“Don’t play with your food!” My mother’s voice still resonates in my head.
That comment was usually served with things my sisters and I hated to eat as kids: liver and onions, brussels sprouts, asparagus (all woefully overcooked and sure to activate a gag reflex…).
Since then I’ve discovered a love of food and cooking. I still adore playing with food~just in new ways. I adore transforming fresh ingredients into delectable offerings for family and friends. Food is nourishment for the soul as well as the body, and it brings me joy to play with all foods.
The same principles apply when feeding dogs.
As a professional dog trainer I consult with many busy owners whose dogs are frequently under exercised, both physically and mentally. Dogs who do not have enough mental and physical stimulation often resort to inventive ways to entertain themselves. While it frustrates and angers us when Fido chews on the fine furniture, eats the sofa, or swipes an unsupervised sandwich off the counter, it’s important to understand he’s not out to ruin your day~he simply doesn’t have enough doggie approved items to keep him well occupied!
Anyone who works with me knows I’m a big fan of food puzzles. What’s a food puzzle? It is an item specifically designed to give dogs something to keep their little brains (and mouths!) busy without destroying our stuff. It is an alternative to feeding all meals out of a food dish.
Why are food puzzles a good idea? Dogs are scavengers. They are hardwired to seek food, and their incredibly keen olfactory systems help with that activity. Look at it this way, you can serve your dog his entire diet in a dish, twice a day. He may scarf it down in record time, or may nibble until it’s gone. Once he’s finished, he’s on to something else to do. It may take him 30 seconds or 30 minutes to eat.
If you change it up a bit, measuring out his food in the morning and dividing it into smaller servings in food puzzles, he has something novel to do while he eats. Moreover, he devours his meal more slowly, which is better for digestion. And, if you provide several different puzzles throughout the day, your dog stays happily busy, isn’t bored, and is less likely to demolish the remote control! Think of food puzzles as sudoku for your dog.
What kind of food puzzles work best? I use my own pups as product testers and regularly order products for them to try out. My stand by is the original Kong, stuffed with wet food mixed with kibble, then frozen. Or, a blend of mashed banana, yogurt and some freeze dried liver make for great freezer material~use your imagination! I keep a dozen of them in my freezer and my dogs adore them.
Kong also makes the Wobbler
, a larger item that is weighted at the bottom and holds kibble. The dog has to knock the toy around to get it to release the food through a hole in the side. It is a great use of intermittent, variable schedule reinforcement, since the dog doesn’t always succeed in getting food to appear, but releases at intervals~sometimes one piece of food, sometimes several release at once, often nothing comes out.
Recently, I ordered a few new food puzzles based on the recommendations of fellow trainers. Here’s the run down on how well they work:
I love these and so do the dogs! Any dog that loves balls will adore this one. It has a plate that fits inside, so the food is released slowly. The plate also has a slider to allow you to make the food release even more slowly. One caveat: if you have hard flooring this thing makes a huge racket, since it is hard plastic, and while my pups have not destroyed it, it’s a bit worse for wear.
These are just a few of the options available. Using food puzzles is just one aspect of keeping your dog healthy, both physically and mentally. And they teach our pups that it really IS okay to play with your food!