A great many dogs today live lives of leisure, and even dogs who are physically active often lack opportunities for mental exercise. That understimulation can result in the boredom that is the enemy of the happy, well-behaved dog. Dogs evolved to solve problems, and a life of lying on the couch while the rest of the household is at work, and then taking a human-paced walk around the neighborhood, doesn’t present many interesting problems. Which is where enrichment toys come in. Making dogs work to get treats (or even all of their food) by solving the puzzles offered by enrichment toys is a natural fusion.
The Swedish toys from Nina Ottosson’s Zoo Active (see Bark's article ) line are some of the highest quality and most original enrichment toys I’ve seen. Each is a puzzle that the dog must figure out using her sense of smell, reasoning abilities and dexterity in order to get the reward. Besides the food itself, the dog benefits from mental stimulation; problem-solving practice; the opportunity to develop dexterity, coordination and balance; and last—but definitely not least—the fun of facing and succeeding at new challenges. The complexity and variety of the toys’ designs heralds a new era in enrichment toys for dogs.
Each toy requires the use of somewhat different skills. For example, the Dog Brick is a flat rectangle with four channels. Each channel has two covers that slide along the channel so that at any one time, two-thirds of the channel is covered. The dog must figure out that the way to access the treats is to use her paws or nose to slide the covers along the channel until the treats are exposed. In contrast, the Dog Smart is a circle with nine wooden cups over cavities that hold treats. In working this puzzle, the dog learns to pick up or shove aside the cups to get to the treats. The Dog Tornado is a series of stacked wooden circles with cutouts in various places. The dog spins the circles to line up the cutouts, thus exposing the food.
Several of the toys require the dog to perform an action that indirectly releases the food, which for dogs is a harder cognitive task than just uncovering it. For example, with the Dog Box, she has to figure out how to insert an item into a hole in the box. If that item adds enough weight, the mechanism inside is tripped and food spills out. Solving the Twister is a two-step process. First, the dog must remove pegs from a circle of wedges; then, with the pegs removed, she can slide the wedges out of the way and get the treats hidden below.
While it’s fun to watch dogs play with the Zoo Active toys, the play has a serious purpose. The value to dogs of thinking as they figure out how to get the food from these puzzles cannot be overstated. When dogs are challenged to figure something out, and are able to do so, they are doubly rewarded: They benefit by exercising their brains and then by experiencing success, both of which are critical for their happiness.
Another interesting aspect of watching dogs play with these toys is observing the different ways they solve the problems the toys present. Though many dogs are paw-oriented, some seem to prefer to use their noses or their mouths. Then there are those with a very paws-on experimental approach, trying a variety of motions and behaviors in rapid succession. Others contemplate the toy and methodically try one technique at a time. During the setup, some dogs watch the toy as the person is putting food into it, and others watch the person’s face. Since every dog has a mental style in addition to a unique personality, these toys provide dogs and their people with an opportunity to get to know each other better in a fun, interactive way. Both stand to benefit if Zoo Active toys become as popular in the U.S. as they are in Europe.
Watch Bark dog Lola  (with help from her packmate Lenny) face down the Dog Brick.
Photograph by Mark Compton