Those of us sharing lives with fearful, shy, or anxious dogs know that our pups need a little extra consideration when it comes to enriching their lives and building their confidence. We want to make sure that they are still getting chances to stimulate their minds, but we also know that a lot of the generic advice or products out there doesn’t consider dogs who may find really challenging activities overwhelming or just downright terrifying. Today, let’s talk about an enrichment activity that can be easily created at home, and is designed to be adjustable to gradually build your dog’s confidence!
Introducing The Treasure Box!
The treasure box activity is a fabulous way to build your dog’s confidence with novelty, and can be gradually and systematically made more difficult or made easier depending on your dog’s response to the activity. For some of our extremely fearful dogs, we may need to operate at lower levels for a long time before increasing the difficulty of the activity, but for other dogs, once they figure out the activity, their confidence with the activity skyrockets! You’ll need a few items to get started, most can be found around the house:
Training Treats: We are looking for treats that can be broken up into small, bite sized bits so we can utilize several in one round of this activity. Think: commercially made training treats from the pet store, or other foods your dog enjoys through training. This could be pieces of cheese, chicken, etc cut up into pea-sized bites, or anything else your dog enjoys working for. Some dogs who really enjoy their daily meals may even be happy to eat kibble from their treasure box, so do a little experimenting to see what your dog likes and dislikes.
A Shallow Box: This could be a plastic bin from the store, or you can even save a cardboard box from your most recent delivery to use for this activity like an Amazon box. If you are using a cardboard box, I like to take scissors and cut the open flaps off the top of the box so that it’s easier for my dog to stick their head inside. The size of the box will depend on the size of the dog: small dogs can use a shoe-box size, while medium and large dogs will need larger sized boxes.
Plush Toys: Our first couple of steps of working with items inside the treasure box will involve the use of soft, plush toys that don’t make noise when pushed around inside the box. Any of your dog’s familiar, favorite toys will do for this.
Paper: We will be using crumpled up paper for our next steps in this exercise, so set aside some old packing paper, newspaper, or even old gift wrap paper that you don’t mind crumpling up and giving to your dog.
Cardboard Products: You can take those flaps you cut off your cardboard box and cut/rip them up into smaller pieces a few inches wide, and you can also set aside some paper towel roll and toilet paper roll inserts for this portion of the exercise. Any discarded pieces of cardboard around the house can be used for this!
Novel Items: You can get a bit creative with this portion of the list. I typically look for things like empty plastic bottles, hard dog toys, small metal bowls, or any small household items that may rustle around and clink together when disturbed inside the box.
The first time you present this activity to your shy dog, I would start out by simply placing the empty box on the floor, and sprinkling a few treats or kibbles inside the box. Let your dog at their own pace investigate the box, if they hesitate, that is okay! The less pressure from you, the better. Once your dog is easily eating treats out of the empty box, you can progress to placing their favorite familiar plush toys inside the box and sprinkling treats all inside. The goal is to get them comfortable with sticking their nose inside the box and rustling through the plush toys to sniff out all the treats inside. We start with plush toys, as we want them to get used to the idea of this activity without the added pressure of needing to investigate novel items, or items that make a lot of noise when disturbed. Extremely shy dogs may need to stay at these initial steps with the activity for several sessions before progressing, so take your time with this! It doesn’t all need to be accomplished in a single day, and we want the activity to be enjoyable for the dog instead of stressful.
Progressing The Difficulty
If your dog is breezing through snuffling for treats through their treasure box of plush toys, the next step is to gradually add a new element into the mix that creates a bit of novelty and a small amount of sound, but isn’t completely overwhelming for the dog. I generally like to add a few pieces of crumpled up paper into the box with plush toys to keep the box familiar, but with just one small new element added to the mix. The paper is soft, lightweight, and somewhat familiar for many dogs, but still adds a bit of a rustling sound to introduce that new element into the mix.
If your dog is comfortable with the few pieces of paper, you can now start to replace the plush toys entirely with paper products. These paper and cardboard items will all make rustling sounds when pushed around the box, but again are lightweight and not too loud so they can be a nice middle ground between the soft plush toys, and introducing completely new objects into the box. After a few rounds with the cardboard and paper products, you can start incorporating those new novel items you collected that make more sound, are heavier, and more unfamiliar to your dog.
Remember that we are looking to build our shy dog’s confidence with this activity and stimulate their brains. Enrichment needs to be enjoyable for it to be enriching, so we aren’t looking to push our dogs to the point of significant stress. Be on the lookout for stress signals like pacing, shaking, panting, whites of the eyes showing, attempting to flee the area, etc.
If your dog startles or spooks at an item in the treasure box, try removing that item or going back to an easier step in the process for a while before working back up. We want this activity to build confidence passively, instead of using our dog’s desire for food to lure them into doing things they are too scared to do otherwise. The food should be used to build positive associations, not coerce.
If the box in itself is scary to your dog when first introducing the activity, try sprinkling some treats around the box at a distance your dog is comfortable with first until they get more comfortable. It may even help to leave the box sitting out in one spot for a day or two for your dog to acclimate to it before even trying to start working on having them eat out of it.
It may help to give this activity to your dog on a non-slippery surface at first so they don’t spook themselves by pushing the box around on a slick floor without warning. I generally like to give this activity on a rug, carpet, or grippy surface to reduce sliding around.
Be sure to give this activity to your dog when they are alone (if you have other pets) to prevent any issues with guarding resources, and during a quiet part of the day. We don’t want the hustle and bustle of busy times of day in the household adding a layer of stress to your dog while they are working on this activity for the first few times.
Enriching the life of a nervous dog sometimes requires a bit more time, effort, and consideration. However, it’s vital that we don’t dismiss enrichment or make our dog’s world smaller than it needs to be because of it. Enrichment is not only extremely beneficial for our dog’s mental health, but for shy dogs, it can be an opportunity to help introduce them to novelty in systematic ways that will help them view novelty with more optimism as time goes on. Take some time today to make your dog a treasure box, and let’s start working on that confidence!