Enrichment for dogs makes their living space more interesting and enhances their quality of life. It’s beneficial because it stimulates their mind and even their body. In doing so, it also wards off boredom that can lead to bad behavior. Enrichment can be one of the most fun parts of being a pet owner. Many pet owners enjoy dreaming up new ways to engage their pets and seeing the reactions of their pets. What follows are examples from pet owners whom I interviewed online about low-cost pet enrichment they have provided their dogs.
DISCLAIMER: All information is this article came from anecdotes from pet owners. I did my best to verify the safety of the common household items that are commonly used for pet toys, but I cannot guarantee that ANY pet toy is 100% safe–even commercial ones. It is the responsibility of every pet toy to monitor the use of the toys until you are sure that they are safe for your pet and/or to choose not use to certain toys.
The cheapest dog toys are the ones you can make using readily available materials. Perhaps the least expensive are sticks, because they’re everywhere. Empty cardboard tubes from rolls of paper towels and toilet paper also make good toys. Other good low-cost toys are water bottles, tennis balls, dollar store plush toys or your kids’ old plush toys, socks and discounted slippers, and squares of fleece. Susan Smith (who ran a dog sanctuary for a few years) buys fuzzy animal slippers at the end of season when one can get a pair for as little as two dollars, while Jessica Williams (What You Did With Your Weiner) said a cheap way to make fleece toys is to buy a fleece jacket at a thrift shop and cut it up.
Some low-cost toys are more elaborate, perhaps combining any of the above items. For example, Christina Hargrove makes dog toys from her kids’ outgrown cotton socks and the stuffing from her kids’ and dogs’ old toys. She explained, “I stuff some stuffing into a sock and tie a knot at the end. When that sock starts to rip, I stuff it–sock and all–into another sock and tie it off again.”
Kaitlyn Wells (pets experts at Wirecutter, product review site owned by The New York Times Company) created a low-cost crinkle sock toy for her dog. She explained, “You need a cheap pair of socks and an empty water bottle. Remove the bottle cap and the residual cap ring and label. Insert the bottle into the sock and tie the open end of the sock. Add an extra layer of protection by covering the second sock and tying it off as well. Then your dog can safely chew the water bottle without making a mess!”
If you really want to get industrious, do-it-yourself projects can fun way to ensure you have a quality product. For example, Susan Smith buys cheap denim and fills it with old toy stuffing or with pillow stuffing to create toys. She uses double stitching to make them last longer.
With all toys, you should take necessary precautions to ensure they’re safe to use, and to supervise your dog’s use of them. For example, some experts advise against allowing dogs to play with sticks because small sticks can be swallowed or get stuck in in a dog’s throat, splinters from sticks can lodge in a dog’s mouth or esophagus, and certain trees can be toxic to dogs. Experts also have concerns about tennis balls, as some dog have strong enough jaws to compress a tennis ball, which could then pop open in the back of the throat and cut off a dog’s air supply. When it comes to water bottles, which dogs enjoy because of the crunching and crackling sound, Kaitlin Wells recommended removing the wrapper and the lid. As for plush toys, Clare Reece-Glore gives her dogs only those with sewn-on (not plastic) eyes, and Christina Hargrove monitors playtime so that her dogs don’t eat the fabric or stuffing.
Some dog owners like to design their own mind games, with the most often mentioned one being puzzle feeders. Anyone can create a simple puzzle feeder by putting treats in common household items such as small boxes, empty yogurt containers or milk jugs, or unglued PVC pipe pieces, or under inverted paper cups. To create more elaborate puzzle feeders, place treats in stacked egg cartons or between layers of t-shirts that have been cut apart and woven together to make snuggle mats. Again, it’s important to monitor your dog’s playtime to ensure your dog is eating only the edible parts. Karen Peak created a bottle flip toy for feeding, and gave these directions: “I take 1-liter soda bottles and put a hole through the bottle about half way from the top. I run a pressure curtain rod though the holes, the rods used for sheers, they are cheap. Then I put the soda bottles in a door frame, or I will use thin PVC pipe and hang the bottles between chair legs of two chairs.”
Of course, there are options besides puzzle feeders. Shannon Wells pointed out, “Scent training can be done with cardboard boxes and treats. Pretty dang cheap.”
A third way to enrich the lives of dogs is with outings, which improve not just the mental but also the physical health of dogs. The cheapest outings are an outdoor walk. Amy Blom said, “Long leash sniff walks on trash day are the best!” Jessica Williams said, “The most inexpensive way to add some adventure into your dog’s routine is to always vary your walking route. Turn one street earlier than you normally do, walk to visit that neighborhood art installation you’ve always wanted to see, etc.” Candy Pilar Godoy (Boogie the Pug) loves to take her dogs on long walks that include new neighborhoods and therefore new smells for her dogs. Clare Reece-Glore takes her dog with her in the winter when she runs errands, and explained, “We pop out and do a little walk each place, often in the back of a parking lot. We get time together and he gets to check out some new places.”
For the price of gas, you can upgrade to dog parks and dog-friendly public trails, parks, or even beaches that aren’t within walking distance. You could even make a day of it by bringing a basket full of your dog’s favorite foods. Kaitlyn Wells said her favorite and most affordable outing with her dog Sutton is the dog park. She explained, “All I need to do is pack up our daypack with the essentials already around my home and we’re all set. I often feel terrible that I can’t afford to send her to a doggy daycare every day because I know she’d love to spend her weekdays meeting a ton of new people and dogs. Our weekends at the park appease my guilt a little, reinforce our bond, and allow her to have fun with other dogs in an interactive environment.”
The bulk of the projects fell under cooking, which for many dog owners was a great way to save money and to monitor what ingredients are in their dog’s food. Other times, preparing one’s own dog treats is simply for fun. Kristi Jones soaks her dogs’ food in chicken broth and freezes for “pupsicles.” Sometimes she also smears canned food in cups, adds dry food, tops with yogurt, and freezes.
If this article hasn’t given you enough ideas, check out Kristin Sims Rosenbach’s Love My Dog 365 project that includes a series of daily prompts for activities to do with your dog. Most of the activities are low-cost or no-cost, and each month has a different theme.
Special thanks to members of the following groups who answered my questions on dog enrichment: Animal Writers, Authors for Animals, Best Friends Network Partners, Blog Paws News and Boost Group, and IAABC Member Forum.