Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our August/September issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
In the 1980s, zoos began to discover the merit of offering their animals enrichment activities to help them mimic behaviors the animals would perform in the wild, like finding their own food. Having food handed to them wasn’t nearly as exciting as hunting and foraging.
This enrichment idea trickled down to the pet community, and it wasn’t long before dog trainers and dog toy manufacturers began inventing and producing the enrichment toys we have today — and most of them include a food or treat element.
Wild dogs hunt for their food, which provides them with a lot of physical and mental stimulation during mealtime. In contrast, the average companion dog’s mealtime activity usually consists of drooling while waiting for the bowl to hit the floor. Instead of a handout, give your dog foodie toys and games to add a fun challenge to his day.
Make chow time interesting by offering your dog’s regular diet or daily treats inside of a toy, such as a Kong Original, Tug-a-Jug, Atomic Treat Ball, or Buster Cube. This novel feeding method will help your dog lose a few calories as he works to acquire his meal. Here are some tips for choosing a yum-filled toy.
Size matters. When choosing a treat or food dispenser, take into account your dog’s size and chewing voracity. Err on the side of buying one that’s too big rather than too small. Larger dogs have difficulty solving a puzzle for smaller dogs (because of their big paws).
Add variety. Try a few types of treat and food dispensers. Some may be easier for your dog to handle than others, and if you have a few, you’ll always have a clean toy to stuff while the others are in the dishwasher or drying.
Don’t DIY. I love do-it-yourself projects, but I don’t recommend making a treat dispenser. Anything that smells of food runs the risk of being voraciously chewed by your dog, and if your DIY project isn’t 100 percent safe, you might have a big veterinary bill to pay for your creativity.
Do a noise check. The material the toy is made from is important for your peace of mind, not necessarily for your dog’s enjoyment (he’s going to love just about anything you give him with food inside of it). If you have hard floors, choose a softer toy so it doesn’t make a racket as your dog rolls it around.
Your dog doesn’t have to be a canine Albert Einstein to enjoy puzzle toys, which generally compel your dog to find hidden treats. Some toys require your dog to move levers or tip containers to access the food. All of this gives your dog the mental stimulation that waiting for a bowl doesn’t provide.
There are a variety of puzzle toys on the market, some simple and some complex. All require a little patience and training to show your dog how to succeed at the puzzle.
Keep watch. Puzzle toys require human supervision. Many have small parts that can be lost (or swallowed!) if you leave them alone with your dog.
Make your own. If you are a DIYer, this is where your skills can shine. Making a puzzle toy can be as simple as putting a few treats inside of a toilet paper roll, cereal box, or plastic gallon jug and taping it shut with a little masking tape. Remember to supervise so your dog ingests only the treats.
Fun foodie games
You don’t need store-bought toys and puzzles to give your dog a fun food challenge. Below are two toy-less games to make meal or treat time interesting.
Play hide-and-seek. Portion your dog’s meal or treats into several small bowls, then hide the bowls around your home or yard, behind doors, and in corners. Show your dog where the bowls are for the first few times, and, eventually, he will understand that he has to “hunt” for his food. For more of a challenge once your dog understands the game, use treat dispensing toys rather than bowls.
Bob for treats. On sweltering summer days, fill a baby pool or large plastic tub with a few inches of water, and toss in your dog’s favorite treat. Fruit and carrot pieces work well for this game. Your dog will cool off and work for his food.
Concerned that your dog won’t figure out any of these toys or games? He will. Dogs are resourceful. You have to show him how the toy or game works at first, of course, but once he gets the hang of it, the fun begins.
How to stuff a Kong like a pro
- Spread a little peanut butter, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, canned dog food, canned pumpkin, mashed sweet potatoes, or another of your dog’s favorite and healthy spreadable treats along the inside of the toy.
- Drop a “high value” treat, preferably something stinky, like a liver treat or a chunk of cheddar cheese, into the toy’s larger opening. If your dog likes fruit or veggies, use a piece of banana, cooked carrot, or a piece of broccoli. Ideally, this item will seal the small hole at the top of the toy.
- Drop in some of your dog’s favorite kibble mixed with canned dog food or healthy people food, like chicken or beef.
- If the toy is large enough, wedge your dog’s favorite treats inside to make the goodies even more difficult to remove.
- Finally, seal the hole with something that will stop the contents of the toy from falling out too easily, such as soft freeze-dried dog food, a few pieces of jerky, a flexible dental bone, or some semi-moist dog food.
- If your dog becomes a soft-toy expert, able to remove the contents quickly, make the task more difficult (and more fun!) by freezing the toy overnight. If you have multiple toys, keep them frozen to offer as needed.
Read more by Nikki Moustaki:
- What You Need to Know About the Rabies Vaccine
- 5 Easy Backyard Games to Play With Your Dog
- How to Keep Your Dog — and Yourself — Sane on Road Trips
About the author: Nikki Moustaki is a dog trainer, dog rescuer, and pet expert. She splits her time between New York City and Miami Beach, Florida, and is the author of the memoir The Bird Market of Paris.