Why use a boring old bowl when you can turn mealtime into a game? Mealtime is the perfect time to provide a fun way for your dog to expend his energy, all with no extra work on your part.
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Let the Games Begin!
There are so many food-dispensing toys out there that I’ve lost track, but you may find that a DIY version with everyday materials works just as well. Here are some options for getting your dog to work for his food, to keep both his mind and body engaged.
• Kong products. Kong has a number of excellent food-dispensing toys. If your dog is a strong chewer or if he eats wet food, a Kong Classic (or “Extreme” version for strong jaws) is a must-have. Simply stuff the toy with food and give it to your dog in his crate or on the kitchen floor, where a little food spillage is no big deal. He will chomp, lick, and bounce it to get the food out. If your dog is not a strong chewer and eats dry food, try Kong Genius Mike. He will bounce the toy around for several minutes while getting the food out.
• Puzzle Toys. Similar to a Kong, puzzle toys hide pieces of dry food in different compartments, and the dog has to learn how to get the goodies out. Toys by Nina Ottosson, both wooden and plastic varieties, are popular. Always keep your dog’s jaw strength in mind; some dogs may simply destroy the puzzle toy or eat pieces off the game itself. For dogs like this, stick to ball- or cube-shaped puzzles such as those by Starmark.
• DIY Toys. An old blanket, sheet, or beach towel can function just like a puzzle toy. Sprinkle your dog’s dry food on the blanket, then ruffle it up so the treats get stuck in lots of little folds. It will take your dog quite some time to get each kibble out.
• Find It Game. This game turns a room of your home into a scavenger hunt. Here is how to teach it:
1. Have a treat or piece of dry food in your hand. Let the dog sniff it. Then say “find it” and toss the treat in plain sight. Your dog will eat it and think this game is the coolest. Repeat this step four or more times.
2. Hide the treat in an easy place, like next to a chair leg, while your dog watches. (If your dog is rushing to the treat before you can cue “find it,” put him on leash. Restrain him from eating it until you give the cue. Or, if your dog knows a sit-stay, ask for that.) Say “find it” and let him get the treat. Repeat this step four or more times.
3. Leave the dog in another room. Shut the door or ask for a Sit-Stay where he is out of sight. Hide the treat in an easy spot, like the middle of the floor. Release him and say “find it.” Let him search for the treat. The first time, it’s okay to help him by looking or pointing towards the treat. After that, avoid helping him unless absolutely necessary; you want him to develop independence.
4. Once he has learned the game, you can add more and more treats of pieces of food. Ultimately, you can hide his dry food all over the room(s). It will take him a while to find it all, and he’ll be ready for a long nap after all that searching.
Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, MS, is an accomplished author and dog trainer with Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY. Her books, articles, and videos cover everything from house-training to leash aggression.