Shelter Programs and Enrichment Ideas


Shelter enrichment programs help reduce the stress and boredom of kennel life.  While all shelter dogs benefit from enrichment programs, such enrichment activities are especially valuable for long-term residents and “bully-breed” dogs who tend to deteriorate quickly in kennels.

Without enrichment activities, kenneled dogs may exhibit unwelcome behaviors such as hyper-arousal, depression, and obsessive/compulsive behaviors.

Dogs and puppies may display behaviors that make adoptions more challenging simply because they are not given the opportunity to chew, be mentally engaged, or interact calmly with humans.  This is especially true for canines who arrive at the shelter with behavior challenges.

General, overall enrichment should include:

Exercise – Daily walks and training (controlled and monitored)

Social Interaction – pets, hugs, playing fetch with staff and volunteers

Food Games – using toys such as KONG™, Tug-a-Jug™, etc.

Sensory Stimulation – such as sound (classical music), odor (lavender, spices, and even a bit of bedding from the cat area), and tactile stimulation (brushes to rub against, bedding, and large Boomer Balls)

Below are suggestions for enrichment activities like these.  All of this information may be used when training new volunteers or items added to your Wish List.


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Provide a Variety of Toys

Note: To keep dogs safe, this enrichment activity should not be used in areas containing, or accessible to, more than one dog.  If dogs are housed in groups, each dog should be given a private space to play with toys.

Dogs enjoy having toys or something to play with.  Just make sure that easily destroyed toys, such as rope toys or stuffed toys, are never left with a dog who is unsupervised.  Best Friends recommends Other Cuz Balls (made by JW Pet Company) because they are practically indestructible and have no appendages that dogs can chew off and swallow.

Food-dispensing toys.  Dispensing toys are great for mental stimulation and they increase the time during the day when a dog has meaningful activities to engage in.  You put treats or meals in the toy and the dog has to figure out how to get the food out.  Most dogs are highly motivated, but be sure to start with easier toys that the dog can experience success with; too difficult a puzzle can increase frustration and promote loss of interest.  As the dog’s skills improve, he will enjoy more challenging toys.  Try Treat StiksBusy Dog Balls or Buster Cubes.  Premier Busy Buddy makes several types of treat-dispensing toys, available at pet supply stores.  Kongs are durable rubber enrichment toys that can be stuffed with food.  For more information, visit their website at

Chew toys.  Dogs love to chew, so giving them appropriate things to chew is a great enrichment activity.  Nylabone makes a variety of chew toys and interactive toys for dogs, providing them with hours of fun.  Check out their products at Nylabone and most other manufacturers recommend supervision for many of their products.

Ice-block toys. These “toys” will keep dogs occupied for hours and are a nice treat on a hot day.  They are easy to make: Place a few toys in a bucket, fill the bucket with water, and freeze it.  Another idea for a frozen treat: Freeze chicken or beef broth in popsicle molds or drinking cups.  Be sure to always supervise the dog enjoying the treat.

Play Hide ‘N Seek

Note: To keep dogs safe, this enrichment activity should not be used in areas containing, or accessible to, more than one dog.  If dogs are housed in groups, each dog should be given a private space when playing hide-and-seek.

It’s not just kids who love this game — dogs love it, too! Keep dogs mentally and physically active by making them think and search for their treats. Some suggestions:

  • Bury toys or treats in a sand box.
  • Place toys or treats in ladles and hang from trees.
  • Place toys or treats in logs or other hiding places in play yards.

Go On Outings

If your shelter allows dogs off-site, take a dog to lunch or take one along when you’re on a break or running an errand.  The goal is to get them out and about, seeing and experiencing new things, and interacting with the public.

Another idea: Give a couple of dogs some social time by asking a co-worker to walk dogs with you off-site.  The first step to providing this type of enrichment is to introduce the dogs carefully and safely, with the awareness that dogs often lack social skills when meeting each other.  For more details on how to introduce dogs, read “Helping Shelter Dogs to Meet Each Other Successfully”.  Besides providing social opportunities, encouraging dogs to interact politely also helps them become more adoptable.

One shelter will have Wednesday walkabouts.  Excursions which take adoptable dogs wearing “Adopt Me” vests out for a walk in places like shopping centers or parks.  It’s great for enrichment and also makes our adoptable dogs more visible to the public, increasing their chances of adoption.  You can hand out the dogs’ “business cards” to people interested in contacting us for more information.

Set Up Group Play Sessions

Group play is a great way to get the dogs exercised and keep them mentally happy and healthy.  A half-hour of group play is the equivalent of a two-hour walk.  As with tandem walks, you’ll need to introduce the dogs carefully to prevent any problems.

Before participating in group play sessions, you should learn how to monitor play groups and gather the tools you’ll need for the play sessions.  You will need to learn more about dog body language to better decide which dogs are ready for play groups.  Dogs Playing for Life can provide in person training, but they also provide free online training as well.

Always monitor a group play session closely and be sure to take into consideration the reproductive status of the dogs and also vaccination status to avoid passing contagions.

Dogs Playing for Life

Dogs Playing for Life has served hundreds of thousands of dogs in shelters through playgroup seminars and enrichment programs.  By helping shelters improve the quality of life for their dogs, more dogs will be adopted and fewer will fall through the cracks.  See link below for more information.

Teach Basic Manners and Life Skills

Some shelter dogs come from backgrounds where they didn’t have the opportunity to learn social skills.  Teaching them basic manners and life skills provides mental stimulation and helps them to become more adoptable.  All dogs should have skills such as these:

  • Walking well on a leash
  • Not jumping up to greet people
  • Sit, stay, leave it and come
  • Name recognition

You could also try teaching some silly tricks, like how to do a high-five.  When teaching a dog any new skill, remember to make it fun for the dog.  Be patient, stay positive, and reward success with plenty of praise and treats.

Shelter staff and volunteers can teach dogs these skills on an individual, informal basis or you could start a shelter manners class taught by a trainer.  The class could be held regularly — once a week, perhaps — with volunteers or staff members each responsible for bringing a dog to the class.  The added advantage of a group manners class is that it helps shelter dogs develop good relationships with both people and dogs.

For more information on helping very shy dogs, read “Feral Dogs and Shy Dogs: How to Help Them”.

Keep a Treat Bucket Handy

Keeping a bucket full of treats handy is a good way to reinforce good behavior in dogs.  A treat bucket is a nice way to help enforce the training rules, while also involving everyone (staff, volunteers, the public) in the training process.  And when prospective adopters come to see them, the dogs will sit politely when the people approach.

Some examples – Have a bucket attached to the front of the kennel that holds the treats and has a sign saying, “Please help train me.  Only give me a treat if all four of my feet are on the ground.” This helps train dogs not to jump up on people.  The treat bucket is available all the time, for staff, volunteers and the public to use.

You can also create ice-block treat buckets, for the dogs to enjoy when the weather is warm.  Put various items, such as toys and some treats, in a bucket and fill it with water and freeze the whole thing.  A dog can be occupied for quite a while as he licks the ice to get at the toys and treats.

Help Dogs with Return-to-Run Resistance

A common scenario at shelters everywhere: You’ve taken a dog out of his run for a bit and now it’s time for him to go back in.  The dog puts on his brakes, tries to back out of his collar, lies down and won’t move.  You try to pull him and he starts to growl.  What to do? Read “Coping with Return-to-Run Resistance” for some ideas on how to help dogs who are resistant to going back into their runs.

Offer a Variety of Smells and Sounds

As with people, soothing smells and sounds can help dogs relax.  For stress relief, introduce aromatherapy – such as lavender, chamomile, valerian or dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP).  You can get vent system aromatherapy or even plug-ins for the shelter.  DAP is a spray or plugin that provides an effective way to control and manage unwanted canine behavior associated with fear and/or stress.  Try different types of aromas; some dogs have favorites.  Also, try playing some light classical music CDs or recorded sounds of ocean waves or rain.  Again, experiment with different sounds to see what works best.

R&R Program

Through the Read and Relax (R&R) program, a volunteer enters a dog’s kennel, sits down on a chair and reads aloud to the dog for 30 minutes R&R helps decrease the arousal and stress levels of dogs on the adoption floor as adopters pass through.  See link below for more information.

Think Outside the Box

The number of ways that you can enhance shelter dogs’ well-being is limited only by your imagination!