How to Tire Your Dog out without Tiring Yourself Out: Easy & Effective Enrichment Ideas for Satisfying High-Energy Dogs
I come across plenty of clients who are overwhelmed when we discover that their dog needs much more enrichment, on a daily basis, in order to be happy and healthy. I love guiding clients through a joyful exploration of activities that challenge their dog physically and mentally without taking up a ton of the owner’s time and energy.
Physical and mental exercise are imperative to avoiding problem behaviors such as leash reactivity, chewing/destructive behavior, barking, etc. But, I want to emphasize that I do not advocate simply avoiding behavioral problems by keeping your dog constantly exhausted. A professional can help you figure out if your dog is acting up because they are lacking enrichment, or if bad manners are more so due to a lack of training.
Please note the importance of the mental enrichment side of this. I meet so many dogs who get plenty of physical exercise, but do so in mindless games of fetch or relatively boring walks and jogs. Especially for dogs that are bred to do “work” such as herding breeds, all the cardio in the world will not satisfy their need for mental challenge. They need to use that brain!
Without further ado, these are my favorite unique ideas for canine mental and physical enrichment.
Hardcore kibble scatters: This my favorite lazy enrichment method. When I lived in an apartment in Chicago, I would pretty religiously hide small piles of kibble all over the house, in every single room, for my dog to find. If you have a backyard, you can scatter kibble outside/in grass. Let them watch you scatter the food, or show them where to start looking for it. Start small and then get more elaborate with your scattering/hiding.
Nosework introductions/formal “searches”: This is actually how some people imprint their dog on searching for competition nosework. Start with your dog confined in some way such as being in a stay, on a tether, held by someone, or behind a baby gate. You are going to hide a portion of their food, but all in one place this time. You can have the food in a bowl; I like to use a kong so that my hiding spots can be more dynamic, such as shoving a kong in between couch cushions. Start out by letting your dog watch where you hide the food. Release your dog with a special word like, “search!” and celebrate when they find the food. Gradually work up to not letting your dog watch where you hide the food. Hide it in harder and harder spots. For advanced dogs, I also continue to walk around and touch things after I hide the food, so that the dog is truly searching for the scent instead of tracking where I walked or listening to the last place I went.
Hide and seek: With two or more people, you can all hide in different spots in your house and alternate between each person calling the dog. With a single person, you can put your dog in a stay, hide, and then call them. (A good excuse to work on out-of-sight stays!) If you have a good hiding spot, it’s okay to continuously make noise so that your dog doesn’t give up on finding you.
Training!!! Good ole’ training your dog is my favorite enrichment activity. Take basic skills such as sit, down, stay, and come to advanced levels. Train tricks. Seriously, train tricks. Train tricks that require body awareness and strength such as sit pretty, bow, handstand, stand on hind legs, etc. Put your dog’s brain to the test by sequencing a routine of skills back-to-back, all the while making sure that your dog is paying attention to signals and not just guessing the trick. Check out my Virtual Tricks Class (click) and my Rockin’ Rally-O Group (click) for some training inspiration of the fun variety.
At-home obstacle course: Train agility or “faux-gility” by purchasing cheap doggie obstacle course items or making them yourself out of props like chairs, planks of wood, etc. Have your dog hop on and off of stuff, jump over or crawl under things, and more. Teach your dog to balance on exercise balls or upside down buckets. Be careful not to have your dog run and slide on hardwood floors or do any tough jumping/hard landing repeatedly; you don’t want them to get hurt.
Structured play dates: If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, I always recommend having playdates as opposed to regularly having your dog play with random stranger-dogs at the park. Playdates allow your dog to form relationships with other dogs and develop intimacy. They also give you the opportunity to communicate with the owners and advocate for your dog, such as, “My dog is being too rough; I’m going to give her a time-out.” Or, “I want to practice recall, can you call your dog too?” Where can you find playmates for your dog? Training classes, making friends with neighbors, and friends you already have that have friendly dogs are all a good place to start. Consult with a professional like myself if you’re not sure about how your dog is behaving when they are around other dogs.
Ping pong recall: This one is pretty classic, but man, it’s a winner. With two or more people, alternate calling your dog. Work up to being able to stand really far away from each other, if you have a yard or know of a space where it’s safe to do so. Make it a formal training game by keeping your dog with you (maybe ask them to do a sit-stay) until you give them a release signal. The next person should only call the dog after a release signal is given. If you’re super far from one another, you can make an “all done” gesture with your hands, as well, so that the next person to call the dog can be sure that you released them. If you don’t do it like this, the dog tends to just start randomly running between everyone - fun for them, but a less valuable training lesson.
Add structure to toy play: If you already have a dedicated lover of fetch or tug, you can add obedience or tricks in between reps for additional mental challenge. If your dog loves toys, using toys as a reward for skills usually requires more brain power from your dog than when you train with food. It’s hard to keep it together and be thoughtful when you’re excited! Work up to your dog being able to hold a sit- or down-stay while you throw a toy or even hide it (perhaps in some shrubbery). If your dog has trouble dropping their toy or bringing it back to you, I’ve got news for you. Toy play can be trained. But, this training tends to be particularly varied depending on the individual, so I recommend tackling that with the help of a professional trainer. The last thing that you want to do is accidentally cause aggression or avoidance of toys period because your attempts to get your dog to share or drop it were unappreciated.
Outsource your cardio: If you afford it, there are some other cool ways to get your dog some extra cardio without you having to run. See if there are any canine pool centers in your area. Take a look at doggie treadmills. Hire a professional dog runner.
Chewing and interactive feeders: Chewing is natural, enriching, and can be great for your dog’s dental hygiene. Bully sticks, raw bones, antlers, cow hooves, Himalayan chews, huzzah! Do your research on what is safe, mind shards of things, and know what kind of chewer your dog is/what they will surely break their teeth on. Only buy high-quality chews and bones - nothing from Petsmart and the like. Check out interactive feeders/food puzzles and slow feeders. Stuff a kong or slow feeder with something and then freeze it. Free food is boring food! Make your dog work for it.
Those are all my favorite enrichment activities! I do them all myself, regularly. Enjoy!