Pure Joy for Your Pup's Heart and Soul - Are You Handing It Out Like Candy?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

puppy enrichment toy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Puppy enrichment should be viewed by every pet parent as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life
  • Appropriate toys can be used for puppy enrichment; it’s a good idea to rotate your pup’s toys so they retain their “newness”
  • Engage your puppy’s natural instincts by providing him with opportunities to “hunt” for his food and treats
  • It’s also important to provide your pup with lots of physical activity, including enrichment walks
  • Offer your puppy stimulation for all her senses — visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory

As any devoted dog parent can tell you, puppies have lots of needs beyond the basics of food and shelter. Not only do they need a nutritious diet, a comfy place to sleep (preferably in their own cozy crate) and veterinary exams, they also need socialization, basic obedience training and puppy enrichment.

In this context, enrichment means enhancing your puppy’s surroundings and lifestyle to provide him with novelty in his environment, opportunities to learn and encouragement to engage in instinctive canine behaviors.

Environmental enrichment is often used with adult dogs to address behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, and more. When it comes to puppies, enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life.

Puppy Toys

Dogs evolved to survive in the wild, spending most of their day evading predators and hunting for food. Now that we humans have assumed responsibility for meeting all our dogs’ basic needs, it’s also up to us to provide them with exercise and other forms of enrichment to keep their bodies and minds well-conditioned.

A good place to start an enrichment program for a new puppy is the toybox. You may have noticed that when you offer a new toy to your pup, while she’s excited by it initially, she loses interest within a short time. This is because dogs habituate to toys, meaning they get used to them. The new toy quickly becomes just another inanimate object in your puppy’s environment.

You can work around this problem by rotating the toys. Provide your pup with a supply of different types of toys in varying shapes, sizes, textures, colors and scents. A general guideline is to offer three toys per day. At the end of the day remove them, and reintroduce them about every five days so they remain “new” to your puppy.

Food Hunts

Your puppy has maintained much of his natural drive to engage in the same behaviors as his counterparts in the wild, including hunting for food. A great way to help him engage in those natural behaviors is to have him “hunt” for his food at home.

At dinnertime, try separating your pup’s meal into two or more food puzzle toys (such as the West Paw Toppl Treat Toy or the Outward Hound Star Spinner) designed to encourage him to interact with the toy to get the food. This will stimulate his brain and also provide him with both physical and mental activity.

If your puppy has never been exposed to puzzle toys, you’ll need to phase them in gradually (in other words, don’t put the entire meal into the toys right out of the gate if he’s never seen the toys before). You may have to show him how to use them by digging the food out yourself as he watches. You can also try smearing a bit of food on the outside of the toys to entice him. When he’s finished, be sure to wash and rinse the toys thoroughly, especially if you feed a fresh food diet.

Physical Activity

Our canine companions need daily exercise to be optimally healthy and emotionally balanced, and this goes double for puppies and high-energy breeds. It’s important to understand that your pup — no matter how small — can’t get adequate exercise running around your home or backyard by himself.

In a perfect world, every dog would have opportunities to do some high-intensity endurance running on a regular basis to release endocannabinoids, which are the “happy hormones” responsible for the runner's high in both humans and canines.

Most dogs don’t engage in intense exercise with their owners for a variety of reasons, but your pup really does need your help to get the most out of exercise and playtime. There are lots of activities you can enjoy with your pet, depending on his size and maturity level. Suggestions:

Take a walk, hike or jog with your pup

Play a game of tug-of-war

Take a bike ride alongside your pup using a special dog bike leash

Play fetch using a ball launcher to extend the distance your pup runs to retrieve and return the ball

Take your puppy for a swim and play fetch in the water

Play hide-and-seek with treats or your pup’s favorite toys

Enrichment Walks

Another way to enrich your pup’s environment is to take her on different types of walks. For example:

There are short purposeful walks in which she’ll only be outside long enough to relieve herself.

There are mentally stimulating walks during which you give your puppy time to stop, sniff, investigate, mark a spot and discover the great outdoors with her nose and other senses. It’s worth noting that most leashed dogs don’t get to spend much time sniffing and investigating. Allowing your puppy time to explore canine-style is good for her mentally. Dogs gather knowledge about the world through their noses.

There are training walks that can expand your puppy’s skills and confidence. You can use them to improve her leash manners, teach basic or advanced obedience commands, or for ongoing socialization opportunities.

You might also want to consider power walks to improve your pet’s fitness level (and yours!).

5 Additional Puppy Enrichment Tips

  1. Provide your pup with visual enrichment by giving him a view outside through a window.
  2. Provide auditory enrichment by leaving a television or radio on, playing music or outdoor sounds on a CD, and offering him toys that make noise.
  3. Provide tactile enrichment by petting, massaging and brushing your pup.
  4. Appeal to his olfactory senses by placing his toys in the clothes hamper so they pick up the scent of his humans. Use essential oils that are safe for dogs. Hide treats around the house or in cardboard boxes.
  5. Provide puzzle and treat release toys stuffed with small amounts of healthy treats your pup loves so they’ll hold his interest. You can also try freezing the toys to keep him occupied for longer periods. Be sure to account for the calories in the treats by adjusting the amount of food you offer at regular mealtimes.
+ Sources and References