Brown and white dog laying down outside on concrete, playing with a red KONG dog toy.

Why Shelter Dogs Need Daily KONGs | Dopamine & Mental Health for Shelter Dogs

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Hard floors, metal kennels, echoing barks, and little fuzzy chins resting on two paws as you pass by. These are the difficult and realistic scenes of life in a shelter. But, to give you a little hope, an animal in a shelter is taking its next step to its future home, and for today, is getting its next meal. There are many things that can be done to help these animals live a quality life while they are waiting for their forever home to come through. For dogs, one of the ways to provide enrichment is through giving them KONGs.



Interaction & Enrichment

The truth is that dogs in shelters may have to spend a lot of time alone between playtime, walks, and socializing. During this time, it’s helpful to have an enrichment routine to keep their minds sharp and spirits up. Enter: KONG Classic. A KONG is like a puzzle for a dog—challenging and rewarding. The challenge helps to keep the dog striving for more, the reward gives a dose of dopamine, the chemical neurotransmitter in their brains that is associated with motivation and reward.  When a dog anticipates a reward based on an experience, the dog’s brain releases dopamine. KONGs given in a shelter setting help to support this much needed chemical action to keep dogs mentally healthy, engaged, and something to look forward to each day.

Maggie McSchaefer, Director of Animal Behavior & Sheltering at Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden, Colorado (USA) gave us a little insight into how KONGs have been helpful for the dogs in their care. Their overall goal for giving KONGs to these dogs is to provide enrichment, stimulation, and value to their daily lives—”be it with curious exploration, appreciative enthusiasm, or expert dissection!” brown dog laying down outside chewing on a red KONG dog toy.

Much like a balanced breakfast gives you a healthy start to your day, “KONGs are part of a balanced enrichment program, and good enrichment programs reduce stress, create routine and stability, and add joy to the day.” Maggie says dogs who have been at the shelter for a while become familiar with the routine and anticipate the KONG delivery with excitement.

This shelter’s favorite KONG is the KONG Classic, as it holds the most volume and is easiest to clean. The shelter staff stuff and freeze the KONGs in bulk a few times a week and pass them out to each dog in the mornings. The dogs work on their individual KONGs during quiet time in their kennels, much like you’d give a KONG to your dog at home to keep them engaged while you accomplish tasks like cleaning, working from home, or nap time with the kids. This routine can be continued once they are adopted, and it helps them to feel secure in their new home early on.

Sometimes the KONGs are given out at the end of the day before the staff leave to calm the dogs and help with separation anxiety. KONGs can help keep a dog focused on the task in front of them instead of what is going on externally, like the shelter staff leaving. This same technique can also be used once the dog is adopted into a home. You can continue to give a KONG to your newly adopted dog before you leave the home, so they remain focused and calm.

“Even at the best shelters with robust volunteer and enrichment programs dogs often spend 20+ hours a day in their kennels.” KONG enrichment time and other activities, such nose work, walks, yard time, dog play, food puzzles, toys, and long-lasting chews, help to break up the monotony.

When asked if there was anything this shelter would like our readers to know about shelters in general, Maggie says, “Now is a great time to adopt! Many shelters are full of dogs who would make wonderful companions – whether you are seeking a couch potato or an energetic adventure partner. If you can’t adopt, consider volunteering or donating to support the work of your local shelter.”


A special thanks to Foothills Animal Shelter for providing insight into the daily lives of the dogs in their care. If you live in the Denver-Metro area, you can visit Foothills Animal Shelter at:

580 McIntyre St.

Golden, CO  80401

To visit them online, click here. To donate to Foothills Animal Shelter, click here.

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