By Heather Mishefske
Giving your dog a way to work for their food can improve its behavior this holiday season.
Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers. We humans are not good at catering to our dog’s hunting prowess due to safety concerns. We do not allow them to chase squirrels, indulge in road kill, stalk squirrels, or hunt the songbirds at our feeders. These are all activities that they would LOVE to indulge in, but due to the potential for parasites, hunts gone wrong, and safety, we deter them from doing so. And rightly so!
There are safer ways to allow our dogs to bring out their huntress side without the risks. The world of canine enrichment has exploded in the past several years. There are many gadgets, games, and toys that recreate a game that allows your pooch to engage its inner hunter. Our dogs have it pretty easy. We buy baked kibble in perfect little nuggets and deliver them to our dogs in raised feeding stations. While some of us make our dogs “work” for their food, by requiring a skill before their food or treat is presented, eating the food out of their bowl is a very easy task. So, let’s use their food to fill a puzzle or interactive toy and make them REALLY work for it! And use their most highly developed organ, their incredible NOSE! By making your dog work for its food, we utilize some brain power on those days when scheduling or Wisconsin weather makes it tough to get outside for exercise. And why not feed them out of a food puzzle or toy–they have to eat anyway, right? Food puzzles and enrichment toys provide an outlet for dogs to scavenge, root, uncover, and find their food. By doing this, we give our dogs a job, help alleviate boredom, assist with confidence building, and provide a chance for them to do some serious problem solving. Many toys or puzzles are made so that the dog must tip them to get the kibble out, move parts of a puzzle, turn the toy a certain way, or uncover sections to access the food. Once your dog understands how to access the food, he or she becomes a problem solver of all puzzles that you will present them. And there are SO many options out there to explore.
An excellent place to add enrichment toys into your dog’s life are the holidays. The unpredictable days, the added stress of unfamiliar guests, the lack of routine, travel, late nights, and possible lack of physical exercise often lead to increased anxiety in our canine companions. Giving them a simple task like “find your own food” can help. Doing this uses their most developed organ, their nose. Make feeding time into a job.
Some of our faves here at emBARK are:
Starmark Treat Dispensing Ball
Planet Dog Orbee Tuff Mazee
Planet Dog Orbee Tuff Snoop
Omega Tricky Treat Ball
Pet Safe Tug-A-Jug OR Magic Mushroom
Any of the Trixie puzzles
Any of the Nina Ottenson puzzles
Kongs (the original stuffable food toy!)
Snuffle Mats – find them on Etsy or make your own!
The main rule of enrichment toys is that they are meant to be used under our supervision. Many are made of plastic or resin, creating parts that could easily be chewed off. If you pup attempts to chew the toy, simply help a bit by moving it until they understand that motion of the toy is the way that food is delivered. Once your dog understands that they have control of the food delivery, he or she will begin to enjoy the game. Dogs who eat too quickly also benefit from these food puzzles, as treats/food is delivered slowly.
For most dogs, their biggest enriching activity is learning new tricks, skills, and going to new outdoor environments to use their nose. Using food puzzle toys can quickly become something that they look forward to. Add some interactive enrichment toys to your dog’s holiday gift list—it will benefit both of you!
Heather Mishefske is a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of emBARK, LLC. She has been involved in the dog scene in the Chippewa Valley since the age of ten, and professionally since 1998. emBARK offers training classes, dog daycare, dog grooming, canine massage, and workshops. To check out the Midwest’s Hippest Hang Out for Hounds, check out www.embarkdog.com.