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San Diego Humane Society

Enrichment: Brain Games for Mental Health

There are a wide variety of activities that you can do with your pet to provide them with mental and physical stimulation. Allowing your pet to engage in natural activities like digging, chewing, stalking, chasing, dissecting and searching – in a safe and appropriate way – is incredibly beneficial for both you and your pet. When animals don’t have an outlet for these natural behaviors, they often resort to undesirable behaviors like being destructive or hyperactive. Providing opportunities for these activities increases confidence, decreases anxiety, leads to a more relaxed demeanor and helps you and your pet forge a stronger relationship. When planning enrichment activities, aim for a mix of interactive and independent activities for the best results. We give you lots of ideas below, so don’t be afraid to mix and match and try new things!

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Large Balls: Dogs that enjoy chasing and herding will love the oversized Jolly Ball and Jolly Egg toys that “run away” from them as they give chase. An old soccer ball or basketball can also have the same effect.

A Suspended Ball: Products like the Tumbo Tugger Dog Toy can be attached to a tree in your yard and simulate a tetherball. This game is best played under supervision for safety.

A Pet Sandbox: If your pet loves to dig, give them an appropriate place to do it. Bury their favorite bones in a sandbox just for them, or in a baby pool filled with playground sand, dirt (with no fertilizer added) or large flake bark nuggets. Choose a filler that your pet is unlikely to try and eat, and fill the box with toys for them to bury or uncover. We recommend rubber or other hard toys for this activity. 

Swimming: Swimming is great exercise and can make fetch much more interesting. Not all pets naturally know how to swim. Whether it’s a lake or the ocean, make sure your pet is playing safely in a life vest and supervised at all times. Make this an interactive experience by teaching your pet to surf.

A Wading Pool: Many pets will love spending hot summer days splashing in a shallow pool. You can pick up one made for children at a number of stores, or grab one made just for dogs that can be stored during the winter months.

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Tricks: There’s no greater bonding experience than learning together. Invent a trick to show your friends (using these principles of How to Train Your Cat) or pick one from this playlist: Dog Trick Tutorials

Obstacle Courses: Household objects can become jumps, tunnels and hoops. Pool noodles, large boxes and step stools can all be reimagined as obstacles. Keep jumps low so your pet doesn’t get injured.

Flirt Pole: A flirt pole channels your pet’s prey drive in a healthy way. Make sure you move away from your pet as you play, for the best results.

Retrieving: Fetch is not considered mental enrichment by itself because it is so repetitive. However, you can add difficulty by asking for a behavior such as “down” before you throw the ball again. This means your dog must listen to earn the reward of another throw. You can also name your pet’s toys and ask them to retrieve a specific one from a pile.

Bike Riding and Jogging: Start slow and build distance gradually. Seek out dirt trails for minimal impact and short distances for young pets. Be sure to avoid the heat and check paw pads for injury before and after every outing.

Sniff Walks: Opting for a longer leash and a quiet walk focused on sniffing in a park is a great alternative to a walk in your neighborhood, especially if your pet is overwhelmed by passing many dogs or people on a walk. We recommend county-maintained parks as they are generally quiet. Learn more about the benefits of sniff walks: Take a Sniffari!

Hikes and Outings: Many city and state parks allow on-leash pets to accompany their people on hiking trails or in campsites. Be sure to always bring your poop bags and be kind to the wildlife.

Pet-friendly Restaurants & Events: Many San Diego restaurants have pet-friendly patios and there are many pet-focused events and attractions throughout the year. While these can be great places to help socialize your pet, be sure that you observe them carefully. While some pets are quite happy to curl up under a sidewalk café table, others might be completely overwhelmed by the traffic, city sounds and passersby.

SniffSpot: Have you ever wanted the dog park all to yourself? SniffSpot allows you to rent someone’s yard for an hour to yourself for a minimal fee as a private dog park.

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Hide Their Meal: Place your pet in a separate room while you hide their meal. Either make a trail of kibbles to their bowl or hide their kibble all around the bottom of the furniture in one room and then release them to search out their food.

Stuffed rubber toys: Kong toys (for example) are thick rubber toys designed to be stuffed with food. Add dry food first and then top off with peanut butter or pureed sweet potato. Freeze this for an extra challenge. We’ve created an easy guide for upping the difficulty level for your pet: Kong Stuffing Pointers and also a demonstration video: Kong Stuffing 101.

Chew Bones: There are many options available but not all are healthy. Chewing on natural bones will cause wear to your pet’s teeth and break them. The best options are semi-soft chews. Examples of safer chew items are bully sticks, Himalayan yak chews, Nylabones (toss out as soon as you see any plastic pieces being “shredded” off), dehydrated sweet potato and collagen chews. Always supervise chewing sessions and throw the bone away when it is small enough to be swallowed.

Puzzle toys: Animals like dogs and cats love to solve puzzles to get their food (see this video of a meerkat choosing the puzzle over food in a bowl). There are a vast number of puzzle toys on the market today, all with varying degrees of difficulty. Start your pet out with something easy, like a slow feeder bowl, and then slowly advance to something like the Mad Scientist Cat Toy.

Snuffle Mats and Ball Pits: Allow your pet to search and forage for goodies in a snuffle mat. You can use their meal or a mix of kibble and treats. A ball pit is a similar activity that all sorts of pets can enjoy! You can use a kiddie pool and ball pit balls, as shown in this video, or you can be creative and use any container your pet can climb at least halfway into and fill it with pet-safe items.

Indoor: Interactive Activities

Hide-And-Seek: Hide-and-seek engages the natural seeking behavior of your pet. If your pet can’t “sit” and “stay,” ask someone to hold them for you while you hide somewhere else in the house. This is a great game for hot days!

Find Your Toy: Take your pet out of the room and hide their favorite toy, then allow them back into the room to find it. If your pet doesn't prefer toys, play "hide the treat" instead.

Group Training Classes: Taking your pet to formal classes (or for cats, taking a class from home), will strengthen your relationship and build new skills. The San Diego Humane Society offers over 35 types of classes for dogs and cats, taught in person and/or online.

Dog Sports

Conformation: Dogs are judged on breed appearance and movement. Dogs receiving a certain number of points can earn the title of “Champion”.

Tracking: The competition version of canine search and rescue.

Lure Coursing: A lure travels along a pulley system along a varied course and the dogs run the course after it. Dogs are judged on speed, agility and style.

Agility: Dogs run through obstacle courses with competitions for the fastest time and most accurate performance.

Herding: Training your dog to move a flock of sheep or other farm animals.

Scent/Nose work: Dogs learn how to sniff out a specific odor and find the source. Try one of our K9 Nose Work classes.

Flyball – This is a high-energy game where dogs race relay-style to retrieve a ball.

Treibball – Treibball is a new dog sport that combines classic obedience and herding cues to train pets to “herd” large, lightweight balls as though they are sheep. 

Disc Dogs – This sport focuses on a pet’s ability to catch a flying disc in a variety of challenging ways. 

Service to the Community

Pet-Assisted Therapy: Volunteer pets and their handlers visit patients and work with therapists and social workers in hospital, court and nursing home settings.

Search and Rescue: A volunteer position where a dog and handler assist police and disaster-relief groups to find people in the wilderness or after natural disasters.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing behavior@sdhumane.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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