How much thought have you put into your dog’s dinner?
It’s mealtime. Are you just throwing some kibble into a bowl and presenting it to your hungry dog? If so, you are missing out on some valuable enrichment opportunities. Problem solving, without which our training would be completely futile, is a learned skill. And there are some little things you can do every day to help your dogs practice and hone that skill (and, in some cases, get a bit of a work out in the process!). Here are some of the ideas I use regularly to feed my guys. (Note, this is not a discussion on nutrition. That is a whole other blog post, preferably with a lot of input from some friends that are true pet nutritionists.)
This is probably the easiest method, however, it will require some cash. Kong makes some fantastic treat toys, ranging from the Kong Wobblers to the Gyros, and several more that I don’t even know the names of. They are big hits in my house, and it’s interesting to see the different dogs’ approaches to getting the food out. My AmStaffs like to use brute force methods, bashing and pummeling them across the floor, while the border collie considers the problem, draws out a plan, color codes her notes, gathers her tools, and quietly but efficiently dismantles the toy. The Kong toys take a beating with my crew, and they seem to hold up to the abuse. Another option is the Nina Ottoson line of toys. I love these toys for my two fluffybutts (the border collie and the duck toller), but I worry that they will not tolerate the abuse my AmStaffs will dish out. That said, these toys are really cool, and I definitely recommend them as well.
Snuffle mats are essentially a rubber mat with fleece pieces tied into the openings. You can either make one (it’s pretty easy to do if you are at all crafty) or purchase one already put together (no shame in that!). You hide the food in the mat, and the dog must snuffle through the fleece to locate it all (hence “snuffling”). All of my dogs love this. And if your dog picks up and shakes the mat out, don’t be discouraged. This is ALSO problem solving, right? But now they have to go locate all of the kibble pieces that they’ve scattered across your kitchen floor.
Muffin Tin Game
This one is one of my favorites, mainly because it is so easy, and because most dog owners already have all of the parts in their house. All you need is a muffin tin (you probably have one in the back of that one cabinet that you never open. I think they come stock in every home, whether you have actually bought one or not. I could not honestly tell you where any of mine came from…or the last time anything was ever actually baked in them), and a bunch of tennis balls. Ideally, you will have the same amount of balls as openings in your tin. Oddly enough, muffin tins are the perfect size for tennis balls. It’s like this was their actual true purpose! Simply place some food into each of the cups, cover them with the tennis balls, and present it to your dog. Easy peasy!
The Lickimat isn’t really a food game, as such. But it is a super convenient toy, so I thought I would throw it onto this list. It is essentially a silicone mat with lots of grooves and pockets. Smear your substance of choice onto the mat (cottage cheese, cream cheese, pumpkin, peanut butter, canned dog food, etc), optionally freeze it, and present it to your dog. This is particularly useful to keep dogs occupied in the bathtub (attach it to the wall), or on the grooming table, or a quiet crate activity. One important thing to note: the mat is made of silicone and is not indestructible. Or even close to indestructible. I would not put it past any of my dogs to consume all of the food from the mat, and then follow that up with consuming the mat. Don’t leave your dog unattended with this.
For Dogs on a Diet
This one is also not a food game, but for dogs that gain weight easily (I feel you guys…I really do!), this is a quick way to make sure they aren’t gaining weight while also gaining training skills. Measure out what you plan to feed your dog that day. For my border collie, this is about 1 cup of her kibble, plus some hot dogs diced up and added for “seasoning”. For my AmStaffs, this is about one 50lb bag of fancy high performance kibble, give or take, with a case of hot dogs added in for flavor. (ok, not really, but they DO eat a lot and I envy their metabolisms). Use that food for training during the day. Some days you may use all of it, and then some, and this is ok! If they are training, they are burning calories, so provided that you are making good choices in what to use for their additional reinforcers, you should be ok. On the days when they empty the bag, that’s it. No dinner. They have already eaten their dinner over the course of the day. However, on those days where life gets in the way, and they really have done little or (gasp!) no training, they get the contents of the bag (hopefully in one of these food puzzles) for their dinner. This is a great system for dogs that may need to shed a couple pounds, but really, this works well for all dogs. You should be measuring what your dog eats every day as a matter of course, as this can make managing their weight in either direction much easier.
Obviously this list is not exhaustive. These are just some of the dinnertime ideas that have worked well in my own home. If you have other feeding methods that work well for you, please leave a comment here or on the facebook page. I’m always excited to try new things with the dogs!