Mental Enrichment 101: Play with Your Food!
Did you know that working a dog’s brain is as important as physical exercise—and has even greater pay-offs? Training is important (I would say essential), but that’s not the only way to exercise the little gray cells. Giving dogs a challenge that’s instinctive—working for their food—is not just amusing to watch, it keeps them busy, lets them engage safely with an object in a productive way, and helps them learn how to solve problems.
Don’t worry that this is somehow being cruel! Studies have demonstrated that dogs and many other species offered a choice between food in a bowl and food stuffed in an object actually choose the food that takes some effort.
If you’ve never presented your dog with a Kong or other enrichment toy, you may be amazed by how much fun it can be for them. I’ve seen my own dogs turn away from their bowls without taking a single bite—and then excitedly engage with a toy that I stuffed with the same food. (Then I switched to a new food because I believe everyone should enjoy their meals and have variety.)
Using food toys for meals teaches puppies and adults with little training to learn that they can make good stuff happen, which is also a powerful principle of positive-reinforcement training. And you may be surprised to learn that this simple form of mental enrichment can prevent or resolve many behavior issues. But wait, there’s much more!
Satisfies the basic instinct to forage
Slows down eating by wolfers and plumper pets, by feeding less (if necessary), aiding digestion, and reducing the risk of bloat
Encourages picky eaters by making meals more interesting (putting an end to free feeding)
Provides an energy outlet when you are too busy or the weather is too hot/cold/rainy to do walks and outdoor exercise
Avoids boredom when your dog is recovering from injury or illness, or has limited mobility
Clearly provides happiness and a sense of accomplishment, like a productive workday Provides a better alternative to barking, digging, destructive chewing, and other undesirable activities
May improve some behavior issues by helping to relieve stress and anxiety
Where to Start?
Start simple. For dogs who are new to this activity, make it easy for the kibble to fall out by widening the opening(s) and showing the dog how it works. Soon, you can make it more challenging by adding soft food, freezing it, and (with certain toys) making the opening(s) smaller.
Look for toys made from non-toxic material.
Supervise, at least in the beginning, to make sure your dog isn’t chewing on the toy—and to come to the rescue in case it gets stuck where he can’t reach it.
Add variety by rotating toys that require different actions: licking, rolling, bouncing, pushing over.
Turn your dog (or cat) into a problem-solver by adding puzzles, starting with the lowest level of difficulty. Food is hidden in compartments that have to be opened by lifting, sliding, spinning, pulling, or pushing with paw or nose.
Some Favorites Links
And for small/tiny dogs: https://yourdogadvisor.com/best-kong-products-for-small-dogs/
There are dozens of ways and recipes for stuffing a Kong. Just search on Google or Youtube. Save time and click on the following links!
Busy Buddy Twist ’n Treat and Barnacle by PetSafe, as well as some amazing new cat toys (but please do not buy their “training” (shock) collars!)
Puzzles by Nina Ottosson (dog and cat)
Puzzles by Trixie (dog and cat)
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016