Canine Enrichment / Brain Games!

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by Margaret R. Pender, owner, DogGone Right! Inc.

What do snuffle mats, pickpockets, lick mats, and fortune cookies have to do with dogs, dog training, and dog behaviour? These are just some of the most interesting canine enrichment – or brain games – I’ve seen recently.

The Oxford Dictionary defines enrichment as “the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something.” Now add “canine” to “enrichment,” and you can see that the goal is to improve our dogs’ lives by enhancing their environment in a more meaningful and rewarding way. It is not a replacement for your dog’s social interaction, but it can help dogs who have difficulty in social situations.

The key to using any canine enrichment activity or brain game is to start slow; keep your ideas simple at first. Allow your dog to proceed at their own pace, gradually building their confidence before adding more complicated exercises. Set your dog up for success!

For example, when using a snuffle mat for the first time, place your dog’s kibble or treats on top of the mat. When using a puzzle toy, make sure to start with easy access to the treats. If trying a lick mat, use sloppy food loosely placed in the crevices to encourage your dog to lick rather than chew the mat. As your dog gains confidence and starts using their brain, you can increase the difficulty level.

Dogs who find the exercise too difficult will often get frustrated and walk away from the activity or toy. A more confident dog may easily outwit the exercise. I learned my lesson a few years ago, when I gave my dog Molly a more complicated puzzle toy. Being pretty smart and confident, she picked the toy up, flipped it over, and all the treats came spilling out at once. We went back to building the puzzle part up one treat at a time. Eventually I presented her with the same puzzle toy filled with her kibble/treats, but this time though it took her about 20 minutes to complete – by using her brain and nose.

As with all toys, it is essential to always supervise your dog when you are providing a canine enrichment activity or brain game toy. If you are giving your dog a hollow toy, make sure there are at least two holes to maintain airflow. Be aware that when stuffing any toy, such as a Kong, you may end up blocking that second hole. Supervise, supervise, and delight in your dog’s enjoyment of canine enrichment.

How could something like a snuffle mat help your dog who practically inhales his food when eating?

A snuffle mat is made up of fleece strips tied to a rubber mat with holes in it. The loose ends of the fleece are a great hiding spot for your dog’s kibble, slowing down their eating habits and providing them with an opportunity to use their nose to search for hidden treasures.

Instructions on how to make your own snuffle mat can be found on the internet. One of my favourite instruction videos is by the Calgary Humane Society and can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJQY08LPfts. But do not fear, if you don’t want to make your own there are many small craft business owners who make and sell them online.

Do you want to teach your dog to settle on a mat?

Freezing a few stuffed Kongs or sterilized bones and allowing your dog to eat these frozen treats on their mat is a great way to help teach your dog to settle on a favourite spot. The Kong Company has a list of recipes at https://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/

Does your dog always get under foot when you are making dinner for the family and you would like to find a way to keep them busy?

Try a lick mat. A lick mat is a semi-hard mat with ridges – think of two or three ice cube trays placed side by side, but the “cubes” are 1 ´ 1 cm in size. To learn more about this product you can visit http://industripet.com/product/lickimat-buddy/ . They are available in Canada at https://www.bigalspets.com/ca/dogs/training-behavior/industripet-lickimat-buddy.html. Outward Hound has a similar product called a Dog Feeder Mat, which can be found at local retailers.

Do you have an exuberant dog and want to tire them out without having to run them for hours on end?

K9Connectables are a range of toys that go together and can be used in various configurations, making your dog use their brain to figure out how to disconnect the pieces in order to get at the treasure inside. To learn more about K9 Connectables, head over to their website at  https://www.k9connectables.com/

Canine enrichment or brain Games don’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to enrich your dogs’ life using everyday household items:

  • Place a few pieces of kibble or treats inside ordinary garden gloves, empty cereal boxes, empty egg cartons, or empty toilet rolls placed vertically in a shoebox.
  • Put a few pieces of kibble or treats in the toe of a sock and then tie the sock loosely.
  • Take an inexpensive muffin tin, place treats or frozen berries or cucumber in each cup, and cover each cup with oversized balls so your dog has to remove the balls in order to get to the treasure.
  • Make some “fortune cookies” and hide them throughout the house so your dog uses their nose to search them out. To make the fortune cookies, take an empty toilet roll, place some kibble or treats inside, and fold over each end.

Need more ideas? Visit Pickpocket at http://www.pickpocketforagers.com/ or Nina Ottosson Dog treat puzzle toys at http://www.nina-ottosson.com/.

Are you on Facebook? Check out the group called “Canine Enrichment” (moderated by the author), which is devoted to sharing ideas and promoting a better life for dog: https://www.facebook.com/groups/137561280156280/

Note: The author and Speaking of Dogs rescue have no affiliation with, nor did they receive any funds from, the companies and websites mentioned in this article.