Are you playing with your dog right? Trainer reveals the best way to use toys — and it really surprised us!

Young English Cocker Spaniel on floor at home
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Does your dog love puzzle feeders, snuffle mats, Kongs, and other enrichment toys and games? 

They’re great for keeping dogs amused and active, and when you're stuck at home because you're unwell or the weather isn't great, getting out some of the best dog toys can be a great idea. 

But, as one trainer has explained, that’s what they’re best for – we shouldn’t rely on them as a matter of course. 

Jasmine Kelem, head trainer at Golden Mal Dog Training, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, shared an Instagram video of a Golden Retriever running on a beach, saying “Enrichment toys and games are NOT a replacement for physical exercise and breed-specific fulfillment”. 

“I’ve seen a rising trend in ‘mental enrichment’ activities for dogs, which is great, but I worry it’s creating an unintended misconception”, she began, before listing appropriate times for enrichment toys to be used.

She explained that they’re great for crate training and getting puppies used to being alone, and for keeping dogs occupied if they’re injured, without inviting too much physical exertion. They’re also ideal for days when you’re sick or there’s bad weather and you can’t walk your dog or let them run around in the yard, and simply to keep dogs happy if they like playing with them. 

However, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for physical exercise or walks for more than a couple of days in a row, or to “get rid” of a dog’s energy. They shouldn’t be used to replace interactions with humans, either, or instead of breed-specific activities. 

As Kelem explains, “You cannot ‘mentally enrich’ a working breed from wanting to fulfill their breed instincts. You cannot enrich a dog out of wanting to go outside and sniff an actual organic, changing environment. You cannot enrich a dog out of wanting to play fetch and tug and chase and bite and run”.

She goes on to reiterate that enrichment should be used in tandem with other things, rather than as a replacement – they can work as a stopgap while you’re busy for a little while, but they’ll still need to go for a walk, receive plenty of affection, and play outside with their other toys. 

“Dogs are animals,” she finishes. “Enrichment toys are artificial. They’re great tools… but will never come close to the thing they’re actually craving, and will never exercise their bodies the way they are meant to be run and stretched and pushed.”

And remember: enrichment isn’t just about toys! Even letting your pup sniff when you’re on a walk counts as dog enrichment, as does hide and seek and even agility lessons. Enrichment toys certainly have their place, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. 

Adam England
Freelance Writer

Adam is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle, health, culture, and pets, and he has five years' experience in journalism. He's also spent the last few years studying towards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in journalism. While a cat person at heart, he's often visiting his parents' Golden Retriever, and when he's not writing about everything pets he's probably drinking coffee, visiting a cat cafe, or listening to live music.