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Enrichment for Fearful Dogs

In my quest to find a good definition for enrichment, I read this on the St. Louis Zoo website (emphasis mine):

"Zoo visitors want to know that our animals have a stimulating life, with opportunities to engage in natural behaviors. An enriched zoo environment does just that and is defined as one that is interesting, allows animals to perform natural behaviors, permits them to be more active and increases the animals' control over their environment. Enrichment helps satisfy both the physical and psychological needs of animals and allows them to make choices. Thus, animal enrichment creates a win-win-win situation for the animals, visitors and keepers!"

What a fabulous explanation! This is exactly what modern dog trainers aim to do: increase the quality of pet dogs' lives by increasing daily mental enrichment through work-to-eat toys, sniffaris, and rewards-based training. So often, dogs are scolded for performing natural behaviors. Chewing, digging, shredding, these are all behaviors dogs need to do.

I hate to break it to you, but simply walking your dog around the neighborhood isn't cutting it for your dog's brain. By bringing an animal into your home, you took on the responsibility of creating a stimulating, satisfying environment for that dog.

This is where mental enrichment in the way of food toys comes in to play. Dogs are scavengers. Eating out of a food bowl takes about 20 seconds or less, and is not at all natural. If your dog eats twice a day, you automatically have 2 built in enrichment opportunities. The best food toys/puzzles are the kind that tap into the dog's instincts to scavenge, dissect, chew, or ones the dog has to knock around and problem solve to get the food out. I have posted about a few options here, here, and here, and here are some great puzzles you can buy.

What about dogs who are scared of toys that make noise or big/novel objects?

Fearful dogs absolutely need mental enrichment, and can still enjoy food toys. In fact, mental enrichment through food toys can seriously help build your fearful dog's confidence level! The difference is, they need more of your support, and sometimes, different types of food toys/enrichment ideas.


A traditional Kong provides a variety of enrichment opportunities. For experts, you can stuff the dog's meal into the Kong and freeze it, which will give the dog a real challenge! For beginners, fill the Kong loosely with the kibble so that it easily falls out. Some fearful dogs may be perfectly confident to roll the Kong around and stick their nose into it. However, some fearful dogs (like my Ruckus) need a lot of extra help and confidence building before they feel confident enough to manipulate it.

Give LOTS of support!

For Ruckus, I started by putting her meal in front of and around her Kong. I did this until there was no hesitation to approach the Kong, and after a while, she would even check inside for stray pieces of kibble. I also made sure that it didn't roll around too much in the beginning.

Then I would leave a few pieces inside the Kong, and if needed, help her fish them out.

I put more and more of her meal into the Kong and continued to offer my support until she was confidently approaching and sticking her nose into the Kong. She also learned that it was not scary when the Kong rolled, because instead of something scary happening, food would pour out!

With plenty of help, and by increasing the difficulty in tiny steps, Ruckus gained incredible confidence and will now manipulate and play with the Kong until she gets every piece.

Ruckus' body language screams "confident dog" as she works for her food!

Ripping, shredding, dissecting:

All dog parents know that dogs love to chew. What a lot of people fail to understand, is that dogs need to chew! Dogs are descended from predators, and they still retain that predatory instinct (some more than others). Unfortunately, many people still believe their dogs are being naughty when they rip apart and dissect their toys (or couch cushions, or shoes). By bringing dogs into our home, we have the responsibility to give them legal outlets for those very natural urges and desires. I don't want my dogs ripping up my couch of course, but I do want them to be able to rip apart toys, boxes, paper, to satisfy that predatory desire (read about the predatory sequence and predatory behavior here).

Ruckus is too nervous to shred a cereal or Amazon box like my boys do, but she always picks up tiny cardboard pieces after they're done, takes it to her bed, and dissects away.

So what's a cheap, non-scary option for her to destroy?

Toilet paper rolls! These are fabulous for any dog, fearful or not, but are very quiet and small enough for the scaredy dogs. Best part is, everyone has them at home!

Fold each side so the food doesn't fall out, and let your dog rip it up.

Depending on your dog, you may need to leave it open at first, so it's incredibly easy. As your dog gains confidence, fold one side, then eventually, close it up completely.

Once she was a pro, I wanted to give her more of a challenge. I put the full toilet paper roll into a paper bag (another option all on it's own if your dog is ok with the noise, my boys love to rip up paper bags to get their meals), added some super smelly jerky treats for extra motivation, then helped as much as she needed.

Snuffle mats:

Snuffle mats are perfect for scared dogs, as they don't roll or move, don't make noise, and don't take a whole lot of manipulating. Dogs can sniff out the food, and dig a little if they feel like it, and the brain is working the whole time. If you're crafty, this is a great DIY option, but you can buy them online as well.

Grass/towel scavenger hunt:

Same idea as a snuffle mat, but you can use the grass (or rocks, if you are unfortunate like me) in your yard to sprinkle the food, and let your dog "hunt" for their meal. You can sit outside and help point out the kibble if your dog isn't confident enough to search on their own.

If you don't have a yard, or the weather is bad, you can use a blanket or towel. In the following video, I'm working on multiple dog down stays and impulse control as well, not something you have to add to your routine! But notice how I help Ruckus. That was the first time for her, and as she gained confidence in the game, she needed less help from me.

Soft toys:

Here's a quiet idea. Take a stuffed toy and hide treats inside. Let your pup root around as long as they please. Tracy, founder and creator of, utilizes soft toys with her fearful girl, Emma the Beagle. Emma has many fears, but doesn't get stressed or anxious when searching for treats hidden in stuffed toys.

Obstacle course:

What about dogs who are too afraid to interact with you or go outside? It's critical these dogs get some kind of mental stimulation while you're working to gain their trust. Violet was an incredibly fearful foster dog. She was much too scared to go outside, so Joanna, foster mom extraordinaire and later, forever mom, set up this obstacle course full of novel objects for Violet to explore on her own. She would place leaves down for sniffing fun, and hide her meal (chicken and cream cheese), some of it easy to find, some of it a little trickier, then leave so Violet could choose when and if she wanted to interact and investigate.

If you plan to set up a course, start with one or two objects that won't fall over or roll around if your dog sniffs it, then slowly add more objects with plenty of delicious food to create a positive association.

Working up to it Violet style:

  1. Violet started with chicken tossed onto the floor and down the hallway. This took time, as Violet was frozen with fear. Joanna never forced Violet to walk up and down the hallway, it was all Violet's choice, and she repeated this step until Violet was comfortably walking the hallway.

  2. Toys were added, with food hidden under them, and more food scattered around.

  3. When Violet was confidently eating her meals from under toys, the full obstacle course began to take shape.


Not all fear is equal, meaning fear shows up in different ways and at different levels in individual dogs. Some dogs have generalized anxiety, meaning everything is scary, noises make them jump and hide, novel objects and places cause extreme fear and the poor dog is constantly hyper-vigilant (see Ruckus, who once jumped out of her skin when a paper towel landed on her back). For dogs like this, you'll need to go slow, start with quiet and easy food toys to build their confidence, and slowly work up to the harder toys at the dog's pace. Some dogs may be fearful of new people, new places, and loud noises like fireworks and thunder, but confident enough to rip apart a box (see Diego, who is nervous in new situations, but an expert at even the most difficult and loud food toys).

It's important that you know your dog and what they can handle. Don't be afraid to offer your support, and to assist your dog the first several times. You want to work your dog's brain, but you also want to build confidence and trust.

There are many ways to provide mental enrichment for your fearful dog, these are just a few ideas. The takeaway from this, I hope, is that you learn the intricacies of your dog's fear and how to build their confidence slowly, one small step at a time, while providing plenty of mental stimulation.

If you would like help with your dog's fear and anxiety, please contact a force-free professional. If you're in/around Santa Fe, email me at, or find a pro near you by clicking here.

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