Many dogs in the wild spend a lot of their time looking for food. Evolutionarily speaking, a dog is prepared to devote a great deal of physical and intellectual energy toward finding food. When a dog is in a shelter, we like to recommend using food puzzles to help mentally stimulate dogs, alleviate boredom, and reduce stress.
If you have a dog, you may already be familiar with one of the most common food dispensing toys, Kongs. Kongs can be filled with food (kibble, wet food, peanut butter, bananas, etc.) and even frozen treats to help keep your dog busy, active, and focused.
Below are some helpful tips from Laney Nee, Behavior Programs Supervisor at the Center for Shelter Dogs. Not only is her advice helpful for those working with shelter dogs, but dog owners may want to experiment with food puzzles as well.
1. Hi, Laney! Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Laney Nee and I’m a certified pet dog trainer working as a Behavior Programs Supervisor with the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Amazingly, I work with every dog in the shelter doing basic training and helping with behavior plans for the dogs. I have the opportunity to work with two behavior specialists that lead me in the right direction every day. I have been with the ARLB for about 6 years, as a volunteer first and now as an employee after I made a huge career change about two years ago. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve never, ever looked back. I lost my dog Bella, 5 year old English bulldog, suddenly a year ago. I miss her every single day of my life and her memory will be with me forever, she was my perfect girl. Since then I’ve been fostering dogs and helping them become happy, healthy (behaviorally) dogs and they’ve found forever homes.
2. What are food dispensing toys?
A food dispensing toy (FDT) is any toy or object that can contain food, and requires the pet to work to find a way to obtain the food. The most common food dispensing toy is a, Kong® toy with dry kibble inside. A variation is a Kong with frozen canned food that slowly melts and becomes available. Another variation is a Kong with an inch of peanut butter smeared just inside the opening, reserved for special cases. There are many other brands and types of food dispensing toys. For the very active and motivated dog a, Buster Cube™ or Kong Wobbler is a good option. Finally, some organizations choose to make their own food dispensing toys using PVC pipe or other improvised devices. (Watch a video example from the Animal Farm Foundation).
3. Are there certain types of dog personalities that may benefit from food dispensing toys?
For the most part any dog can benefit from a food dispensing toy, especially those dogs that are good eaters and are food motivated. Dogs that are bored with kenneling can benefit from these food dispensing toys because it takes longer and more focus for them to eat their normal meal rather than eating out of an easy food bowl. Also, dogs that are high energy dogs can also benefit from food dispensing toys to provide them with mental stimulation.
4. What if the dog isn’t eating/using the food dispensing toy?
If the dog is a ‘good eater’ and eats his or her food the second it’s put in front of them, you can start with putting their dry kibble into the puzzle along with some yummy semi-moist treats. Let them roll it around. If it seems the food isn’t coming out or they lose interest quickly, make it a bit easier for them to get the food out. The FDT instructions should show you how to make it easier/harder.
Definitely experiment with the different food dispensing toys out there. Your dog may prefer easier toys over more difficult ones or vice versa. You do not have to use the food dispensing toy for meals at all – it can always be as a bonus meal or ‘treat’ for your dog. For example using kibble, peanut butter, delicious treats, etc. all mixed within the puzzle is something really special for your dog. Always watch for weight gain and sensitive digestive systems. It can be easy to lose control of their weight because the food dispensing toys can be so fun for them.
5. What are some signs that indicate that a dog may not benefit from a food dispensing toy?
A dog that is shy or a picky eater. In order to start using food dispensing toys, the dog must really enjoy eating! It’s good to experiment with food dispensing toys with puppies (once they are strong eaters). Puppies tend to be really good eaters and you can introduce them to food dispensing toys early in life, and then eventually they can eat all of their meals out of the toy rather than a simple food bowl.
6. Can you make a food dispensing toy out of things you may already have around the house or in your shelter?
It depends, it has to be material that the dog won’t get hurt chewing or won’t swallow. To be safe, I recommend purchasing them, but please watch the video about making PVC toys, above.
7. Is there a brand you recommend for purchasing a food dispensing toy?