It’s become a common belief that providing a dog with enrichment allows the companion animal to have a sense of control over its environment, which can help to reduce and avoid stress. Nutritional enrichment encourages dogs to use natural foraging and feeding behaviors to earn food. This can be accomplished by using puzzle feeders or slow feeders that have been shown to be a way to provide mental enrichment for dogs as they are required to use problem-solving skills to access the food.
SodaPup is a pet brand that specializes in the design, development, sales and marketing of innovative American-made, molded products that include rubber dog toys, nylon dog toys, TPE dog toys, lick mats and other feeding systems. The Boulder, Colorado-based brand has seen a tremendous response to its enrichment products since the start of the pandemic, which has resulted in the pet brand working hard to keep innovating in this category. SodaPup has developed a growing collection of enrichment slow feeders such as those with a honeycomb, water frog, duck and mandala geometric design.
Pet Age recently reached out to Adam Baker, founder and CEO of SodaPup, and Megan Hulse, chief merchandising officer at Pet Palette Distribution, to learn what has led to the skyrocketing appeal of enrichment products, why they deserve their own pet product category and how retailers can use enrichment products to boost their bottom line.
How do you describe pet enrichment products, and why were they created?
Baker: The purpose of enrichment is to reduce stress in dogs and to reinforce socialization practices. Providing a dog with enrichment allows the animal to have a sense of control over their environment, which can help reduce and avoid stress.
Enrichment for dogs is broadly defined as activities that encourage our dog’s natural behaviors. So, many dog toys could be defined as enrichment toys. Tug toys, for instance, which encourage interactive play, are an example of social enrichment for dogs.
For the purpose of this conversation, we are discussing food enrichment products. These are products that encourage a dog to use his or her natural foraging instincts to get their food. Food enrichment devices like our emats, ecoins, etrays and ebowls – “e” for “enrichment” – are all designed to make mealtime fun, challenging and interactive. They satisfy your dog’s innate instincts and curiosities. Every meal is an opportunity for enrichment, and food puzzles are a great way to slow down your dog’s eating and provide mental stimulation.
Hulse: Pet enrichment products were created to help combat your pet’s boredom – which if not redirected, can lead to anxiety, bad habits and maybe even the loss of your favorite shoe. Enrichment products can help keep your pet engaged through activities that give them purpose, while creating opportunities to exercise both their body and mind. In addition to these products being a great way for your pup to kill some time, they have now transformed into great DIY at-home training tools that promote problem solving skills and following directions.
Why do you see pet enrichment products as deserving to be their own pet product category?
Baker: I think we are only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food enrichment products. Product development is an iterative process and as companies like SodaPup learn from past designs, it will inform new ways to create food puzzles for dogs. As a group, these present and future products stand apart from traditional dog bowls, which are perhaps the most unnatural way to feed a dog. Food enrichment products should make traditional bowls obsolete because they are much healthier for dogs to use.
Hulse: This category has come a long way from putting a schmear of peanut butter in a Kong. The Pet enrichment category has grown large enough that it now has sub-categories. From puzzles, to lick mats and nylon to rubber, there are countless enrichment options now available that can cater towards your pet’s specific needs. Whether you’re on the hunt for a certain material, silhouette or behavior assist, this category has something for every size, personality, and attention span.
Has it been easy or difficult to get consumers to understand the value of a pet enrichment product?
Baker: It has been much easier than we anticipated because social media spreads new ideas quickly. There is a very active community of pet parents who post their enrichment creations on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok every day. Their posts are a combination of sharing recipe ideas and also showing off amazingly beautiful creations. Some of the creations are truly works of art. It’s as if all the best cake decorators decided to start preparing their dog’s meals in enrichment mats, trays and bowls. The recipes themselves are thoughtfully considered and the way they prepare the food on our products is truly stunning.
One of the ways that mothers express their love is through food. As we know there is a big trend toward the humanization of pets, and we treat our dogs as well (or better) than our children. As a result, food preparation for our pets is taking on much more meaning than in the past. This extends not just to our dogs improving diet – healthier foods, supplements, raw, etc. – but also to the enrichment products in which pet parents serve their dog’s meals.
Hulse: This category has been around for quite a while, with a strong cult following, but has experienced a major explosion over the past five years. Enrichment products have ridden the same wave of success as pet nutrition and consumables. The consumer focus with DIY recipes, feeding techniques, and implementing variety in your pet’s lifestyle has continued evolving in what you’re feeding and how. Treating and mealtime is no longer simply opening the bag and asking for a good “sit.”
What have been important factors that have resulted in the growth of pet enrichment products?
Baker: For SodaPup, the key to success has been innovation. Before entering the enrichment category, we tried lots of existing products to figure out what worked well and what didn’t. Then we set about designing new products that addressed the shortcomings. For instance, our lick mats are 40 to 60 percent heavier than most which helps them maintain their shape better and make them easier to handle. We offer two sizes of lick mats. We offer different degrees of difficulty in our lick mat designs so you can match your dog’s food drive to the difficulty of the mat. We created designs which, across the board, will keep your dog busier for longer. Finally, we offer seasonal designs so that retailers can flow seasonal items into their assortments.
Similarly, our slow feeder bowls are deeper, and the designs are more complex, making them much more difficult for dogs to use. Why? Because research has shown that most slow feeder bowls don’t slow down a dog’s eating in a meaningful way. And we’re just one company. The beauty of the competitive marketplace is that the consumer wins. Other companies are busy innovating as well and bringing to market new ideas. I am really excited to see where this category goes in the years ahead.
Hulse: The largest factors have been the rise of posting pets on social media, the evolution of pet food and nutrition and millennials / Gen Zers preferring pets over traditional parenthood. Like the psychology behind “foodstagramming,” people have now invited their pets to the dinner table. The increasing varieties of consumables now available for pets – everything from type to texture to temperature – has flooded the market with options primed and ready for a recipe in need of a canvas. Mix this with pet owners prioritizing their fur baby’s needs more than ever before and there you have it.
What are your thoughts on the best way to display enrichment products in a brick-and-mortar pet store setting?
Baker: Merchandising is one of the things we focused on at SodaPup when we developed the products. Our emats, ecoins, etrays and ebowls all have hang-holes built into the product itself. This enables us to reduce wasteful packaging and more fully display the products (so they are not hidden by packaging). A hanging wall display of SodaPup enrichment products is visually very compelling. The colors and patterns really speak for themselves.
Hulse: There are numerous ways to merchandise enrichment toys. Whether you choose to organize by brand block, training / behavior method, activity type, level of difficulty, product material – even highlight U.S.A.-made – you should make sure that you always cross merchandise them with the treats or food that complete the package. While you might not sell a new enrichment product to the same customer every visit, you surely can upsell them with the “prize.” The more you can get a consumer to experiment with their pet’s enrichment product, the more likely they’ll be to branch out and buy more and in turn, more consumables. The enrichment toy is the reason for initially buying the consumable and in turn the consumable can become the inspiration to buy another enrichment product.