Providing enrichment for your dogs during winter

We Californians know we need the rain, but it can sometimes feel like we’re getting a little cabin fever when we can’t take our dogs out to enjoy themselves. What’s a responsible dog owner to do when the hiking trails are just one long trough of mud, the neighborhood sidewalks are damp, and the air is so cold that we just plain don’t want to go out there?The answer: other avenues of enrichment!

We all know that our dogs need some combination of veterinary care, food, water, shelter, exercise, and love. But our pets have other needs as well. The internationally accepted Five Freedoms of animal welfare state that an animal that lives under human control should have the freedom to “express natural behavior” as much as possible. In other words, fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly--and dogs gotta run, sniff, play, socialize, and hunt. Animals are born with the skills and energy to spend all day finding the calories they need to survive, but most of us just pour their kibble into a bowl, missing out on a big opportunity to make our pets’ lives more interesting. When we help our animals do a little work for their food, we’re doing them a big favor.

Whether it's nice or rainy outside, these fun activities to do with your wagging, four-legged friend will deepen your bond--and giving your dog some structured “thinking” activities can also help prevent him from coming up with his own, like systematically destroying your shoes. So what are you waiting for? Let’s do some enrichment!


Along with exercise and time with friendly dogs and people, interaction with the olfactory world is one of the most important modes of enrichment for dogs. Many experts agree that a dog’s most important sense is his sense of smell--it’s how he understands the world. Here are some DIY ideas to try:

  • Surprise Rover by spicing up certain spots in the yard with commercially available game scents. Buy rabbit, waterfowl, dove, grouse, or deer musk online and put 2-3 drops of one of these on a fence post, tree trunk, or bush at nose-level. Don’t be surprised if your dog is suddenly fascinated with this spot! Rotate the scents--newness is key to enrichment.
  • Make your scenting into a winnable game by giving Rover an awesome treat or play session every time he finds a bush you laced with the animal scent. Sooner or later, you’ll be playing “nose hide and seek”--and maybe even registering as a competitor in the addictive doggy sport of K9 Nose Work.
  • If you have a friend with pocket pets (hamster, mouse, gerbil), stuff a little bit of their used bedding into a plastic container and poke some holes for your dog to sniff. Supervise your dog to make sure he doesn’t break off or eat any pieces.


A staple of modern zoos and aquariums, enrichment that allows the animal to work on his environment to earn food is also a great activity for your dog. Here are some games that Fido might love:

  • Wobblers and Puzzles and Kongs, oh my!: Many commercially available products enable you to hide food in a reusable container that requires the dog to push, hit, gnaw, throw, or lick the container to get the food out. Aim for a dishwasher-safe product for easy cleaning. Start off on the easiest setting (for example, just a few loose treats that will fall out immediately when the dog first touches the device) and then build up to more difficult versions (making the holes smaller, plugging the holes with paste food, freezing the food inside the device, you name it!).
  • Snuffle Mat: You can build one of these yourself or order it online. Your dog will delight at the experience of foraging for his meal--and it can help guard against the problems that come with fast eating, such as bloat for large or deep-chested dogs.
  • Enrichment Pro: Build your own inventive devices! In the one pictured here, the human puts a few tasty treats into the suspended bottles, and the dog has to spin the bottles around to get the food to fall out.


These activities are particularly satisfying to dogs because they give them an acceptable outlet for the normal tearing and crushing behavior that is part of the instinctive, multi-step predatory sequence, or “fixed action pattern,” common to all canids. Be sure to supervise your dog at all times during mechanical enrichment activities.

Give these things a try--they might be Lassie’s new favorite game:

  • Put a few small pieces of deli meat or cut up hot dogs in a paper lunch bag. Crumple up the bag, toss it to your dog, and encourage him to have at it! Enrichment Pup: Help him get started by tearing a few holes yourself. Enrichment Pro: Put the bag inside an old t-shirt and knot it up.
  • Put a few small pieces of meat on a piece of butcher paper and roll up the paper. Lightly twist the paper and tie it into a loose square knot. Enrichment Pro: Stuff the twisted paper into a hole-filled ball for the dog to rip out. 


Is there an activity that builds your bond, enriches your dog’s life, AND helps him learn skills that every dog needs to help him navigate human society? Yes! Training your dog using force-free, evidence-backed methods not only shows him that you’re the source of everything he loves, but also teaches him that he should look to you for guidance if he is ever unsure of how to respond in the real world.

For more information about training your dog, visit Pets in Need at 871 5th Avenue in Redwood City. We hold regular workshops about the science behind animal learning, and how you can leverage expert research to teach your dog to do what you like and to strengthen your bond with her. Check out our ‘What Is Clicker Training?’ workshops on Eventbrite. Happy tails!

Care & Train, NewsGeneral