Expert Service Dog Training for Life-Changing Results

Free and Low-Cost Enrichment Ideas for Your Service Dog in Training

Light colored poodle stands in front of a table at a convention looking at the camera with a plastic bag in its mouth

“Enrichment” means making something more meaningful, substantial, or rewarding. When dog trainers refer to adding enrichment to your dogs’ life, we usually mean optimizing their mental or physical exercise. Giving your dog more challenges they can succeed at every day makes them happier and more fulfilled, leaving them smarter, calmer, more content, and less destructive.  For a dog in training as a service animal, enrichment is an especially important component of maximizing their training and working potential, while also helping them to lead long, happy, healthy lives.

There are many types of enrichment — sensory, cognitive, social, and more — that can make your dog a better behaved and more satisfied family member. One type of enrichment is giving dogs the opportunity to work for their food. This type of enrichment is often quick, easy, and inexpensive for human caretakers and can give our dogs hours of enjoyable fun and mental exercise. It also means that while they are busy working for their food, they are not engaging in other activities we don’t like!

Low-Cost Enrichment Tips

Instead of putting your dog’s food into a bowl, you can simply pour their meal into a feeder toy twice a day. You can usually buy two or three kibble feeder toys for less than $50 and rotate through those for years to come. Some of our favorites are 

  • Kong Wobbler (dishwasher safe; very sturdy and usually indestructible by even power chewers)
  • Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball (a quiet, soft toy that’s a good “starter” feeder toy for timid or sensitive dogs; smear a little cheese or peanut butter in the “craters” to help your dog get started)
  • IQ Treat Ball (has different levels of difficulty – start without the disc; as your dog gets proficient, put the disc in with the widest opening; narrow the opening as your dog needs more challenge)
Irish Water Spaniel stands in kitchen with an orange feeder ball in its mouth.

If you feed wet food (such as canned dog food or raw ground meat), you can stuff some Kongs or Toppls with your dog’s food.

For the longest-lasting meal option, stuff and freeze a Kong or Toppl.  A Kongsicle is a delightful challenge for a bored dog! But before you do that, make sure to watch our video on how to increase the level of difficulty slowly so your dog doesn’t get frustrated and give up. If your dog powers through a frozen Kong too quickly, try the Chew King Premium Treat Dog Toy or the Woof Pupsicle. 

Free Enrichment Tips

There are so many fun, free ways your dog can earn their meals!

Foraging is easy and can be done indoors or outdoors. Foraging is a great way for your dog to exercise their brain by using their nose. Sniffing lowers dogs’ heart rates, making them calmer, more relaxed, and more confident. It’s also a thrill to see them using their amazing powers of scent detection. The simplest option is to take your dog’s breakfast or dinner kibble and scatter it on the floor or in the yard! To add some training to the mix, tell your dog to “stay” and then “hide” the food somewhere very easy to see and find, at first. Say “Find it.” Over time, slowly increase the distance and start to make it harder to find. To combine enrichment, hide your dog’s feeder toy and send them on a treasure hunt with their nose!

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You can even make food-dispensing toys from things around the house. 

The Muffin Tin Game is a favorite activity in my household. Do you have a muffin tin? Do you have some tennis balls or other types of balls? This video shows an advanced version of the muffin tin game, with both the nosework/find it and all the tins covered with balls, but easily conquered by an elderly dog with visual, hearing, and cognitive limitations. (If you have a new puppy, try the Ice Cube Tray version to get started. Here’s a video of my puppy, Kismet, learning to eat his meals from an ice cube tray.)

Here are some more free feeder toy ideas. Definitely supervise your dog with these as some of them can present a choking hazard if they are shredded or chewed.

  • Use an empty plastic water or soda bottle. Make sure it’s clean (especially if it had soda or juice in it that had xylitol, which is an additive that is poison for dogs). Leave the top off. Pour kibble into the clean, dry bottle, and let your dog bat it around to get out the food!
  • Lick clean the empty jar of nut butter. When you finish a jar of peanut butter (or other nut butter, or applesauce, or anything your dog loves to eat that is safe for him), you can give it to him to lick clean! Make sure that it is an all-natural peanut butter and does not contain xylitol, a sweetener that is poisonous to dogs!
  • Tennis ball of kibble. Take a tennis ball, cut a few slits in it with a razor blade, and stuff kibble into it.
  • Brown Box Surprise OR Paper bag surprise. Do you have a lot of extra paper bags around the house? Put some food in a few of them. Or put the treat-dispensing toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes for your dog to find and extricate. Here’s a video of two of my dogs playing a combination of paper bag and box surprise.

Remember that your dog will live longer and be healthier if you keep track of how much food they’re eating – whether as enrichment, training, or for meals. This is especially important if you are using food for training or have a small dog! Learn some helpful tips in our video.

Enjoy! Have a video of your dog having fun with enrichment? Share it on our social media! We’re @aysdt on Facebook or @atyourservicedogtrainingllc

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