This article provides ways to increase the adoptability of shelter dogs by enriching their day-to-day lives in the shelter. The shelter environment can be stressful for dogs, but shelter staff and volunteers can help ease that stress by providing enrichment opportunities and activities. Many of these enrichment activities also help dogs become more adoptable. Every dog needs our assistance to become more adoptable or to stay adoptable until he/she finds a wonderful home. You can make a big difference in shelter dogs’ quality of life by adding enrichment with your time, attention and love.

Table of Contents

1.) Provide a Variety of Toys

2.) Play Hide-and-Seek

3.) Go on Outings

4.) Set Up Group Play Sessions

5.) Teach Basic Manners and Life Skills

6.) Keep a Treat Bucket Handy

7.) Help Dogs with Return-to-Run Resistance

8.) Offer a Variety of Smells and Sounds

9.) Think Outside the Box


1.) 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 that is unsupervised. Pawster Parents 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 Stiks (, Busy 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.

2.) Play Hide-and-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.

3.) 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” in the resources section at the end of this action kit. Besides providing social opportunities, encouraging dogs to interact politely also helps them become more adoptable.

4.) 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. A local or staff trainer can help you learn more about dog body language to better decide which dogs are ready for play groups.

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.

5.) 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.

6.) 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.

7.) 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?

First, don’t get into a physical fight with a dog because you may both be injured. Here are some ways to help him feel better about going back into his run:

Carry treats, his favorite toy, or some of his regular food with you. After he has eliminated, while walking back, hold a toy (maybe a rope toy or loaded treat tube) or give small treats to help him stay busy enjoying something.
Toss a few high-value treats in his run as you take him out – a surprise for him to find upon returning to the run.
Go back into the run with him and stay for a few minutes. Time spent with you in his run will become very special to him.
If someone else has walked him, surprise him by going in and visiting without him coming out.
To build trust, give the dog part or all of his daily meals by hand-feeding him instead of putting his food in a bowl.
If possible, walk back to his run from a different direction sometimes.
If possible, move him to another run to live. Having different sights and sounds can make returning to the run more palatable.

Things you can do while in his run:

Introduce aromatherapy – lavender, chamomile, dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) – for stress relief. Try different ones; some dogs have favorites.
If he enjoys touch, try petting, brushing and massage. If he is touch-challenged and needs hug therapy.
Play soothing music or read out loud to promote calm.
Teach and practice responding to basic cues to keep the dog engaged and thinking.

If possible, go for outings with the dog – car rides, sleepovers, or trips to places where he can romp on a long leash, dig somewhere appropriate, play in water, find hidden toys, or enjoy a Kong or other treat-dispensing toy. Think outside the box: Can he spend a little time in someone’s office? Can he go on lunch dates with staff or volunteers?

Besides helping to reduce return-to-run resistance, many of the above activities help dogs become more adoptable. Every dog needs our assistance to become more adoptable or to stay adoptable until he/she finds a wonderful home. You can make a difference in shelter dogs’ quality of life by adding enrichment with your time, attention and love.

8.) 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. To help reduce kennel stress, might use The Thundershirt’s gentle, constant pressure as a calming effect on the dog. For more information about this product, go to

9.) Think Outside the Box

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

Disclaimer: This publication is for educational purposes only. Some of the methods described in this publication may contrast with each other. Any training or socialization program has inherent risks of personal injury and should be carried out by certified professional dog trainers. The Pawster Parents Program does not warrant the effectiveness of these techniques or guarantee results from any training program or shelter program modeled on these techniques, nor shall Pawster Parents be held liable for any injury or damage resulting from same.


The following attached resources can help you in your efforts to provide enrichment to shelter dogs:

Helping Shelter Dogs to Meet Each Other Successfully
Techniques for Helping Feral or Shy Dogs
Coping with Return-to-Run Resistance

Shelter Dog Enrichment

VILLAGE FIRST -- Family, Friends, Fosters instead of Shelters

Pawster Parents

Thanks You for reading this Shelter Dog Enrichment article. We hope this information was helpful. If you are a new Pawster Parent and reading this information as part of your foster care training, please fill out the below form to be credited 5 points towards your required 100 training points.