their play energy.

Watch this quick video to see one technique:

Cardboard Boxes and Packing Paper

"Another great option for any dog are scent games. Hiding treats in boxes and allowing the dog to do what he does best and hunt them down," explains Paulik. "This is one of the most confidence boosting and stress relieving activities for dogs!"

This gives you a way to put all those boxes from recent delivery to use before recycling — make them into enrichment boxes! The different texture and sound from the packing paper is great environmental socialization for puppies. This can be as simple as tossing some kibble and treats into a box with packing paper wadded up inside, or you can incorporate things like stuffed KONGS or one of your dog's favorite squeaky toys to find. 

Watch this video to see a cardboard box puzzle in action:

Rolled Up Treat Burrito Towel

This game is super easy to set up. Grab a towel and lay it flat. Spread some treats on it, then roll it up into a little burrito for your dog to forage in. I really like this game for dogs that are starting Treibball, as it helps teach them to push things with their nose. As with snuffle mats (listed further below), remove the towel once your dog has found all the hidden treats inside it. You don’t want them to shred and ingest the towel in continued efforts to make treats magically appear again.

Watch how easy it is in this video:

DIY Dog Toy Safety Note: Whenever you're making your own puzzles and toys, make sure that they are safe and always supervise their use. For example, the Food Tube Puzzle should not be used with Brachycephalic (or "flat-faced") dogs, or any other dogs with bulging eyes, as their more prominent eyes are likely to get scratched on the tubes. This can lead to damage to their corneas (clear surface of their eyeball) requiring medical care. You also don't want your dog chewing up and swallowing any piece of your DIY puzzle that's not meant to be eaten!

New call-to-actionOur Top Dog Enrichment Toy Picks

Snuffle Mats

Feeding dogs from snuffle mats is one of the easiest and more "hands-off" enrichment activities you can do. Scattering a dog's food means they have to put their nose to work and slows down their eating. Snuffle mats, like the PAW5 mat below, give you an easy indoor option for scatter feeding your dog.

"My very favorite beginner enrichment activity is the Snuffle Mat," says Paulik. "These mats are made from strips of fabric tied to a base, and food and treats are placed inside and on top of the mat. You can purchase these online, or make them yourself. The vast majority of dogs I have met take to the Snuffle Mat right away. The act of sniffing and foraging for food is a naturally calming behavior for dogs."

DIY Dog Snuffle Mat: You can make your very own snuffle mat using strips of fabric and a base to tie them on. Watch this video to see how to make your own snuffle mat using a canvas base.

If your dog loves to shred things, supervise any snuffle mat use as you don't want them to shred or ingest the fabric. Keep the snuffle mat stored somewhere out of reach when not in use.

PAW5 Wooly Snuffle Mat
paw5-snuffle-mat
 Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon

 

Licking Mats

These licking mats are one of my favorite summertime treats to give my dog — I smear some of her wet food or peanut butter on the mat and freeze it before giving it to her as a treat. These IQ treat mats come in different textures, have four different "zones" to spread different treats, and are dishwasher-safe! Repetitive licking can have a calming effect for dogs that suffer from anxiety — the release of endorphins caused by the action of licking helps them relax.

Hyper Pet IQ Treat Mats
hyper-pet-licking-mats
Buy on Amazon 

Dog Treat and Puzzle Balls

For dinnertime, I give my dog Sookie her dry food in an Orbee-Tuff Mazee ball and it helps to slow down her eating and burn off some of her evening zoomies. It's fun to watch her figure out how to get the kibble out and push it around the house with her nose. If I need a quick way to keep her busy while I get something done, I'll throw in a few high value treats of varying sizes in the ball to make it harder.

Planet Dog Orbee-Tuff Mazee
planet dog orbee tuff mazee ball
Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon

Food Puzzles

I highly recommend that dogs be fed from puzzle bowls or other interactive toys rather than a regular dog bowl. That way your dog burns energy, practices problem solving, and doesn't gobble down their food (which could help prevent a life-threatening case of GDV/Bloat). Mix up what puzzles you use to keep it fresh for your pup and work their brain. The Mad Scientist puzzle below is on the more difficult side and perfect for dogs that have figured out other puzzle bowls.

Trixie Mad Scientist Dog Puzzle (Level 2)
trixie mad scientist dog puzzle
Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon

Stuffed Dog Toy Puzzles

I love these stuffed toy puzzles for dogs that are highly toy motivated and love rooting out their "prey." The Hide-a-Squirrel puzzle toy comes in different sizes, and they also have replacement squirrels for when one inevitably goes missing. Remember: if your dog is an inhaler or swallows small toys, these stuffed toy puzzles should be avoided to prevent digestive obstruction.

 

Hide-a-Squirrel Puzzle from Outward Hound
stuffed toy dog puzzle hide-a-squirrel
Buy on ChewyBuy on Amazon

The Jolly Ball

These toys are a favorite for dog daycares, and dogs of all types seem to really enjoy them. The Jolly Ball Original and Jolly Egg are made from a tough plastic that stands up to chewing and tossing. The Mega Ball, made originally for horses, has an anti-burst design which makes it a great choice for dogs that like to chase (but not if they like to really bite down on it).

Jolly Ball Original 10" Jolly Egg 12" Mega Ball 30"
jolly ball dog toy jolly egg dog toy mega ball dog toy
Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon Buy on Chewy | Buy on Amazon

 

Enrichment Activities and Games for Your Dog

Make a Scavenger Hunt for Your Dog

Hide some of your dog's favorite treats around the home and help them search them out. Kids really like getting involved with this game and picking the hiding spots. You can do this outdoors in a securely fenced yard as well, just make sure you watch out for toxic mushrooms and remove them before setting up your dog's scavenger hunt.

I suggest using some stinky high-value treats for a scavenger hunt, as often dogs won't work hard to find their regular dry food. Help them find each item and give lots of praise when they do!

Play Hide-and-Seek with Your Dog

Another family favorite, hide-and-seek, works your dog's nose and reinforces their come-when-called behavior. Start easy with this game so they're successful in finding you and have a big praise party when they sniff you out. Then make your hiding spots increasingly trickier as your dog gets the hang of the game. This video shows two German Shepherds playing hide and seek with their human and is quite entertaining:

Take Your Dog on Sniffari Walks

Sniffari walks are a great decompression activity, and a perfect way to give a senior dog outdoor time without overexerting themselves. I recommend mixing in regular sniffari walks with your regular more "regimented" daily walks. Read more about how to do sniffari walks the right way in this article.

Watch this video to see Sookie on her sniffari:

Sit With Your Dog and Watch the World Go By

Find a park bench and sit and relax with your dog, letting the world pass you by. This activity is perfect for puppies in their imprint period, when exposure to a variety of things from a distance is important for socialization. You don't need to interact with anything, just let your dog take it all in. This is enrichment for all their senses and gives you a chance to decompress with your pup — see if you can identify how this is actually engaging all five of your senses too: What colors and movement do you see? What do you smell and how does that affect what you taste? What does the bench feel like when you touch it? Do you hear birds singing or children playing? 

Build an Agility Course for Your Dog

You can make an easy agility course for your pup in a hallway or go all out with a full course out in the yard. Use regular cones or even cardboard boxes to create weaves and jumps if you don't have actual agility equipment. If you're wanting a sturdy and more competition-style course, albeit expensive check out this one. At the office, we set up these FitPAWS hurdles for Portuguese Water Dog Clover, and she's a big fan:

clover hurdles in offfice

Make sure the obstacles you set up aren't overly challenging (or too high) for your dog and walk them through a few times, rewarding them for working through each obstacle. It's all about having fun! This activity is great for building what's called "proprioception," your dog's awareness of their body in the environment and ability to balance. Watch our Preventive Vet office pups work through an easy maze we set up one afternoon in this video:

Create a Dig Area for Your Dog

Does your dog love to dig? Digging is a natural dog behavior and providing some digging enrichment will satisfy your dog's urge to get their paws dirty. In order to save your garden, provide your pup with somewhere they are allowed to dig. You can do this a variety of ways:

  • Use a kiddie pool or sandpit container and fill it with kid-safe dirt or sand.

  • Designate a specific corner or area of your yard that's okay to dig in. Mark it with small garden dividers to help your dog learn where it's okay to dig.

  • Build a raised-garden bed filled with dirt or sand.

  • Bury some of your dog's toys, treats or chews in their designated area. Make it easy at first, leaving the toy partially uncovered before burying it completely. (If burying treats or chews, discard those that haven’t been dug up that day — you don’t want to attract any unwelcome wildlife into your yard! Regularly wash other toys that spend time in your dog’s dig pit.)

  • Explore the dig pit with your dog, getting involved in helping them uncover their buried treasure and getting excited with them when they unbury things.

  • If your dog goes to inappropriate areas and starts to dig, simply redirect them back to their special area. Then consider blocking off their access to the other areas to prevent digging in the wrong spot.

Watch this video to see how easy it is to build your dog their very own dig pit:

What Is Dog Enrichment?

Enrichment is providing animals with needed environmental stimuli that satisfies their natural instincts, which promotes physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. It's not just for our pets either!

Environmental enrichment is used extensively with zoo animals to give them a way to practice instinctual behaviors and to have some fun! Watch this video showing how the Tennessee Aquarium works enrichment into the daily lives of the animals in their care:

For our dogs, enrichment provides an outlet for instincts such as chewing, digging, hunting, herding, or scent tracking. "Dogs today are largely under-employed," says trainer Sara Paulik. "Each breed was created to perform very specific tasks, most of which involve a large amount of physical and mental stamina. In other words, dogs were bred to work, and we have stranded them in the unemployment line." Without appropriate ways to use their natural gifts, dogs will often exhibit problem behaviors, boredom, or become stressed and anxious.

Different Types of Enrichment

Enrichment for the Canine Senses (Environmental Enrichment)

There are different kinds of enrichment to consider — it's not only about the latest treat or toy. When considering ways to enrich your dog's environment, think about the five senses: smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste.

Use different kinds of materials when making your dog puzzles, as these smell, feel, taste, look and sound different while your dog is tossing them around trying to get their food out. Walking on different kinds of surfaces, and letting your dog roll around in the grass or dirt is giving them some excellent tactile enrichment. Variety is key when it comes to enrichment for your dog. Mix it up from one day to the next.

Environmental enrichment is especially important for young puppies in their initial imprint period (between 7 to 16 weeks of age). If you have a young puppy, check out our 100 Things in 100 Days checklist for ideas of what proactive exposure training to focus

Cognitive Enrichment

From puzzles to training sessions, problem solving is also considered an enrichment activity because it expends both physical and mental energy. "Cognitive enrichment can wear out a dog as much as a run in the park. Training sessions and brain games can be equated to crosswords or sudoku puzzles for humans," Paulik explains.

Sign up for a dog training class that goes beyond just the basic obedience behaviors, such as trick training or nose work classes. There are lots of dog sports you can get involved in as well, many of which build on a dog's natural breed tendencies.

dog agility course trainingIf your dog is a herding breed or mix, a sport like Treibball (Urban Herding) is a great way to work their skills. Earthdog or Barn Hunt gives terriers an opportunity to dig and track rodents. From dock diving to Flyball, there's a sport for every dog and their person! Even if you live in an area without nearby dog sports clubs or training classes, there are online options to get you started, such as the Fenzi Dog Sport Academy.

Social Enrichment

Beyond just environmental enrichment, dogs also need social enrichment such as play and interaction. "Dogs are incredibly social creatures and isolation can cause them large amounts of stress," says Paulik.

If your dog is enjoys and does well playing with other dogs, consider regular playdates or trips to the dog park (Learn more about What You Should Know Before Taking Your Puppy to the Dog Park here). Dog daycare is another great option to give your dog social interaction with other dogs. If you're not sure if your dog would like going to daycare, read our article "Will Your Dog Enjoy and Do Well in Daycare."

Age-Appropriate Enrichment

Enrichment should be tailored to each individual dog’s preferences, needs, and abilities. Senior dogs have different needs and physical abilities than adolescent dogs, and puppies need different things than adult dogs.

If your dog is hard of hearing or sight-impaired, adjust the enrichment to really engage the senses they do still have, like smell or touch. If they have a harder time moving around or have arthritis, choose enrichment activities that they can enjoy while staying comfortable in a small area. Consider putting down a mat to give them some traction while they work on a puzzle.

When asked if there is any kind of enrichment activity or toy to avoid with a dog, Paulik made an excellent point: "This really depends on the dog. If they are very insecure, or tend to give up easily, you want to avoid any toy or activity that frustrates them or causes them stress.

Watch the dog’s body language as they are engaging in the activity. If they appear to be stressed or uninterested, try something easier so they can build confidence knowing that this is something that they can succeed in."puppy-enrichment-toys

Why is Enrichment Important for Your Dog?

Enrichments Helps with Puppy Socialization

Enrichment toys and activities expose your puppy to a variety of sights, smells, sounds, and textures that help their brains develop. Problem solving skills they practice while young will help them grow into a resilient adult dog. The key for puppy enrichment is keeping everything positive and not letting them get too frustrated when solving puzzles. Start easy and slowly work your way up to harder and harder puzzle toys.

Enrichment Helps Reduce Canine Anxiety and Stress

Shelter dogs are often given environmental enrichment to reduce stress. A recent study found “the use of environmental enrichment methods through different types of games and toys in shelters decreased signs of depression and stereotyped behavior of kenneled dogs.” Providing enrichment for our dogs at home can help with issues such as separation anxiety, and make events such as moving or large gatherings of houseguests much less stressful.

Enrichment Prevents Your Dog From Getting Bored

"Chewing, licking, sniffing and shredding are the four most common behaviors that dogs engage in when trying to reduce stress or boredom, or to calm themselves. It’s no wonder that dogs are so often destructive when left alone," says Paulik. Providing enrichment that satisfies these behaviors will help prevent unwanted behaviors (such as destructive chewing) that dogs engage in when they're looking for something to do.

Enrichment Provides Physical and Mental Exercise for Your Dog

Enrichment games and puzzles are a great way to give elderly dogs with painful conditions or physical limitations a way to get in some exercise. Same goes for young puppies that shouldn't be engaging in strenuous activity until their growth plates have fully grown.

Dogs need exercise but high levels of physical activity can sometimes have a negative effect on their behavior. Mental enrichment activities can help balance out physical exercise. "It is important to balance physical and mental stimulation," emphasizes Paulik. "Dogs need to move their bodies every day, but high intensity exercise like fetch, running and playing with other dogs increases adrenaline levels. Your dog needs you to provide a way to bring those adrenaline levels back down to normal after strenuous activities."

Chihuahua-chewy-FB

All of the above benefits of enrichment mean that your dog will be better behaved and an overall happier dog. Doing different enrichment activities with your dog strengthens your bond and is quite a mood booster for both canine and human!

A big thanks to Sara Paulik of Affinity Canine Education for contributing to this article! We'd love to hear your favorite enrichment ideas — share them with us in the comments below.

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