Are enrichment toys actually good for your dog?

Since March 2020, over 23 million American households have realized that life is better with a dog. The pandemic puppy boom was the real deal — and now, many of those new dog owners are realizing that dogs require more effort than they expected.

Some formerly remote workers are dealing with their dog’s separation anxiety as they return to the office for the first time in two years. Other people are learning that intelligent dog breeds need more than just a daily walk to be stimulated and satisfied. All the while, dog TikTok (or DogTok) looms, ready to tell pet parents what they’re doing wrong.

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But one niche corner of the internet is a little more positive: dog enrichment TikTok. This movement focuses on dogs’ instinctual needs — like sniffing, foraging, and chewing — in an effort to help them lead holistically fulfilled lives. Enrichment activities are praised as boredom-busters for dogs, and are often marketed as solutions to behavioral problems, though the latter is up for debate.

At a basic level, many enrichment activities make dogs work for their food instead of just receiving it in a bowl. This type of feeding has taken off online over the past two years: You can find it on TikTok under the hashtag #ditchthebowl.

Valentine's day themed dog food feeder

The #ditchthebowl movement advocates for dogs to be fet in more interactive ways, like through puzzle feeders and games.
Credit: Taylor McDonald

Many of the top dog enrichment videos on TikTok are from blogger and content creator Taylor McDonald, the dog mom behind the account @BindisBucketList. McDonald started creating dog content on Instagram in 2019, but moved to TikTok to document her enrichment routines during the first lockdowns of the pandemic. McDonald’s social media accounts include videos of Kongs being stuffed with scrambled eggs, Greek yogurt, and vegetables, enrichment toy reviews, and DIY sniffing puzzles. She even reposts scientific studies supporting the idea that enrichment benefits pets. 

Woman bending down towards one brown dog and one black dog

McDonald shares her dog’s enrichment routine in detail on her social media channels.
Credit: Taylor McDonald

Enrichment isn’t strictly about food and eating, and neither is McDonald’s content. She’s also set up other kinds of sensory enrichment for her two dogs, including a backyard “sniffy station” with dog-safe herbs and flowers, a dedicated space for digging, and an outdoor dog lounge with comfortable places to sit as well as auditory enrichment, like wind chimes and a water fountain.

Alongside Bindi and Rosie, her two mixed-breed rescue dogs, McDonald gained over 300,000 TikTok followers over the past two years — a true testament to how many dog owners are getting into the enrichment trend. The approach has really worked for her, too: In an interview, she said that incorporating enrichment into her dogs’ daily routines has helped them feel more confident and calm.

“Enrichment increases the quality of life for your dogs,” McDonald posited. “I see a huge difference in my dog’s behaviors when they get the proper outlets that allow them to thrive.”

It makes behavioral sense that food puzzles, for instance, would be beneficial for dogs. Dogs (and many other animals) exhibit a behavior called contrafreeloading, or choosing to work for their food instead of taking food that’s given freely. Studies on contrafreeloading suggest that animals who show this behavior enjoy working for their food and are happier because of it. 

“Dogs actually benefit from the act of foraging and looking for their food and working for it, not the actual obtaining the food itself,” says McDonald. “In most cases dogs love to do [food puzzles] because it’s releasing dopamine in their brain.”

However, there’s more to enrichment than just Kongs and food puzzles. Enrichment is actually a broader part of animal behavior studies in general — and it’s been around far longer than #ditchthebowl has been trending on TikTok. 

One black dog and one brown dog sitting in front of a bunch of kong dog toys

Kongs are a classic pick for an entry-level food enrichment toy.
Credit: Taylor McDonald

Allie Bender, who is a certified dog behavior consultant, certified shelter behavior affiliate, certified professional dog trainer, and the author of Canine Enrichment for the Real World, defines enrichment more broadly than its online reputation would indicate. “The biggest misconception is that enrichment is about items or about very particular activities,” she said in an interview. “In actuality, enrichment is about meeting all of an animal’s needs.” While foraging and working for food is one aspect of enrichment, she explained, a well-rounded enrichment routine will meet other basic needs, too, including proper exercise, adequate sleep, and offering safety and security for your dog.

According to Bender, many behaviors dog owners would consider “bad” are actually instinctual. Things like chewing, shredding, and digging all come naturally to dogs, so instead of stopping them from participating in those behaviors, dog owners can use an enrichment routine to redirect them in a way that’s more appropriate (and that won’t destroy your house). For example, you could offer your dogs different types of edible chews, create homemade shredding games for them, or even build a dig pit in the backyard.

Along with keeping bored dogs entertained, some types of enrichment can allegedly help with dog behavioral problems like separation anxiety, chewing, and stress. That promise alone makes it clear why so many dog owners flock to Kongs, puzzle games, and lick mats. But according to Bender, even though enrichment toys are often marketed towards helping with these kinds of problems, you shouldn’t expect toys to fix everything. 

Yellow lick mat filled with a variety of dog-safe treats

Lick mats are one of the simplest dog enrichment puzzles.
Credit: Taylor McDonald

“If I zoom out enough, I really like [the enrichment toy trend],” Bender said. “I really appreciate that people are recognizing that their dogs do need mental stimulation and that we can feed in other forms besides just a bowl. But with that said, we’re kind of seeing this prescriptive thing going on where people are like, well, if there’s a problem, here’s the food puzzle.” 

Simply giving a dog with separation anxiety one food puzzle won’t solve the root of the issue. Separation anxiety and other behavioral problems need to be managed with slow, positively reinforced counter-conditioning and desensitization — often with the help of a professional dog trainer. With the proper introduction, food puzzles may help your dog feel more positive about being alone by themselves, but they’re not the only tool that should be used to help combat behavior issues.

If you do want to incorporate enrichment toys and games into a training routine, there’s a right way to go about it. In an interview, certified professional dog trainer Devi Do said that while enrichment isn’t a fix-all, some enrichment actually can assist with your training goals — when used correctly. 

“I use enrichment to find out what the big motivator is for the dog and for building confidence,” she said. “I use a lot of enrichment for dogs who aren’t comfortable yet with doing regular obedience.”

Do said that food games and puzzles can be a great way to desensitize your dog to an environment that might be scary for them. If they enjoy having a lick mat or a Kong in the house, taking it to a new spot where they are less confident can help them create positive associations. These kinds of toys can even help dogs enjoy bath time and nail trims.

For folks who aren’t sure whether to start with food puzzles or some other kind of enrichment, Do recommends experimenting based on your dog’s breed. For example, many bully breeds love to play tug and many herding breeds love to chase. In these cases, Do might recommend playing with a tug toy or a herding ball with your dog as enrichment, as those activities are meeting their breed-specific tendencies. These kinds of activities can also be used as rewards for obedience training, and are especially good for dogs who aren’t highly food motivated.

Of course, breed tendencies are just a place to start, and there will always be exceptions. If you have a retriever who doesn’t like to play fetch, a hound who isn’t into sniffing, or a mixed-breed pup who doesn’t exhibit anything breed-specific, just spending time playing with and interacting with your dog can help. Getting to know what kinds of toys and games they enjoy is the first step to meeting their needs through enrichment. 

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While you don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of difficult food puzzles to get into enrichment, we can recommend some awesome enrichment toys that will keep your pup entertained. Here are our favorites: 

Taylor McDonald told us that the first enrichment toy she got for her dog Bindi was the original Kong, and this is what jump started her interest in enrichment. “When we crate trained Bindi, we used Kongs and they just made such a big difference,” she said. 

Red Kong

Credit: Kong

Taylor Mcdonald recounted that the Kong Wobbler was another toy she’s had since her dogs were young, and that they still get excited about them years later. “I love how you can make it a little bit harder depending on what you put in it,” she said. “I like to add wine corks into it for an extra challenge.”

Red kong wobbler

Credit: Kong

Taylor McDonald frequently posts videos of her dogs playing with the West Paw Toppl and the West Paw Qwizl. “I love the West Paw stuff,” she says. “I post about it a lot because they’re durable and I love what the company is about.”

Blue dog puzzle toy

Credit: West Paw

Lime green dog puzzle toy

Credit: West Paw

After noticing that her dog Bindi was frequently flipping over her snuffle mat, Taylor McDonald sought out an amped up version from Canadian brand PawzNDogs, which offers snuffle mats made of durable materials with suction cups on the bottom.

Blue snuffle mat with suction cups

Credit: PawzNDogz

Devi Do reminded us that some enrichment toys are too difficult for dogs who aren’t used to working for their food, but recommends Lickimats as a great starting point. “They’re still working for the food especially if it’s frozen, but they’re not having to figure out how to get the reward,” she said.

Blue and green textured Lickimats

Credit: Lickimat

Devi Do suggested using flirt poles as an enrichment toy for dogs with high prey drives. “It’s a really good way to teach drop it,” she said. “But I also like to use it to practice impulse control.” 

Gray dog chasing the lure on the end of a flirt pole

Credit: Squishy Face Studio

I recently tested out two of the connectable Fable Pets Falcon toys, and this combo keeps my dog, entertained for well over an hour. There are two different treat cavities in each one, one for spreads like peanut butter and another for small treats. I definitely recommend buying two for the ultimate play experience.

Fluffy brown puppy sitting next to two connected falcon toys

Credit: Fable

I love the Nina Otosson by Outward Hound puzzle games as a challenging enrichment activity for my smart Border Collie mix, Miso. They come in multiple levels and always include different levers, doors, and hiding spots for treats that keep my dog’s brain working.

Brown and white dog playing with puzzle toy

Credit: Outward Hound

Corgi sniffing a tan puzzle toy

Credit: Outward Hound

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