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Energetic dogs can be a lot of work. I get it – I live with a Border Collie and I’ve fostered German Shepherds, Huskies, and American Bulldogs.
Even though I am a big-time hiker and trail runner, I can’t get outside every day. Sometimes, I’m fostering a dog who can’t run due to injury, heartworm positive status, or behavioral issues (ok, so it’s mostly because I like to foster aggressive and fearful dogs).
But energetic dogs need a daily outlet – especially while their humans are away at work. Busting boredom in energetic dogs isn’t a small task, but it’s absolutely necessary for your own sanity.
Here’s an important point, though: most dogs won’t play with toys when they’re alone. It’s just more fun when you’re around.
Puzzle toys solve that problem because they’re full of food. To avoid weight gain, I recommend throwing out your dog’s food bowl and using puzzle toys instead of a bowl for all food.
Seriously, my dogs have never owned a food bowl.
How to Use Puzzle Toys to Exhaust Energetic Dogs
The thing is, it’s no surprise that your dog is bursting at the seams with energy if he’s been left alone all day while you’re at work. Even if you’ve got a midday dogwalker, an hour or two of walking isn’t enough to tire out a young working dog.
I use puzzle toys to create a daily “Easter egg hunt” for my high-energy dogs. Here’s how it goes:
- Prepare the Goods. Some puzzle toys are easy to use – just pour your dog’s breakfast kibble in, and you’re good to go. Others are best served frozen or chilled – so be sure to think ahead.
- Contain if Needed. Whenever possible, I use exercise pens or baby gates to dog-proof my house in lieu of crates. If your dog is trustworthy loose in the house, even better!
- Don’t Let Your Dog Watch. I put the dog away (usually in a bathroom) right before I leave for work. This is literally my last step before I step outside and lock the door!
- Hide the Goodies. While the dog is away, hide a few hard chewies, a few soft freezies, and a few mind-benders for your dog. Make a few easy to find, and make a few into real challenges!
- Leave! Let your dog out and get out of there! Your dog will spend a while foraging and scavenging while you’re gone. This approach has also helped me stop dogs from counter-surfing (stealing food from the counters) because they get to satisfy their urge to forage without stealing food!
This approach only takes a few minutes, and it dramatically helps tire out your energetic dog. It’s also boredom-busting.
While a tired dog isn’t always a well-behaved dog, meeting your dog’s exercise needs (both physical and mental) is integral to a successful training plan.
Here are some of my favorite puzzle toys for energetic dogs. Be sure to get a few of each and mix-and-match for real success!
7 Hard Chewy Toys for Energetic Dogs
- Bully Sticks. These are my go-to for busting boredom in energetic dogs. Made from dehydrated cow tendons, bully sticks are a tasty snack that’s far safer than rawhide.
- Pig’s Ears. Like bully sticks but a bit cheaper, pig’s ears are dried for easy storage. They’re also quite tasty according to every dog I’ve ever “asked!”
- Cow Esophagus. A bit cheaper still than pig’s ears, cow esophagus is a crunchy treat for dogs. I almost always have a few on hand to hide while I’m away at work for Barley to find!
- Water Buffalo Horns. Though not as tasty as the other treats on this list, water buffalo horns are excellent for hiding treats inside of them. Some dogs will also enjoy chewing on the empty horn!
- Antlers. Another tasty chewing option, antlers aren’t universally appropriate. Extra-heavy chewers can splinter antlers, hurting themselves on the chewy. Be sure to supervise at first with this toy to ensure that your dog is trustworthy.
- Smoked Beef Knucklebone. While these are a bit pricier, they’re also long-lasting and delicious! Be sure to give this to your dog away from the carpet, as the deliciousness can stain your rugs.
- Himalayan Yak Chew. For those of you who are squeamish about meat, the Himalayan Yak chew is a good option. Made from yak and cow milk, these delicious treats won’t smell quite as much as the meaty options on this list. Unfortunately, these guys are a bit pricey for daily use for many budgets!
6 Freezable Puzzle Toys for Energetic Dogs
- Kongs. The classic Kong is a go-to toy for all dog trainers for a reason. Whether you fill it with kibble and seal it with peanut butter, fill it with wet dog food and freeze it, or get more creative, it’s good to always have a few stuffed and ready to go in your freezer. I keep four rotating through my sink, my dog, and my freezer!
- Outward Hound Slow Feeders. This slow feeder isn’t as active as many of the other toys, but it’s the best way to provide your dog with wet, raw, or re-hydrated food in a puzzle toy. You can serve it frozen or warm, depending on how much of a challenge your dog needs!
- Water Buffalo Horns (double feature). Some dogs don’t relish chewing on a buffalo horn by itself. In that case, treat it like a Kong and fill it with yummies! You can use all the same recipes as a Kong.
- Hurley Bone. This floatable, chewy toy is made for aggressive chewers. It’s perfect for teething pups, with just the right amount of give. Fill it with squeeze cheese, peanut butter, or canned dog food and freeze it for an extra-tasty “Easter egg.”
- Toppl. Another West Paw Zogoflex masterpiece, this little toy has teeth on the inside for extra challenge. This is another rubber toy that’s got enough give to satisfy aggressive chewers.
Quizl. The Quizlcan be stuffed with kibble and sealed with peanut butter, like a Kong. It’s a bit more challenging and has a more satisfying squish to it for dogs that love to use their jaws.
10 Mind-Bending Puzzle Toys for Energetic Dogs
- Kong Wobbler. This is my go-to puzzle toy – Barley’s lasted for two years before we forgot it in an
AirBnbin Mexico. This ultra-tough toy can be nosed, pawed at, and chased to dispense kibble of almost any size.
- Snuffle Mat. Unlock the calming powers of foraging and sniffing with a snuffle mat. You can often purchase handmade ones locally to support local trainers and dog businesses. This puzzle toy is perfect for dogs that are new to puzzles or dogs with limited mobility.
- Barnacle. The PetSafe Busy Buddy is a great level-up from the Kong Wobbler or Classic Kong. It bounces and rolls to dispense kibble, but is also soft and could be frozen and sealed with peanut butter. This is a favorite of many of my dog trainer friends.
- Mad Scientist. This is one of my favorite puzzle
toys,because I’m a total science nerd! Perfect for smaller dogs, this toy looks like rotating test tubes that can dump out bits of kibble. This also works your dog’s core as he lifts his paw to rotate the test tubes.
- Bob-a-Lot. Similar to the Kong Wobbler, this toy is made to roll around erratically as your dog paws at it and chases it. This toy has an adjustable slot, to make sure that it works with all kibble sizes (and all ability levels).
- Omega Tricky Treat Ball. For dogs who really love balls, you now can put his kibble inside of one! This toy will roll and dispense food for your dog, and it easily fits a whole meal. This toy is on the easier side, making it perfect for dogs that are new to the whole “working for dinner” concept.
- Tug-A-Jug. My dog Barley really struggles with the Tug-A-Jug, but he loves the challenge! This toy is much more challenging than a ball or other rolly toy. Some dogs finesse the treat removal, while others (like my dog) prefer to bash the toy around until kibble comes out. Either way, you’ll get a tired dog!
- Pickle Pocket. This toy is perfect for dogs that need to be in a crate – it’s a challenging way to work for kibble that doesn’t require much movement. Simply fill the slot in the pickle with kibble and leave your dog to her devices!
- Twist N Treat. Another challenging toy, the Twist N Treat looks a bit like a clam. Your dog’s job is to spin and paw at it to release his kibble. This toy doesn’t roll in a predictable way. Depending on the size of your kibble (and how big you make the gap), this toy can be quite difficult.
Treat. This toy requires your dog to spin layers on a toy to uncover little bones that he’ll remove to find his kibble. Not for beginner dogs, this toy is really fun to own. I love watching dogs light up as they learn how to use it!
Please note that all puzzle toys are a potential choking hazard for your dogs. I personally ensure that my dogs are using toys appropriately before using the toys as part of unsupervised Easter Egg Hunts – use them at your own risk.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.