Entertain your dog on a budget: Seven ways to play with your pup without buying new dog toys

Spending quality time with your dog should be a daily goal, but sometimes it’s tough to come up with new ideas. We get busy preparing for holidays, we feel uninspired by the winter season setting in, or we start to feel particularly exhausted and unmotivated during a global pandemic. Thankfully, there are plenty of affordable ways to interact and engage with your dog without having to blow your budget on new toys. Here are seven new ideas to help you play with your pup:

  1. Hide food under a blanket

Typically for this game I’ll confine my dog in another room while I prepare his dinner. Thankfully, my dachshund only eats 1/2 cup of food at a time, so it fits quite well under one of the many fleece blankets scattered throughout our house. I simply spread out the DRY dog food on the floor and cover it with my fleece blanket. Doing this on tile or smooth floors makes it easier, playing on carpet adds friction and makes moving the blanket more of a challenge. Then I let Dart free, tell him to “find it,” and watch as he tries to dig out his dinner. This is a great way to stimulate his nose as he tries to smell food through the blanket and determine what to uncover first. If I’ve created the “just-right challenge” for him, Dart will struggle a little to problem solve and dig out his food, but stay engaged enough that he does not give up. It’s super rewarding when he finally burrows in or digs up his dinner!

  1. Put spray cheese on the bars of your dog’s crate
Dog licks spray cheese off the bars of his cage

Whether you’ve got a plastic pet carrier or a metal crate, this activity can work for you. I would NOT recommend it on a mesh or fabric crate because you and your dog may never get it clean again. This is a great activity for the times that you have to spend apart from your dog. Perhaps you need him to stay out of the way while you move your family’s dinner from the kitchen to the dining room, or maybe you’re finally getting out of the house during the pandemic. Essentially, you need to layer your dog’s favorite spray cheese product on the OUTSIDE of the bars of his cage; the inside would just be too easy! Pop your dog in his crate, and let him go to town licking around the bars of his crate to get all the cheese off the opposite side.

  1. Hide food in a cereal box

Ideally you’ve finished the cereal already, but who cares? Save the bag of cereal for your future enjoyment tomorrow, and sacrifice the box for your dog’s enjoyment today. I like cereal boxes for this activity because they tend to be a little more flexible and a little less dusty than corrugated cardboard. If needed, your dog can easily tear up that cereal box to retrieve the DRY dog food you’ve deposited inside. What’s most likely to happen is that your doggo will wedge his head inside, toss things around a little bit in an effort to reach all the kibble with his tongue, and then he’ll have to figure out how to get his head back OUT again. This part could get a little scary for the more timid canines, so you need to be ready to step in and help if they panic or give up. On the other hand, conquering a combination of new sights, sounds, and tactile experiences could definitely boost your dogs’ self-confidence and help them feel more prepared to tackle everyday challenges, so give it a try!

  1. Freeze kongs or other treat toys
Dog waiting to eat treats from four toys in front of him

Kongs and other toys that hold treats are already quite fun. But are you ready to add more of a challenge for your dog, AND prolong the fun? This is another way to create a quality experience for your dog when you can’t exactly stay fully engaged with him. Freeze your kongs with some kind of moist reward inside. You might want to shoot some spray cheese in there, spread peanut butter along the inside edges, or spoon some of their favorite canned food inside. Once frozen, it takes even more work for your dog to get the food out, and he’ll quite likely be quite captivated by the extra effort it takes to find his treats. Timesaving tip: freeze a few kongs at once and have them handy for the next time you’re trying to get your shit together in the morning and leave the house on time.

  1. Make a food scavenger hunt

Like hiding food under a blanket, start with DRY food and your dog in another room. Bonus points if he can’t see every spot you hide his food- it will be even more fun to sniff for! I’m limited by having a dachshund; he can only reach so high and climbing/jumping aren’t always safe for his back. In that case, most of his food gets hidden within 8 inches of the floor. Perhaps a few bits of kibble hide by the base of a lamp, behind the leg of a table, on a low shelf, or behind a decoration. I’ll even hide some of his food on the little ramp he uses to climb onto the couch! Your dog’s vision is typically not as strong as their sense of smell, so once your dog understands the game you’ll probably hear that he’s using his nose to locate his food. My first suggestion here is to NOT give away the location of the food with your proximity to it, because your goal is to stimulate your dog’s mind and senses, not show him where to find his food. My second suggestion is to count all the places you’ve hidden dog food, because attracting household pests is no fun.

  1. Hide food in a bin of toys

Whether or not you or your dog actually picks up his toys after playing, you probably had the good intentions to buy a container to keep all the dog toys in. Here are the super-simple game rules: Dump your dog’s dry dog food into the container of toys and let the pieces settle into every nook and cranny. Your dog is going to have the most fun tearing into the bin of toys, seeking out every bit of food, and tossing toys to the wayside. What a great way to get your pup to interact with all those toys he forgot about or lost interest in last month! (Let’s be honest, I still have toys my dog lost interest in 2 years ago…)

  1. Turn your dog dish upside down
Dog waiting to eat from his upside down food bowl

Your success here will really depend on what type of dog bowl you have. If it’s breakable, don’t try this one at home! If your dog has a metal or plastic dish, this could REALLY be fun. For this game, your first option his to hide your dog’s food UNDER the dish. You might need to be willing to have your walls get banged up a bit, but your dog could truly have a blast pushing his food bowl around the house and trying to flip it over to reveal all his food. Your second option only works if you have this type of bowl (above). You can actually poor your dog’s food right into this little crevice between the main bowl and the sides of the dish. If your dog is (un)lucky enough, some bits of food will even get wedged in here and he’ll have to work for hours to get it back out with his tongue. In this case you’ve provided your dog with all kinds of extra tactile(touch) and auditory(sound) sensory experiences to give him even more mental stimulation for the day.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these new ideas for playing with your dog on the cheap! Some games are more interactive, while others work well during the times you need to be apart from your dog. Make sure that any foods you give your dog are safe (ex: free of xylitol) and ideally your pup’s tummy is accustomed to the food, or large amounts might give him an upset stomach.

My goal is to help you engage with your dog, teach you how to create varied and rewarding sensory experiences for him, and to strengthen your human-animal bond. Happy playing ❤

What other puzzling games have you and your dog invented?

3 thoughts on “Entertain your dog on a budget: Seven ways to play with your pup without buying new dog toys

    1. Dart loves it, and it such an easy treat-delivery system! Especially when he gets really anxious and I don’t want to lose a fingertip trying to shove tiny treats in his mouth. Can’t wait to see what travels you are up to on your blog!

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