Are you looking for a quick and cheap way to keep your pup entertained? Look no further – we’ve got the perfect solution for you! In this article, we’ll go over how to make your own DIY dog puzzles, the benefits for your dog, and some bonus tips for fun and safety!
For our puzzle recommendations, we’ll include an estimated cost and any required supplies, and try to give alternatives where possible, just in case you like an idea but don’t feel like trying to make it. We’ll also detail how to scale the difficulty or make it easier if your pup isn’t catching on as quickly as you would want.
If you’re ready to engage your dog’s brain and provide them with some fun, keep reading for our collection of DIY dog puzzles! We’ve personally tried or actively use all of them and our goal here is to make these enrichment ideas as accessible to everyone as possible.
Benefits of DIY dog puzzles for your dog
Before we get into the creating portion, we wanted to touch on why DIY dog puzzles are a great option to provide your pup with mental enrichment.
Most of us have likely heard someone say something similar to “I ran my dog for 5 miles and he’s still crazy!” about a dog. Just like us, dogs can be mentally tired and physically tired separately. That’s why puzzles and brain games are great for your furry friend! By giving your pup mental stimulation, you can tire out their brain and have fun at the same time!
We specifically love DIY dog puzzles for this because of the variety of different options to give to your pup. Just like with humans, playing the same game every day will get boring after you master how it works. With DIY dog enrichment, we can mix up the options or modify the difficulty so that your dog doesn’t get too used to any one puzzle.
Always available for use
You may have heard the expression that the best ability is availability, and that applies here! One of the reasons we (and our pups) love using DIY dog puzzles over some other activities is simply the availability of them. Whether it’s rainy, cold, or your dog has a mobility restriction from the vet, there will be some DIY dog brain games that work for you and your dog’s situation.
One of our pups, Goomba, had multiple knee surgeries. Recovery from CCL surgery was quite involved, and he had varying degrees of mobility restrictions for a few months after the first surgery, and then had a second one! Goomba is very play-driven, so being restricted from heavy play time was rough on him. Since we couldn’t tire him out physically during this period, we turned to mental enrichment. Mental enrichment is the primary way we could keep him entertained leading up to and recovering from surgery.
Most of the DIY dog puzzles we cover are inexpensive, as well! We wanted to focus on affordable DIY dog puzzles to help as many people as possible be able to do enrichment with their pups.
Redirects boredom & anxiety-based behaviors
Another benefit of dog puzzles in general is that they can help reduce some negative behaviors from your pup. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “A tired dog is a good dog”, but it’s close to the truth. A dog that has his or her body and mind tired out is less likely to engage in negative behaviors. If your dog is bored, they will most likely find something to entertain themselves with, whether it is chewing your shoes or furniture, or barking out the window.
According to VCA Hospitals, our go-to resource for medical information on dogs, foraging activities (like food activity balls, snuffle mats, or other nose work) can decrease the frequency of unwanted or nuisance behaviors. This allows you to help encourage positive behavior and entertain your pup at the same time!
In our own experiences, we’ve been actively able to decrease Goomba’s reactivity by utilizing sniff work from a distance. He has a great time while doing it and barks less from closer distances at people!
Improves your bond with your pup
Improving your bond with your pup is likely the whole reason you are looking at DIY dog puzzles in the first place! Any positive experiences with your pup will help you and your dog improve your bond. It doesn’t need to be some elaborate 4-hour hike through the woods (although a lot of dogs would love that!) but can be something as simple as a game of tug or playing hide and seek with you.
Setting your dog up for success helps a lot with improving their bond with you. Giving your pup their first puzzle and then becoming frustrated because they couldn’t figure out an intermediate or advanced puzzle to start won’t help. Take it slow and start at the beginner puzzles or with a behavior that you’re confident your pup already knows and use some great treats. As your dog gets more confident with using their brain to problem solve, they’ll start to pick up on the puzzles faster and be able to handle the intermediate and advanced ones.
Some notes on safety
Before we get started, we wanted to call a few things out to make sure you and your pup have a fun and safe time. First, your pup should remain supervised with any toy, not just puzzles. Almost any material is chewable if your dog tries hard enough and no one wants to deal with impaction or other related issues. As a general rule, we recommend trying to keep your toys or the pieces larger than your pup’s mouth to help prevent any accidental swallowing. Finally, if you want to know if a specific activity is safe for your dog, get in touch with your veterinarian or another relevant professional.
Types of DIY dog puzzles
There are an almost infinite number of puzzles for your dog to interact with, but they generally fall into one of three categories. The primary types are puzzles that use your dog’s nose, treat dispensing toys and problem-solving puzzles. Let’s get into each category a little more!
Sniffing based puzzles
Our favorite category of DIY dog puzzles (and Prim’s) is sniffing-based puzzles. For those of us with high food drive dogs, this is the easiest option and typically requires the least cost. This category can range from hiding kibble among destroyed dog toys to snuffle mats and formal sniff work training and produces an endless amount of possibilities.
Some of our favorite ways to mix up puzzles here involve changing the sniffing location. For example, we use this cuddler dog bed (Chewy, Amazon) as a “snuffle bed” to hide kibble and treats in. The bed is a little expensive, but it’s one of our pups’ two favorite beds and they both love hunting out kibble or treats from it.
Treat dispensing toys
Treat dispensing toys are another great option to keep your dog’s brain active. Generally, these devices will require your pup to figure out how to get the treats out of them while moving around. If you buy these premade, many will have adjustable difficulty levels, which is great since you can get a few different puzzle levels out of the same toy.
These are also easy to make, too, which makes them a great entry into DIY dog puzzles. Essentially, all you’ll need is an item to hold treats or kibble and a way for them to fall out of the item. One of our first DIY interactive dog toys was a PVC dog feeder, which took a few tools but was very easy to make.
Puzzle boards are perfect for dogs who love a challenge and if your pup is mobility-limited or restricted. These have various compartments, sliders, or other hidden areas that will require your dog to use their brain to figure out how to get to the rewards. They come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and difficulty levels, allowing you to choose the one that suits your dog’s abilities. We consider anything that doesn’t move in this category, even if it isn’t technically a board.
The first dog puzzle we ever purchased was this interactive treat puzzle from Amazon. It was a great place to start as it was a lower difficulty level. Goomba was particularly fun to watch until he decided that he didn’t want to cooperate anymore and would just remove the tops with his paws or mouth. Prim’s a little more gentle with this one.
Tips for getting started with puzzles
Introducing your dog to puzzles requires patience and positive reinforcement. Here are a few of our favorite training tips to help make sure it’s fun for you and your pup:
Start with Easy Puzzles: Even if you have a smart pup, begin with simple puzzles that are easy for your dog to solve. This will build their confidence and help them understand the concept of puzzles.
Use High-Value Treats: Use high-value treats that your dog loves to motivate them to solve the puzzles. This will make the experience more enjoyable for them. Some of our pups’ favorites are jerky, chicken, and cheese! We usually mix in kibble with the higher value treats to limit calories and provide more rewards.
Reward Progress: When your dog makes progress or solves a puzzle, reward them with praise and treats. This will reinforce their positive behavior and encourage them to continue working on the puzzles. This is especially important in the learning phase of the behavior.
Increase Difficulty Gradually: As your dog becomes more experienced, gradually increase the difficulty level of the puzzles. Don’t just jump from a beginner to an advanced puzzle because your dog solved it quickly one time. All pups are different and some are better at certain puzzles than others.
Remember, training should always be fun and stress-free for your dog. If they seem frustrated or overwhelmed, take a step back and try a simpler puzzle or even one you’ve had success with so far.
Our favorite DIY dog puzzles by difficulty
These simple DIY dog puzzles can provide hours of entertainment for your furry friend without breaking the bank! We’ll group these into relative difficulty levels and try to provide cost estimates and similar items for purchase when we can. Most are easy to modify the difficulty, and we’ll call that out, too. Let’s get started!
Beginner DIY dog puzzles
For the beginner group of DIY dog puzzles, the goal is to introduce your dog to problem-solving. None of these puzzles should be too difficult for your pup and most are easy to change the difficulty a little bit.
The “find it” command
- DIY cost: free!
- Similar products: N/A
This is our favorite place to get started and about as basic as it gets for DIY dog puzzles. We use our “find it” command to indicate to our dogs that there is a food-based reward around the area. To start, we recommend using higher-value treats and a relatively open area. You can use whatever cue you want for your pup. As your dog understands the behavior better, we can transition to less desirable rewards, if required, and make the rewards harder to find.
For our dogs, we typically scatter some assorted kibble or lower-value treats around the room they are in. We usually do this as a reward for training, after we end playtime, or when we ask them to come inside. They both love it and Prim checks all of the common spots when she’s wandering around the house foraging for the ones Goomba may have missed.
Her favorite spot is our “find it pile” which is a pile of mostly destroyed toys that we use as a spot to make a low-effort foraging spot for her. We like it because we get some additional use out of the toys that our pups deem aren’t interesting anymore. Check out how to make your own find it pile!
Muffin tin puzzle
- DIY cost: less than $20
- Required products: Tennis balls (up to 12) or similar sized ball
- Similar product: Outward Hound interactive treat puzzle (Chewy, Amazon)
As far as DIY dog puzzles go, the muffin tin puzzle is a great spot to start for a beginner dog. It’s easy for you, cheap, and basic for your dog, as well. To set up the muzzle, grab a muffin tin and place your dog’s favorite treats in most of the bottom of the muffin spots. After you place a tennis ball on top of the muffin slots, you’re done!
This is a fun one because you get a lot of different behavior from your dog when they are trying to move the tennis balls. We’ve seen picking up and relocating, pushing with their nose, pawing, and even flipping! Ideally, we don’t want the flipping, but it’s still fun to watch the first time.
For supplies, you can generally find a bag of tennis balls somewhere for cheaper at a local discount store. The quality of the ball doesn’t matter at all, as long as they sit in the tin. If you want to modify the difficulty, this is one of the puzzles where it’s not as easy. Heavier balls, like lacrosse balls, can make this more challenging, but we generally recommend moving to a different puzzle instead.
This is one of the easier DIY dog puzzles for your pup since all they’ll have to do is figure out how to hold the Kong and lick until it melts, but it’s one of our favorites. Kong extremes tend to stay around $15, but any similar hollow toy will work that’s relatively durable. We find that the extreme holds up best to frustrated chewing (looking at you, Goomba) better than anything else. We don’t use the Kong spray for this since we have a bunch of other cheaper and healthier options to give your dog.
For what to put in the Kong, we generally use whatever dog-safe foods we have, blend them, and pour them into the Kong. Some of our favorites are cooked chicken, chicken broth, blueberries, and sweet potato or pumpkin with cream cheese. Our guide on frozen lick mat recipes works even better for Kongs since you can use unblended foods if you want. Our dogs go crazy for these for about a half hour nonstop. We recommend using half of the volume as water, especially if you blend it, to help keep the calories down on these.
Plastic bottle treat dispenser
Another great place to start for DIY dog puzzles, plastic bottle treat dispensers are a way to start with interactive toys for free! All you’ll need for this one is a clean empty bottle and (optionally) something to cut holes into the bottle. We recommend the thicker-walled plastic that is closer to a 2 liter of pop or some water, but it’s possible with a thin-walled water bottle, too. This will allow the bottle to have some resistance to the inevitable biting or rough pawing from your pup. The last step is to put treats inside the bottle and let your dog figure out how to get them out by rolling or shaking the bottle.
If your pup doesn’t seem to have much interest initially, we have two different options. You can try a higher-value treat first. We’ve had good luck with beef liver (Amazon) if your pup isn’t interested initially. If you have a calorie-restricted pup, you can cut them up into smaller pieces easily to make them go further or leave the cap off the bottle. This allows your pup to smell the treats a lot better but can be a bit more challenging until your pup figures out how to pick the bottle up so they all drop off.
DIY snuffle mat
Our dogs love snuffle mats! These are essentially a more contained version of the find-it behavior mentioned previously. Snuffle mats are great for mobility-restricted or older dogs and we used them consistently during Goomba’s CCL surgery recovery. We find that sniffing helps them calm down and both our pups use them with regular kibble, which is great if your dog has calorie restrictions. After you make the mat, all you have to do is stuff kibble or treats in the fabric, making it an easy and low-cost enrichment activity.
This was our first real DIY for anything dog-related we tried and it’s easy to do, but takes a little bit of time. All you’ll need is something to tie fabric on, like a dish mat, and a few old blankets or other pieces of fabric. Here’s our DIY snuffle mat guide! If you want to make it more difficult, you can use longer pieces of fabric.
If making a snuffle mat isn’t your style, no worries! The Pet Parents forager mat at the beginning of this section is affordable and works great, too. They even make a version that fits in a dog bowl (link to Chewy), if you want to slow your pup down when they are eating.
Towel roll puzzle
- DIY cost: free, if you have an old towel
- Similar products: Treat puzzle roll (Amazon)
We love this DIY option because it’s easily modifiable. All you’ll need is an old clean towel that you don’t mind your dog using. Roll out the towel and place your treats of choice in the towel. Roll it back up and let your dog unroll it to find the hidden goodies. You can secure the ends with rubber bands or knots to make it more challenging if that would be more fun for your dog.
A modification we love is to get the towel wet and then freeze it! This extends the duration quite a bit by making the towel harder to unroll and harder to get the treats off. You don’t need to get it soaking, but damp enough that it’ll freeze. Give it a shot and let us know what your dog thinks!
Intermediate DIY dog puzzles using toys and treats
If your dog has mastered the simple puzzles and is ready for more of a challenge, it’s time to level up with intermediate DIY dog puzzles. These puzzles require a bit more thinking and problem-solving skills. Here are some of our favorite ideas to get you started:
Tennis ball activity ball
- DIY cost: $3 or less, free if you have a tennis ball around!
- Similar products: SodaPup treat dispenser (Chewy, Amazon)
This simple DIY is a great way to use old tennis balls. Carefully cut the tennis ball with a slit around less than half of it and then place treats in it! The wider you cut it around the ball, the easier the puzzle will be. Your pup will have to figure out how to manipulate the ball and where to chew to make the opening “move” and drop out the treats. You may need to use higher quality or smellier treats to entice your pup to keep interacting with the ball.
We like the similar product recommendation a lot for this one. It’s more durable and more resistant to chewing than the average tennis ball but still is an intermediate puzzle for your pup to solve to get to the treats. Due to the larger & permanently open holes, your pup may have more motivation for the SodaPup toy than the tennis ball. Different dogs have different preferences!
If you use tennis balls, you can also put multiple balls out at the same time. We like to stuff some and leave others normal to increase the difficulty!
Stuffed hollow bones
- DIY cost: $15 or less for bone and $1 or less per refill
- Required products: Red Barn Naturals (Chewy, Amazon)
One of our first food-based enrichment puzzles, stuffed hollow bones were an instant hit with our pups! All you’ll need is some hollow bones, we like Red Barn Naturals (Chewy, Amazon), and some food or treats to stuff in them. Our pups’ favorite options are chicken, sweet potato, or carrots. If your pup isn’t quite as motivated as Prim is for us, combing a little flavor from something like peanut butter or the Kong easy sprays (it doesn’t take much) can help get them started.
We like this puzzle since we get a nice tasty treat that our pups like and then get to reuse the same treat for additional enrichment options for a low price! You’ll want to make sure you get a bone your pup can’t choke on and supervise them during this activity.
If you want some additional ideas, check out our pup on using stuffed dog bones! The carrots with peanut butter work great if your pup needs low-calorie enrichment ideas.
- DIY cost: free!
- Similar products: N/A
Hide-and-seek games are not only a fun way to burn energy but also provide mental stimulation for your dog. We find this easiest if you have a good stay/recall command inside (check out Puppr if you need some help with this). All you need to do is ask your dog to stay & then recall them to you after you get a chance to hide somewhere. Using really good rewards or their favorite toy will help make this more exciting when you start. We also recommend starting with easy hiding spots and gradually making it more challenging as your dog becomes better at the game.
We love seeing the videos of someone’s pup trying to find their human! It’s typically a good time for all those involved and works great if you have kids, as well!
PVC food dispensing toy
If you’re looking for easy DIY dog puzzles, a PVC food dispenser toy is a great choice, as long as you have some tools. We like this one because it’s almost indestructible and is easy to clean. All you’ll need to do is buy a piece of PVC and two caps then drill some holes in the PVC for the kibble or treats to come out. Ours is always a hit and can even be used outdoors, as well.
If you like the idea, but don’t want to mess with PVC, the IQ ball is a great option, too. We have 2, one for each pup, and it’s great because you can remove some of the inserts to make it easier or more challenging if needed. You can also find it at other stores that carry pet supplies. Our local Menard’s has one and it was cheaper than online stores. Whichever route you go, we love watching our pups kick around food-dispensing toys!
We wrote a walkthrough on how to make a PVC dog feeder for yourself! With some basic tools, it’s cheap, easy, and your dog will love it!
Advanced DIY dog puzzles
After your dog has mastered the beginner and intermediate puzzles, advanced DIY puzzles are the way to go. These puzzles require your dog to work at unlocking the rewards and use more of their problem-solving abilities. Here are a few ideas to challenge your pup:
- DIY cost: free!
- Similar products: N/A
For those of you with smart pups, we’d like to introduce the shell game. Most of us are familiar with this in some capacity and the concept is the same for dogs. The idea is you have a few different cups or similar shaped containers and then put a treat under one of them and your pup has to guess which one it’s under! It takes a little bit of getting used to, but most dogs will pick up the concept after a handful of attempts.
If your dog is having issues initially, you can get a few slightly transparent cups, get a real stinky treat, or leave the correct cup cracked slightly so your pup can smell the treat. We like to have our dogs nose or paw at the cup as our criteria, but whatever you want works fine. We find that nosing or pawing are too relatively natural movements for your dog in this situation so there are fewer behaviors to teach.
- DIY cost: free!
- Similar products: N/A
If you’re looking for entertaining DIY dog puzzles that you’ll enjoy, too, try out a puzzle box. You can take two different routes here. The first option is to throw a bunch of stuff your dog won’t eat along with a bunch of treats into a box and tuck the flaps in. When you give it to your pup, a lot of stuff will be moving around which will be more exciting than just a handful of kibble. Your pup will have to figure out how to open the flaps and then dig through the items to find the rewards.
The second option is to seal the box and cut holes in various locations and then load the box up with treats. We taped one set of the flaps down and left the other open to prevent some of the treats from getting stuck under one of the flaps. Your dog will have to figure out how to manipulate the box to get the rewards out. This is more advanced than the activity ball or PVC dog feeder puzzles since there isn’t a good way to roll the box or a funnel to slide the treats into one of the holes.
You’ll typically get a lot of different behaviors with this one as your pup works through different ways to try to get the treats. We were very pleasantly surprised with how much Prim enjoys this activity, especially with how basic the supplies are. She loved it! It’s a great use for all those old Amazon boxes you may have hanging around!
- DIY cost: free!
- Similar products: N/A
This is admittedly a wide-open category, but we still think it’s worth mentioning. Behavior shaping is using a series of steps to teach your dog a typically more complex behavior. This is especially helpful with more complex commands or ones your pup is having difficulty with. In addition to this, you can teach your dog all kinds of weird and more complex behaviors like walking on their back legs or opening & closing doors behind them. The possibilities are endless here and it gives you a bunch of free upgrades to traditional obedience training.
Two of our favorites, although they aren’t particularly complex, are crawl and leg weave! Goomba’s great at crawling and Prim’s very quick with leg weave. Two of the more useful sets of behaviors we’ve used are the “go to” command with room names and the “other side” command. These both make shuffling your pup around the house much easier when it’s required.
We wrote a guide on how to teach your dog the “other side” command! It’s relatively easy and great fun for your dog if you have the space for it. Prim loves doing “other side” for cheese and we use it on bad weather days to help burn some extra energy!
DIY dog puzzles are a fantastic way to keep your furry friend entertained and mentally stimulated. From treat-dispensing toys to hide-and-seek games, there are plenty of options to choose from. Get creative, have fun, and watch your canine companion’s intelligence shine as they tackle these brain games with wagging tails! Your pup will thank you for the fun and mental exercise.
What are your favorite DIY dog puzzles? Share your experience with us on Instagram @TheRulyBully. We love hearing your stories and experiences!