Feeding your dog from a food bowl is quick and convenient, but is it really the best way to deliver your best friend’s daily allotment of calories? After all, dogs developed as scavengers with keen senses of smell and finely honed problem-solving capabilities. Trainers in zoos and aquariums have been using their animal’s meals to provide stimulation and enrichment for years, and there’s no reason we can’t take a page from their book for our pet dogs to further their training and adjust their behavior.
Using your dog’s food to enrich his life can be nearly as quick and easy as scooping a portion into a food bowl, and the benefits are immense. By slowing down voracious eaters, enriched mealtime can make the meal seem larger and could reduce the risk of bloat. Dogs on diets will feel more satisfied having worked for their food, and could even burn a few calories in the process! Picky dogs are often more interested in food if it’s presented as a fun puzzle for them to solve. Best of all, mental exercise is every bit as tiring (if not more so!) than physical exercise, so working for his food could help to make Fido a little easier to live with. As we all know, a tired dog is a good dog.
Here are a few easy ways that you can put your pup’s abilities to work and make mealtime more fun for both of you. These are just a taste (ha!) of the many different options available for you and your dog, so my hope is that you’ll use these suggestions as starting points and let your creativity guide you to further enrichment activities.
Hand-feeding is one of the easiest ways to deliver your dog’s food, and there are all sorts of wonderful things that it can do for you. Hand-feeding a new dog or puppy is a great way to start your relationship off on a positive note. Shy dogs can likewise benefit from the trust fostered by feeding them their meals. If your dog gets sharky when you try to feed him treats, hand-feeding his food can help him learn to use his mouth more gently.
Get your dog used to items he has to wear by introducing them during mealtime. If your dog dislikes his Gentle Leader, jacket, booties, or the dreaded “cone of shame,” put the offending item on before mealtime. Immediately after dressing your dog, feed him, then undress him as soon as he’s done eating.
Within a few meals, your dog should start visibly brightening at the sight of the formerly unpleasant item, since it always predicts wonderful things. Note that if your dog really, really hates wearing something, you may need to up the ante by feeding special meals for a bit. But hey, that’s what gravy was made for!
Dogs evolved as scavengers, and most dogs really enjoy getting in touch with their roots with a good old-fashioned “find it” game. If you feed messy foods, consider hiding your dog’s bowl throughout the house for him to sniff up. Those who feed kibble or other less-messy diets can hide the food outside the bowl for even more fun. Consider hiding each individual kibble somewhere different (one piece on each stair step, one behind each chair leg, etc.), or just throw the whole lot amongst the grass in your backyard for your dog to search out.
Puzzle toys such as Kongs, Twist ‘n Treats, and Buster Cubes can combine toys and food in new and interesting ways. Make the puzzle easy in the beginning so that your dog is successful, and gradually increase the difficulty as he figures out how to make the toy work. You can feed your dog’s entire meal from a toy and throw out his food bowl altogether!
If it’s safe to do so with your dog (i.e., your dog won’t ingest non-food items), you can repurpose empty plastic water bottles or cardboard boxes as cheap, disposable puzzle toys by cutting holes in them and filling them with food.
Here’s a training confession: I don’t feed my own dogs or any of my foster dogs out of food bowls until their behavior is perfect. Why waste calories? Instead, I dole out handfuls of food throughout the day when I like what the dog is doing. Lying quietly on your dog bed? Have some food! Chewing on a dog toy instead of my shoes? Here’s some food! Going potty outside? Good choice, have some more food! Dogs love learning this way, and I would much rather catch my dog making good choices than wait for him to screw up and punish him.
Whether you feed raw or kibble, cook for your dog or feed canned food that looks more appetizing than the stuff you cook for yourself, there are lots of ways to provide your dog with his daily meals that go well beyond slopping it in a bowl.
We’ve just scratched the surface here, and I’m curious to hear how you serve your dog’s meals! Please share your tips and tricks in the comments below.
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