Owning a dog (or cat, ferret, or rabbit) can be expensive. High-quality food, vet bills and toys can all add up, especially with rising inflation. While we will mention many quality products in this Enrichment 101 series, it IS possible to provide enrichment on a budget to your dog.
Here are six great enrichment ideas that don’t break the bank.
Destructo-Boxes — The Ultimate Budget Enrichment Toy
I’m not sure what others call these, but I’ve coined the term “Destructo-box“ because everything in these boxes is destructible.
Save a medium-to-large box from any deliveries you receive and fill it with the any scraps of paper you have. Empty envelopes, cardboard packaging (ink- and tape-free), letters from unwanted secret admirers; you name it, pop it in there. And it doesn’t have to be paper, just dog safe. (Another fun idea is to put dead leaves in autumn and offcuts from non-toxic plants in spring to add novel sniffs and texture.)
Once you’ve got a mostly full box, scatter in a small handful of treats and give it a shake to mix things up. Then let your pup have at it! They provide an outlet for digging behaviour and sniffing, investigating, burrowing and shredding.
Gunther is our in-house Destructo-box demolition executive, and we’re always surprised by how long it takes him to get through one. When he’s finished finding the treats, he gets to shred all the materials, including the box that holds them.
The downside of these Destructo-boxes is the absolute mess that inevitably results from a good session. Expect to find scraps of paper and cardboard for the next couple of days throughout the house.
We don’t mind though, he enjoys them so much that the clean up is worth the effort. Plus, it makes it easier to fit all the cardboard into the green bin.
Natural Puzzle Feeder — Fun Feeding Time on a Budget
You can do so many things with nutritional enrichment on a budget, like putting (washed) carrot peelings, broccoli offcuts and leftover salad leaves into your dog’s meals. My favourite idea for long-lasting fun has been to make a puzzle feeder with an apple and some xylitol-free peanut butter.
First, remove the apple’s core, seeds and stalk—these are poisonous. Then stuff peanut butter into the hole that’s left in the middle. You can freeze it for more of a challenge or just give it to your dog as is.
They’ll have a super time batting the apple around and trying to get the yummy PB out of the centre, and everything is edible so once they get a taste of that yummy apple, there’ll be little to no clean-up required!
Remember, though: this is a high-calorie enrichment idea, so not for everyday use. Too many high-calorie treats can lead to obesity, and the acidity of the apple can result in tooth decay. Use sparingly for best results!
Up Your Fetch Game — Free Enrichment You’re Already Doing
Yeah, we get it. You play fetch with your dog every day in the park. How is that a novel enrichment tip?
Asking for a bit more mental engagement from your dog while you play fetch will make the game way more stimulating for them. Fetch is a great opportunity to practice impulse control (ask your dog to “wait” while you throw the ball and release them after it’s landed) and also to do some scent work.
We play fetch with Gunther in the long grass in the park. We get him to wait when we throw the ball into a nice thick patch of grass, then he has to search it out using his nose and eyes. It makes him work much harder mentally than just sprinting full speed after a tossed tennis ball.
This one is especially useful during the summer when temperatures are too high for much running around. And his tail never stops wagging.
Trick Training — The Best Budget Enrichment Game
We’re massive fans of trick training. It’s super fun, mentally and physically engaging, and can be done indoors on rainy days. (It’s not just for dogs either. It can keep both pups and kids engaged for solid blocks of time.)
You need very little equipment for the basic tricks. “Roll-over”, “Play dead”, and “Spin” all only require food lures—which can be their dinner—and are brilliant crowd-pleasers.
Some small dogs, such as Bichon Frise, were originally bred to be trick dogs in circuses, so take to trick training in a flash.
There are some fantastic trainers on Youtube that offer step-by-step guides on how to do all of these tricks and more. Our favourite is Kikopup. Here is a playlist of all of her trick videos to get you started.
Hide and Seek — Make Meal Times More Fun
One of the best budget enrichment ideas we have is to take something you’re already doing, and make it more engaging. For example, you can make dinner time more interesting by hiding your dog’s meal in different spots around the house so they have to track it down with their super-sniffing snoots. You might need to teach them how to play the game, as a lot of them don’t realise what’s happening at first. (We’re looking at you, Bing.)
Place a few small piles of food in different spots around your house. Take your dog within view of them, point at it, and say “find it”. Then when they scoff it down, say “GOOD find it”.
Repeat this two or three times, and, within a couple of days, you should be able to hide some food, and then say “find it” from the kitchen to send the furry search party off around the house looking for their food.
We get Gunther to sit and wait in the kitchen while we hide his food in our (admittedly) tiny house. Occasionally he’ll try to cheat the system and peek around the corner, which is absolutely hilarious. (And pictured above.)
Avoid Cheap Toys — They Can Hurt Your Pup
It’s possible to provide enrichment on a budget to your dog by just sticking to low-cost and free options. However, if you are going to buy toys, it’s better to buy one, high-quality enrichment toy than a whole load of cheap ones.
The mark-up on cheap toys is astronomical. If a toy retails for $4, you can almost certainly find it on AliExpress for around $1 delivered from China. That means it costs significantly less than $1 to produce, so it was made with cheap labour, a poor design and low-quality and potentially dangerous materials.
If you avoid buying five cheap toys that won’t last long and could harm your dog, you can instead spend $20 on a well-made, long-lasting and truly enriching toy.
If you look after your enrichment toys properly and don’t just let your dog (ahem, Gunther) chew them to bits, they can provide your dog with enrichment and engagement for a long time. As we talk about in our Enrichment 101 guide to feeding toys, we have had most of the products we recommend for years. Fred still has his original puzzle feeder that Hannah bought back in 2017.
Also, a lot of the high quality toys we mention are made by small businesses that really care about providing high quality products to all dogs. We would much rather support their efforts than buy cheap mass produced and harmful toys that don’t last.
Common Enrichment on a Budget Mistakes
Relying on Dog Parks
While dog parks might sound like a great budget enrichment opportunity, they can be a terrible idea—and could result in some very expensive vet bills.
Dog parks are among the most popular places for people to socialise dogs of all shapes, sizes and, most importantly, temperaments. While you may have a super friendly, well-socialised dog that gets on with every dog they ever meet, the same can’t be said of every dog park attendee.
Unfortunately, many dog owners believe they can just let their dogs off-leash in a dog park and allow them all “to work it out among themselves”—generally while they scroll on their phones. Every time we walk past a dog park, we see it happening. This is NOT the attitude that owners should have and is the main reason why I don’t recommend people take their dogs to a dog park.
Dog behaviour is incredibly nuanced, and hierarchies are defined by time and one-to-one interaction. Dog parks force strange dogs to interact with each other, leading to reactive behaviour, fights breaking out, and injured pups.
With that said, one way to use dog parks positively is to use the outside of the dog park to work on your basic obedience.
Other dogs playing is one of the highest forms of distraction; if your dog can carry out commands with other dogs chasing and barking in the background, you can consider them practically bombproof.
Be warned, though, that the only way this will work is if their obedience is rock solid in the house and in quiet areas outside. Set your dog up for success by practicing in these places first.
Making Poor Chew Toy Choices
Chewing is a super natural behaviour, and we should provide a positive outlet for our dogs to exercise it. However, be careful not to give them a chew made of anything harder than their teeth. This includes antlers and weight-bearing bones (like leg bones),
Chews that are too hard can result in broken teeth, intestinal blockage and large vet bills. A frozen whole carrot or broccoli stalk will fulfil your dog’s chewing needs without causing any harm and are relatively long-lasting (considering they’re veggies) Plus, they’re cheap!
You can also use natural, dried hides as they won’t damage your dog’s mouth. Just be warned, they may cause stomach upset in pups with food allergies.
Providing an enriching and fulfilling life for your dog doesn’t require thousands of dollars. Some of the best enrichment ideas are free. Mostly, they just require that you are thoughtful and deliberate in what you do with your dog. Even games like fetch and regular meal times can be turned into super enrichment activities.
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