Does your dog bark when left alone? Eat your furniture to pass the time? Constantly demand your attention? Save your sanity by turning your pup’s mealtime into playtime. All kinds of dogs can benefit from food-dispensing toys, if chosen carefully and used properly. Here are five ways to add these toys to your daily routine to encourage good behavior from your best friend.
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1. Work for meals
Most dogs consider mealtime the best part of their day, so why not prolong the fun by using a food-dispensing toy? Alternatively, some dogs are more interested in playtime than mealtime; food toys can encourage your dog to eat more by making mealtime a game.
For wet food (or a mix of wet and dry), I use a toy with a large opening at one end, like a Kong Classic. The dog can lick, paw at, and bounce the toy to get the food out, which takes several minutes of engagement. For dry food, I recommend a toy with smaller openings, so only one or two pieces of the food can fall out at a time. They are available in many shapes — tubes, balls, cubes, puzzle toys, etc. — and various levels of difficulty. Choose one that fits your dog’s activity level and the layout of your house. For instance, a food-dispensing ball will encourage the most physical activity as your dog pushes the toy around a room, but it’s not suitable if you have furniture that traps the toy out of reach. In other cases, a cube or tube shape will appeal to dogs who like to use their paws to hold or “slap” toys. Once your dog has finished his meal, you’ll find that both his stomach and his mind are satisfied.
2. Leaving the house
Make your exit an enjoyable time by giving your dog a special treat as you walk out the door. A tasty toy will keep your pup occupied for a few minutes after your departure, which is the time he is most likely to feel anxious. You can put the toy in his crate, if he stays in one, or on the floor in a room where the toy won’t get wedged under any furniture.
If your dog has full-blown separation anxiety, he may be too stressed to eat. See my previous post, How to Spot True Separation Anxiety in Your Dog, if you suspect this is the case.
3. When guests come over
If your dog goes bonkers when the doorbell rings or when guests enter your home, simply teach him that the sound of the doorbell means “breakfast in bed”! At the sound of the bell, immediately bring the dog into your bedroom (or his crate) with a delicious food-dispensing toy, shut the door, and attend to the incoming people while your dog enjoys his snack. Once the excitement has subsided, you can let your dog out.
4. Beat rainy day boredom
Bad weather can lead to bad behavior. Keep your dog’s body and mind engaged with a food toy or game to break up the monotony of the day. I recommend having several different food-dispensing toys of varying difficulties. You want the games to sometimes be easy, sometimes a bit challenging.
5. Build independence and confidence
Some dog fall into the “bossy” category. They bark and whine when they want you to do certain tasks for them. These dogs can benefit from food-dispensing toys because they have to problem-solve independently in order to get the food. As long as the toy is not too challenging, leave the dog alone as he eats, letting him do the work himself.
At the other end of the spectrum are dogs lacking confidence. Food toys with large openings can help these dogs “win” the game all on their own, building confidence little by little. With time, you can introduce more advanced toys.
Training involves a lot more than simply providing toys, just as parenting requires more than entertaining the kids with TV. Still, a little extra effort to keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated with toys can contribute to an overall satisfied and calm dog.
Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, MS, is an author and dog trainer with Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY.