September 2023 Enrichment Challenge: Trial and Eval Calming Foraging Activities

A few months ago, we challenged you to try some new active foraging options. There are so many options that get our dogs up and moving around while foraging. Things like puzzle feeders that your dog needed to knock around, or destructible items for shredding and dissecting. They can be great ways to engage your dog’s body, brain, and time while they hopefully fill their cup and you get a little time off. 

These are great options when you need to get a little energy out or get your pup moving a bit more. But that isn’t always the case! There are going to be times when we need to help our pets calm down, regulate, and be ready for more restful and relaxing activities. Or there may be times when your pet needs to slow it down for their physical health. Or we need them anchored in a spot quietly instead of rolling their Kong Wobbler into the wall and knocking over furniture while we’re on a call. 

So this month, we challenge you to trial and eval some lower-octane foraging options for those times when you need a little more chill and a little less activity in your house. And as always, keep in mind that what elicits calm behavior from my dogs isn’t necessarily what will for yours, so trial and eval is the name of the game here! 


A Note About Safety 

Whenever you’re trialing new activities, make sure that your pet has active supervision. While you’re learning how your individual pet will use a device or activity, it is best to make sure everyone is safe.

For example, I’ve watched Griffey decide that the most effective way to use a snuffle mat is to use his molars to scissor off strips of fabric to make the treats easier to get. Some dogs shred and ingest instead of shred and drop, and we’re not looking for obstructions! While you learn about your own pet, take the time to actively supervise. 

Alright, let’s get into some tips and activities from my home.


Tip #1: Start by Observing Your Dog 

Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But when it comes to finding things that will help your dog truly take a big deep breath, and help you to build a restful environment for your pet, start with what is already working! Sure, we can teach other things to help your pet regulate, but start with a point of success. It makes the process more fun and enjoyable for everyone. 

So, observe for the activities that your dog does either while already resting, or while shifting from active time to restful time.

For example, part of Laika’s evening bedtime routine is a full grooming ritual. As she’s licking and grooming we can see her body get loose, her ears droop, her eyes get blinky, and she breathes deeply. For Griffey, we see that during times of excitement or stress, he goes, gets a toy, and really goes at it with his molars. Once we get that molar chew on board, his whole body starts to melt into a puddle. I mean, just watch that face melt! 

Once you have a general idea of what your dog already does to help themselves relax, you can lean into that and leverage it for good! 


Tip #2: For A Lot of Dogs, People Find That Licking, Sniffing, and/or Chewing is a Good Starting Point

Licking, sniffing, and chewing are all species-typical ways that we see dogs rest and relax, so they are often good places to start! Sniffing is the one I usually highlight since we know that scent work is beneficial in other ways as well!

And of course, because we want sustainable, effective plans, we’re looking for activities that will help YOUR dog rest and relax, so we need to play around with options specific to them. Two of the many things I look for to gauge if something is working in our favor is if the dog’s body language is de-escalation/relaxing while engaging with the activity, or if we see more restful behavior as a result of the activity later in the day. There are more metrics, but that’s more than we can cover in this post!

You noticed that your dog does spend time licking and grooming and you see that they get all droopy-eyed? Then you may want to trial different licking options to see how your pup feels about them and the outcome! Kong, WestPaw, and BusyBuddy are often used toy lines in my house. 

You noticed that your dog does a lot of sniffing on walks or in the yard and is well rested after a long sniffari? Then you may want to trial things like snufflemats, food scatters, and snuffle boxes! 

You noticed that your dog self-soothes through chewing? Then you may want to trial and eval vet-approved chews that your dog’s stomach can handle, cloth options, and silicone/rubber chews. 


Tip #3: Play around with the same activity in multiple forms

As humans, it can be really easy for us to say “Bah! It didn’t work this one time in this very specific situation so it must not work at all!” But, when it comes to activities for our pets, a lot of factors can make a really big difference in if and how they engage with our suggestions.

Let’s circle back to Griffey’s chewing. He showed us that chewing was effective for him. He’d go from a jumpy-mouthy zooming chaos gremlin to a deep breathing puddle in a matter of minutes. But, what took us some time to realize is that we only get that really beautiful relaxing molar grind on soft, cloth-like objects, never on silicone or rubber. When we see chewing on silicone or rubber (like a Kong or WestPaw toy), we don’t get that blinking and breathing, we get more boisterous play.

We know that pouncing on a Kong is great for those active foraging options, but not if we need him to de-escalate from his current cyclone of activity. 


So, what are some things to consider when trialing and evaling your options? 

How long is your pet doing the thing? Will extending the time engaged with the activity get you closer to the result you’re looking for? My dogs settle much more when using a frozen lick option that takes them 15-30 minutes rather than something they can finish in 3-5 minutes. 

Are you offering the thing at the right time for your pet? Saying, “Hey, furry friend of mine, can you sit here quietly chewing on this Wubba even though someone just knocked on the door and yelled “DELIVERY”?” Is probably a lot to ask. But saying, “Hey, I see that we’re about an hour out from nap time, do you wanna lick on this Toppl before you fall asleep?” may help them transition into nap time much more smoothly. 

Is the object something that they will and can engage with? For dogs who are missing a front paw, it may be challenging to stabilize a horn comfortably to chew on it, even if they want to. If you make some alterations, can they better engage with it, and does that make it more interesting or accessible to them? Laika is getting up there in age, so for things like our lick mats, I often will prop them up on a pillow or a dog bed so that she doesn’t need to reach so far to lick. 

Is the food appropriate value for what you’re asking them to do? Applesauce smeared at the very back of a Kong may not keep your dog engaged, but a small bit of cream cheese might.


Tip #4: Trial and eval variations to find the ones that best fit your life

Let’s take sniffing as an example. We have a few options in our house that we use regularly, and let’s talk about some of the pros and cons that we’ve found with our pets. Remember, your assessment of these activities isn’t going to be the same! Each enrichment plan is unique to the pet and their family! 


Treat scatters: 

Pros: Can be a very low investment for me. It is easy to get them engaged with it for longer durations. When we were feeding kibble, my dogs were able to do this in a shared space. It is really easy to adjust the challenge level to maintain engagement with the activity. 

Cons: We no longer have an outdoor space that safe for Griffey to do this. We had to switch to canned food, so the dry treat options we have available are now of higher value to my dogs, which means I am no longer comfortable with my dogs both doing this in a shared space. Both of these changes mean that this is a much higher investment activity for me. 

Best for: Times when the dogs are already separated (when Laika is out for an adventure…), when I can actively manage the dogs during the activity. When I need to redirect their attention because of something like the delivery person. 


Snuffle mats: 

Pros: Portable. Can be washed in the washing machine, so they can be used even with Griffey’s allergies. Can vary the difficulty a bit. Will help both dogs anchor in one spot. Very good for Laika.

Cons: Getting longer-duration sniffing is challenging. Griffey has become too proficient with them in the form of picking them up. They take up a lot of space in our dog storage. Have to remember to pick them up after each activity time. They take intentional effort on my part to use. 

Best for: Laika when she needs some quiet time and Griffey is otherwise occupied.


Foraging boxes: 

Pros: It lets us save those “really nice boxes” and utilize toy carcasses/old t-shirts and towels. We don’t need to clean them after use, we can just recycle or toss the scraps of fabric. The complexity matches both dogs well. We keep toy bins in all the major rooms of the house already, so we always have one available in a pinch.

Cons: Only one dog can use them at a time. After use, we need to make sure there aren’t scraps of food left in the boxes (if they are in the toy bins). 

Best for: Easy access with the toy boxes that are already in our offices. When we want more difficulty than a snuffle mat. 


Tip #5: Remember to have fun! 

We can get so bogged down in trying to find the “right” option, that we can forget to enjoy the process and the exploration with our pet. Using these activities as a way to explore your pet’s preferences and get to just enjoy them being them is reason enough without trying to find your *perfect* enrichment plan. As long as everyone is safe and healthy, taking time to do something that brings joy for joy’s sake is worth it. 


Now What?

  • Trial and eval some options for more calm foraging activities. While this post centers around dogs, this is an activity you can use with other species as well! Let the pet in front of you guide you on this adventure! 

Happy Training,