Food, smells, and touch: Enrichment for dogs is fun!

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By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Public Training Instructor

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along as we work through all the forms of enrichment available to our companion animals. I’ve had so much fun writing them. 

In the last blog in the series, we’ll talk about two forms of enrichment: food and sensory stimulus. 

Food

Food puzzles: 

  • Double trouble. This enrichment covers food and cognitive functions. The retail market is flooded with food puzzles for cats and dogs. I’ve found you can use dog food puzzles for cats and vice versa (depending on the size of the dog). (Note: Cat food tends to have high fat and protein contents which can cause gastrointestinal issues in dogs. Reversely, dog food lacks essential nutrients and vitamins for cats. Feed species-appropriate food and treats.) You can also create food puzzles using household items. 
  • Puzzle toys. Some of my personal favorite puzzles are:
    • The Kong Wobbler: A treat dispenser shaped like a red beehive that your pet pushes with a paw and treats come out. They come in a variety of sizes. 
    • Paper towel and toilet paper rolls: Fold in one end. Put treats inside. Fold in the other side. Supervise you pet the first time to give it to her. If she swallows the cardboard, this may not be the toy for her. There will be a mess to clean up. The price of making your dog happy can be messy!
    • LickiMat Soother by Hyper Pet: For dogs and cats alike, this puzzle is a great boredom buster. This idea was given to me by one of our WHS dog fosters. Smear your pet’s favorite wet food or even a small jar of baby food on the nubby mat. Let your pet lick away. The nubs create hiding spots for the food and hours of yummy enjoyment!

Sensory

Find the cookies!

This is the easiest smell-based game ever. It’s great for both dogs and cats, and you can play indoors or outdoors.

  • Outdoor: Toss a handful of treats into the grass. Say to your pet, “Find the cookies.” Watch as they scramble and sniff. Create an area in the backyard for digging. It can be a kid’s swimming pool filled with play sand or dirt or an area blocked off with pavers. Bury treats and toys. Say to your pet, “Find the cookies.” Wipe peanut butter on your backyard fence or flower pots. Say to your pet, “Find the cookies.”
  • Indoor: When your pets are not looking, hide treats in various places throughout a room. Say to your pet, “Find the cookies.” Watch as they excitedly ransack your home! But, seriously, you should put away breakables and hide the treats in pet-appropriate areas. This game is also a way to alleviate mild cases of separation anxiety.

Listen to the music

In a study conducted by the University of Glasgow for the Scottish SPCA, it was found that dogs’ stress levels were reduced when music was played in their kennels. The researchers also discovered that dogs preferred reggae and soft rock over other genres. Conversely, cats do not like human music. In the journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science cats prefer “species-appropriate” music such as songs with tempos that mimic purrs, bird chirps, or nursing.

Dogs—Suggested playlist:

  • “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley and the Wailers
  • “Lovesong” by Adele
  • “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” by Deathcab for Cutie (Piper’s personal favorite)
  • Album: Through a Dog’s Ear by Joshua Leeds and Lisa Spector

Cats—Suggested playlist:

  •  “Cosmo’s Air” by David Teie
  • Album: Anti-Anxiety Music for Cats by Calm Pets Music Academy
  • Album: Relax My Cat by RelaxMyCat

Laser pointers & light up balls

Exercise and enrichment in one activity. My dogs go bananas over laser pointers. They chase it on the floor, up walls, over obstacles. Endless fun for humans and pets alike. Remember not to point the light directly at your pet’s eyes.

Nose or hand targeting

Targeting is the simplest game you can teach your pet; it’s also the most versatile. You can use it for positioning your pet into a specific behavior (sit, heel). Use a hand as a target when you need your dog up on the scale at the vet’s office or into her crate or carrier. Use it as an anti-anxiety game. Because it is so simple for your pet to learn and do, they feel like they are getting free food. Hold out your hand. When your dog’s nose touches it say, “Yes,” and give her a treat. Easy-peasey.

Taste test

Food has different values to pets. Kibble might be the lowest value to your pet. Steak might be the highest value. A fun way to find out which treat motivates your pet the most is to play “Taste Test.” 

  • Secure your pets away from you. You’ll need at least three bowls with three different types of treats in them. For example, kibble in one, boiled chicken in another, and bacon or tuna in third. Place the bowls on the floor spaced a hands length apart. Release the wild beasties! Observe and film, if you like. Whichever bowl they linger in for the longest is most likely the highest value treat.
  • Why is it important to know what treat your pet likes the most? In a highly distracting or anxiety-causing environment or situation such as a vet’s office or even a group training class, your pet needs to focus on you and the task at hand. A high value treat can make your pet feel excited, secure, and willing to work for it. Piper’s high-value treat was steamed broccoli!

Face-to-face training services at Willamette Humane Society have resumed!  We are still offering virtual private lessons and group classes, too!  Visit https://whs4pets.org/train for more information on how to enroll