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Three simple DIY puzzle toys for your dog's fun and enrichment

Updated: Jul 6

Providing food dispensing games for your dog's enrichment doesn't have to cost a lot. Here are options you can make with items you might already have.

Part 2 in a series on enrichment toys
a dog searching for treats in a box full of toys and plastic bottles
This puppy enjoys rummaging for treats in her fun box

Would you like to help your dog relax? Keep them out of mischief?

Sensible exercise and training are necessary of course, but mental exercise is also important.

In Part 1 we explored the importance of providing achievable challenges to optimize your dog's emotional health and some general principles for deploying them.

In this post you will discover three DIY enrichment toys for dogs that you can make with things you might already have around the house.


 

1. A box of hidden treasures

Here's a simple "fun box" that can add entertainment and mental exercise to your dog's meal times or between-meal treats.

If your dog inhales their food in seconds, it will provide longer and healthier mealtime pleasure. Surprisingly, the challenge of the search can also encourage reluctant eaters to become more interested in their food.

Step 1: Find a box that will be the base for your puzzle toy.

I like to use a plastic sweater box for durability and washability, but you could also use a cardboard box (as long as your dog doesn't swallow cardboard) and replace it as needed.

Step 2: Gather filler items

Gather whatever dog toys and recyclables you have on hand. Plastic beverage bottles are great fillers (take off the plastic neck rings if your dog might chew them off). Other plastic items from your recycle bin are also good (my Aussie loves cottage cheese tubs) but make sure they're shallow so your dog can't get their face stuck in it.

Step 3: Beginner level puzzle

Help your dog learn there's good stuff among the junk.

The important thing about puzzle toys is that they're only enrichment if your dog engages with them.

So help your dog get started by making it very easy at first: Sprinkle some kibble or treats and put just a few filler items, so your dog can easily find and get the edibles.


A plastic storage box with some pieces of kibble and the bottom about half-covered by dog toys and an empty plastic soda bottle
This setup is easy enough for an inexperienced dog to figure out

Step 4: Intermediate level puzzle

Once your dog understands how to find food in the box you can add more food and items so the bottom is covered:


A plastic box with the bottom nearly covered by dog toys and empty bottles
This setup requires some experience and determination to get at the food

Step 5: Advanced level puzzle

To increase the level of challenge, pile in more items so your dog has to rummage vigorously. You can even add stuffed Kongs and other small interactive food toys to increase the puzzle pleasure time. Serve it up and enjoy some peace!



 


2. The muffin tin challenge


A dog searches  in a muffin tin for treats hidden by tennis balls
This tiny dog has a mini-muffin tin, with treats hidden beneath mini-tennis balls

Repurpose an old muffin tin (the kind with NO non-stick coating is ideal).

Step 1: Introduce the concept.

Sprinkle some kibble or treats in each muffin tin cup and let your dog discover they can find something in each cup

Step 2: Add some challenge

Once your dog knows that the muffin tin contains lots of good things, block some of the cups with tennis balls, small dog toys, or crumpled paper (if your dog doesn't swallow paper).

Step 3: Increase the challenge

One way to increase the challenge is to put treats in only some of the cups, so your dog has to use their nose to figure out which ones to search.

Another way is to use blockers that require more effort and dexterity to remove, such as canning jar lids.

The egg carton variation for tiny dogs

If your dog doesn't swallow cardboard or plastic, you can sprinkle food or treats in an egg carton for them to snuffle out. This is good for very small dogs



 


3. Fun with nested boxes

Many of us have a variety of purchases delivered to our houses in cardboard boxes of various sizes. If your dog doesn't swallow pieces of cardboard, these provide great raw material for dog fun.


puppy is playing with cardboard liner she found in a shoebox
A shoebox with its packing materials provided great entertainment for this Aussie puppy

Step 1: Gather boxes and filler items

If you have boxes that vary in size, you can nest them (empty cereal boxes and egg cartons too).

For filler, save any brown packing paper that came in your boxes, and gather dog toys and plastic recycle items as in the Fun Box section above.

Step 2: Nest and stuff the boxes

Sprinkle some kibble or treats in the bottom of the biggest box. Put the next biggest box inside, padded with crumpled paper, toys, etc.

Continue in this way to nest boxes and filler items, including treats in, among and between the layers and filler items.

You can adjust the level of difficulty by how you close the boxes in each layer: leave them open (or even remove them) for a lower-level challenge or lock the flaps for a high-level challenge

Step 3: Let the mayhem begin - but with boundaries

To maximize clarity about when it's appropriate to destroy a box, I like to set a consistent context and start cue for destruction games.

Establish a place

Ideally a room where nothing will get damaged if the box is flung around, with a floor that's easy to sweep.

Establish a start cue

Make up a fun name for the game and tell your dog "It's time for your Treasure Box!" (or whatever you choose to call it). You can even build some suspense by narrating as you prepare the puzzle, "I'm making a Treasure Box...what a yummy Treasure Box"...etc.

As you put the box down, say "go for it!" (or whatever cue you choose).

In the video below, the fun continues after the treats are gone as my pup wrestles with the big box.


There will be a mess to clean up, but that is much preferable to finding chewed rugs or furniture!



 


Are you ready to enjoy some shopping?

In Part 3 of this series you will see our favorite commercially available food toys and puzzles.

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