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Enrichment is a term used quite often within zoos. The concept has evolved over the years and is applied throughout the nation in order to provide targeted training, allowing each species to express its specific type of natural behaviors in an unnatural setting, as well as providing mental and physical stimulation. Why apply this to our dogs or cats?The same basic idea applies perfectly for your companion animal when he/she is home alone, seems bored or starts displaying behavior problems. Providing enriching activities can be creative and fun without having to depend only on specialty products although plenty exist in the marketplace. Enrichment comes from all types of sources such as:

  • different types of food (snacks or meals which can be varied)
  • new or unusual items or experiences (new toys or places)
  • interactivity (puzzle toys, problem solving play or formal training)

Something to think about is how we form human attachments with our dogs. Wikipedia sums up an interesting theory "Research has shown that there are individual differences in the relationships between dogs and their human masters that have significant effects on dog behavior. For instance, Topal and colleagues (1997) have shown that the type of relationship between dog and master -- characterized as either "companionship" or "working relationship" -- significantly affected the dogs performance on a cognitive problem-solving task. They speculate that companion dogs have a more dependent relation shop with their owners, and look to them to solve problems. In contrast, working dogs are more independent".When developing your enrichment approach keep in mind the type of breed you have so that you can tailor your enrichment activities to suite that specific breed. Each dog breed has been bred to "express" certain behaviors over others. The American Kennel Club (AKC) classifies breeds by the following groups:

For cat owners, a great resource is The Cat Fanciers' Association.Each category has been grouped to define the types of main behaviors and personalities you can expect of your dog or cat. Also, researching your specific breed will help since the categories do not always indicated each breed's particular personality. If you have a mixed breed, the best advise we have we received from an anonymous veterinarian "whatever your dog or cat looks most like is probably the personality it will exhibit". Your mixed breed may cross between a few categories giving you more variation on activities.We have compiled ideas for owners to keep their furry kids entertained and stimulated. Our goal is to provide interactive ideas that will challenge your dog's instinct for problem solving, licking and chewing and cat's instinct for hunting and problem solving. We also recommend to sign up for basic training or specialty training classes with your dog. Classes are a great way for you and your dog to learn more about animal behavior, communication and play through mental stimulation.With all enrichment activities, start out basic with simple and easy activities. Once your furry kid has mastered this stage then move onto more difficult activities. Many ideas will be presented that can be modified and built upon for greater difficulty. Keep in mind that if you start out with a difficult level first, many animals become frustrated and will either not want to engage in the activity or become destructive. Please note that every toy or food item discussed has the potential to become hazardous if misused or swallowed in large chunks causing blockages or an upset stomach. We always recommend supervising every activity. We will divide activities between dog and cat categories.Dogs

Chewing Myth

Before describing different activities we want to point out that dogs have a greater jaw strength than humans and many other animals. We tend to forget that they have extremely powerful jaws. So lets bust a chewing myth that is prevalent in marketing pet products - There is no such thing as an indestructible toy. These marketing claims are "hype" and not reality. At our retail location we have owners tell us all the time that their dogs (size does not matter) have eaten through and shredded Kongs, Nylabones, walls, bones, and solid furniture. We even know of one Jack Russell that put giant size holes in a few walls. We know of only one manufacturer that actually has a one time chewing guarantee. Others that claim these warranties have not stood by them.

Chew Treats

We recommend staying clear of snacks that are harder to digest such as rawhide for dogs with sensitive stomachs or for puppies. Although rawhide can provide an enriching chew treat it is harder on the digestion and many veterinarians will recommend that it not be introduced to a puppy's diet until 6-8 months. The following chew treats versus many others on the market provide longer lasting fun while being fully digestible and easier on the stomach.

  • Bully sticks or "Flossie" twists: cartilage and connective tissue
  • "Moo Tubes" or Cow trachea: cartilage
  • Fish skins - actual skin dehydrated into bone or roll shapes
  • Bones - either the really hard processed bones or raw (please note that raw tend not to splinter as easily as cooked since they are not dried out).
  • Antlers - venison or elk antlers are naturally shed, harder than bone and a great source of calcium.

Please note that we did not include hooves and other body parts because they tend to be smelly. Many of our clients ask that we avoid those items that cause really bad odors or that stain.

Durable Toys

The most durable toys we have found in the market are rubber or nylon based.

  • Rubber or nylon toys such as Kong, Rogz and Nylabone brands work well. These toys should be washed once a week in warm water with mild soap or they will retain old odors and tastes that will not be appealing.

  • Durable plush/canvas toy brands should be well stitched, thick and usually utilize canvas or fire hose.

  • Plush interactive puzzle toys are new to the industry. These are toys that need 100% supervision. They start out easy such as placing a ball inside a cube part way and teaching your furry kid to pull the ball out of the cube making it harder once each stage is mastered. These toys will be really appealing to hunting and working dog breeds.

  • Boiled Wool is another new concept. Boiled wool toys are handmade usually in Napal from hand shorn New Zealand wool. Each are tightly woven, dried naturally and pull like taffy when chewed. A really good technique to aid in the "chewing stage" during the puppy period is to dip the toy in water until completely soaked and then freeze. The cold feels good on sore gums and it makes the toy much more difficult to chew.

  • Wood puzzle training toys are the newest items to be developed. One specific series of toys was created by Swedish trainer Nina Ottosson which which teach cognitive building skills. We sell these toys in conjunction with our affiliated dog behaviorist's recommendations. They are great interactive toys.

Combining Toys with Treats

There are some great methods to combine treats and toys to create a more interactive experience and also stimulate your dog's cognitive development skills. In addition, many of these techniques accommodate dogs' innate chewing and licking instinct with food. The methods we are presenting will start basic and work into more challenging methods with different options: Items needed: hallow rubber toy(s) or bone(s) combined with a variety of foods.Basic: Fill toy such as a Kong or Tibia Bone with dog's current kibble and cap off the end with natural/organic peanut butter, light cream cheese or a basic hummus.Please note that we recommend light cream cheese for dogs that may need to watch their calorie intake or for dogs that need lower fat in their diet.Intermediate: Graduate to larger biscuit treats or different food fillings. Both can be interchanged and rotated for variety. Use your imagination. There are a bunch of great foods that can be used. However, please check with the ASPCA poison control center and your veterinarian before experimenting on your own.Fillings:

  • Blend one jar of all natural or organic sugar free peanut butter with 1-2 tbs. of honey. Store in the refrigerator for later use. Spread with your finger 1/4 inch of the blend into the toy. Variations on this recipe include: freezing or by blending into the mixture chopped carrots, sweet potatoes, apples or small biscuit treats.

  • Using Knox gelatin (this is a baking gelatin and does not contain sugar or sugar substitutes which may be toxic), create a gelatin using low sodium broth (fish, chicken or beef stocks are readily available in most stores) instead of water. Use the rubber toy or bone as a mold. Variations on this recipe include: freezing or by blending into the mixture chopped carrots, sweet potatoes, apples or small biscuit treats.

  • The same peanut butter blend can be substituted for light cream cheese or basic hummus.


There are all types of games that you can play with your dog. Many you can find from obedience, agility and hunting training references. Dogs learn these games quickly when a lot of positive reinforcement and praising is given. Here are a few to get you started.

  • Fetch: this classic is an all time favorite for most dogs. For those that have a hard time bringing the item back, consider using a rubber or tennis ball style toy with a squeaker in it.

  • Find: hide a favorite object such as a treat, bone or toy. Say "where's the item". Start out easy by walking over to the object and pointing at it. Once your dog gets the idea of finding the object then create a more difficult challenge by hiding it in an easy area. Once your dog gets the idea of finding the hidden object start hiding it in more difficult areas. I was able to train my labrador retriever to find a ball after throwing it off a balcony into the back yard. I would give the signal "find the ball". He would watch me throw the ball, and then run down the stairs to the back yard to find it. I decided to use the commands "hot" or "cold" to indicate if he was close to the ball or not. He would then sniff out the ball and bring it back. This game would take several "hot" and "cold" calls with quite a few positive "good boy" when he got close to it. Please note that this took weeks to learn after learning the find game. It was worth it.

  • Chase: laser pointers or feather chase cat toys are great to get your dog chasing an item.

  • Oversized toys: Oversized balls are another interesting game to play. Your dog will push it around trying to pick it up. You can progress to a more difficult level by teaching your dog to push the oversized ball to a specific point for a treat or praise.

CatsMost people find keeping cats entertained easy but every now and then we run into a few owners that want some different ideas. Since cats are born hunters and love to chase, the sky is the limit to the types of toys and play time available. For enrichment, there are a few methods to develop natural behaviors. The Walt Disney Enrichment Program describes their enrichment program for their tigers which is easily replicated with your domestic cats as follows:

  • "self maintenance - rubbing, scratching"
  • "Sensory - smelling, scent marking, investigation"
  • "Play behaviors - run, jump, pounce"
  • "Hunting behaviors - chase, capture, stalk"

We recommend that you rotate toys so that the toys stay fresh and interesting. A variety of toys work best by having some chasing toys (such as strings or poles with feathers or laser pointers) and traditional toys for your cat to bat around (such as furry mice and balls). Its important to set time aside and play with your cat so that it chases an object. This creates a good bond with your cat and allows your cat to get exercise. Below are some ideas to get you started. We broke each approach based on the "tiger model".

Self Maintenance

  • Grooming is a large part of cat behavior. Brushing regularly not only helps keeps your cat's coat healthy but fulfills the need for self maintenance.

  • Scratching posts promotes scratching and rubbing. We recommend staying clear of carpeted items and try sisal or cardboard scratchers. Once cats associate scratching with carpet, the will scratch all carpets available.


  • Smells can be applied to toys to make the more interesting. The most popular smell is catnip. Take a zip lock bag and shake the toys in it and leave it overnight so that the catnip smell will become infused. Another alternative is fresh/dried honeysuckle. Cat grass is another great smell and taste that cats enjoy.

  • Scent marking is not only applied with urine but also scent glands secreted by the cheek. When your cat rubs his face against you he is "marking" you as his territory. There are some scratching products that promote face rubbing or extra vertical scratching posts also work.

  • Investigation toys allow your cat to try and find a toy within a box. You can also make your own investigation toys by cutting holes in a box and putting fun toys in it for your cat to dig out. Leave a large paper bag or box out every now and then for your cat to climb into and investigate.

Play/Hunting Behavior

  • Cat agility is a new phenomena catching on. If you have the time and are interested you should check into cat agility classes in your area through The Cat Fanciers' Association.

  • Hanging a string so that it falls about 1 foot before the floor from a doorway with a toy attached is a great way to promote jumping. Or, use a chasing toy to get your cat to chase it, and then lift it in the air to see how high your cat will jump.

  • Put your hand underneath a heavy blanket and make a scratching sound underneath it. Your cat will follow the sound and pounce. For variety, once your cat hears the sound start running your hand in different patterns so that your cat will have to chase it and then pounce.

  • Chew treats are not traditionally offered for cats however a few of our clients have complained that their cats try to chew various household objects. We have had them use and found the following to work: salmon skin rolls, flavored small rawhide sticks and small slender tendon chews.