Did perpetual happiness in the Garden of Eden maybe get so boring that eating the apple was justified?
– Chuck Palahniuk
I’ve frequently stated the importance of all three components of the PAW Method (Piloting, Activity and Work). Keep answering their questions, keep ‘em moving, and keep ‘em thinking. Pretty simple, yet some people completely gloss of Work. Your dog needs to think, or, more accurately, your dog needs stress. Yes, stress! You add stress to your own life every day! Stress isn’t a bad thing – when you eliminate it yourself, you create self confidence. When a child puts together a puzzle. When you beat a video game. When my husband beats me at Scrabble (okay…let’s not get unrealistic here). Basically, any stressful situation you put yourself in that you are able to manage and control, or beat, yourself = self confidence.
Now I want you to think about what a dog’s life is meant to be like. Hunting their own food. Those teeth aren’t there for looks, you know. For that matter, neither is their sense of smell, their powerful chest, their keen hearing…you get the drift. Like the famous Jurassic Park quote: T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt! So does your dog. It’s about time you let them.
Obviously the most perfect way for a dog to get the mental work they need is to let them live in the wild. It’s also the easiest way for Natural Selection to take over and get your dog killed. So, on to the second easiest way: enrichment feeding.
I personally work for every meal I consume: I train dogs! That Guy works (he’s a professional Geek). Even my kids have to work (setting the table, doing dishes, going to school, etc.). We all contribute to the basic survival of this house. It’s about time your dogs do as well. Contributing is what makes us family. It’s what makes dogs Pack.
I’ve gathered a list of some of my favorite enrichment toys. There is no such thing as a free meal for my dogs; I expect them to hunt their own food…in a cruel-free, bloodless sort of homogenized way. (Note: enrichment feeding is not a good choice for dogs with severe food aggression.)
Northmate Interactive Slow Pet Feeder
Disclaimer: I have never personally used this toy. One of my clients brought it out during a training session. I had never seen or heard of it before. Initially I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen. I mean, it’s just a mat! I stopped rolling my eyes when she fed her dog with it, though. Her dog (French Bulldog named Mimi) absolutely adored the thing! She rooted around through the cones searching for where the food was hiding. I immediately changed my opinion. I loved it! Definitely wonderful for slowing your dog down (looking at you, the bloat-prone Labs) and provided quite a bit of mental stimulation. You can buy it here. Do yourself a favor…buy the large size, regardless of the size of your dog. PROS: it’s immobile. No searching for where your dog left their toy. . CONS: Though it looked exceptionally promising, I haven’t thoroughly tested it out yet with my own critters.
If I’ve trained with you, you’ve seen this before. It’s durable (I bring it to countless sessions with Rotties, Pitties, etc.) and relatively cheap. The largest size holds over 3 cups of food, and while it doesn’t require a lot of brains to use, it does require persistence, which is good for all dogs from laid back Mastiffs to hyper JRT’s. Some dogs don’t like it brand new (let’s face it, it smells like plastic, not food!). I simply wipe the inside only with peanut butter, and then wipe it all back out. It leave a PB scent without the risk of mold. Bon appetit! You can get your own here. PROS: While it can travel, it doesn’t lend itself to rolling very far. It’s also the easiest to fill/set up. Most importantly, it’s one of the few toys that’s durable enough for the heavy hitters: Pitties, Rotties, Mastiffs, etc. CONS: Some dogs are initially terrified of it. Okay, maybe it was only my dog. She tapped it with her paw, it swung backwards, and then swung forward at her, or in Sparta’s words, “It freaking attacked me – I barely made it out with my life!!!!!” We worked through her fear of the small plastic toy, and it’s now part of Sparta’s regular feeding regime, and she likes it.
Busy Buddies Twist ‘n Feed
Ah…the Busy Buddies Twist ‘n Feed. Again, if you’ve trained with me, you’ve seen this. It’s basically two pieces that can be unscrewed or tightened to make it as easy or difficult as you decide. This is Orion’s favorite toy, as it is small enough for him to manipulate without overwhelming him. It’s also pretty durable. It comes in many different sizes, the largest of which holds about a cup or more of food. Get it here. PROS: It can be used with wet food or a raw diet as well. Simply smear the food on one of the halves, screw the top down as far as you want, and have at. It’s also dishwasher safe (top shelf). CONS: Some dogs find this tremendously easy (JRT’s and Border Collies). Doesn’t hold a tremendous amount of food (it takes three fill-ups per meal for Sparta).
Busy Buddies Kibble Nibble
Paws down, Sparta’s favorite choice. Mine as well. The bottom half hold 3 cups of food, the perfect amount for my behemoth of a dog. It doesn’t roll too far, and is easily managed by my timid dog. Also, it doesn’t spray food everywhere like some enrichment toys can. It comes in different sizes, and is dishwasher safe. Safe for most dogs. PROS: Perfect for larger breed dogs who require larger servings per meal. Get yours here. CONS: The toy is extremely difficult as-is. We snip the plastic “claws” from the top and bottom holes, making it easier for the food to come out. The top can also be a bit difficult to thread to the bottom. Of course I’m talking at 5:30 a.m. when I wake up, so, uh…it could be me.
One toy is good. Two is better. Three is awesome. You get the idea. But if your dog only works one of these toys, that’s fine. Just get them thinking. Let them hunt. NOTE: Do not leave these toys out at all times. Feeding time is feeding time. It’s not an hours-long Roman feast. Eat now or forever hold your peace (or at least until the next meal). Sparta gets 20 minutes to eat. I put the food down, go do something else, come back and pick up the toy. Usually she’s done. However, if she’s still trying to bat it around, I’ll give her more time with it. If she’s ignoring it, I pick it up and we’re done with that meal. She doesn’t always finish all of the food, but she has plenty of time to eat as much as she wants.
I hope I don’t need to state this, but water should be available 24/7. A dog can go three days without water. They can go 3+/- weeks without food. I don’t mess with water.
Now, some of you may state that your dog won’t work the toys. Um, yes they will. Given proper incentive (hunger), they will. There’s nothing wrong with hunger…it drives us. Offer the enrichment toys during the regular feeding times. If they won’t work with the toy, pick it up after 20 minutes. No, you aren’t starving your dog. Now, if they can’t work the toy, that’s different. For example, Sparta being afraid of the Kong Wobbler. There’s no way I was going to force her to work with something she was terrified of. So we worked through it together. If your dog can’t figure it out, or is afraid of it, help them, make it easier, or get another toy. If they won’t work it, oh well. Try again next feeding. Don’t cave in and give them their food in the bowl.
Remember, the object is to make them think. Work is a natural part of any animal’s life, including yours! Mental workouts keep us sharp and able to handle real problems. Give your dog the opportunity to flex their mental muscle. You may be surprised at your dog’s adeptness with the feeders.