Beyond the Food Bowl

Raising behaviorally healthy dogs requires meeting both their mental and physical needs. When feeding a dog from bowls, many dog owners miss opportunities to meet these critical needs. Dogs are hardwired to scavenge, hunt, sniff, and dig for their food, and if not given the opportunity to do so, the results can be problematic. Behavioral issues such as counter-surfing, digging, excessive barking, and destructive behaviors can quickly arise. Here are five time-saving ways you can make sure your dog’s basic needs are met.  

1. Puzzle Feeders: These types of toys require mental energy and physical output for your dogs. Start out easy to avoid frustration and encourage your dog to experiment with different types. Initially, reinforce your dog for any interest in the feeder, even if that means that treats need to “magically appear from the sky”. Purchased and DIY options exist, including the muffin tin hunt (kibble is placed in each muffin spot and covered by toys of different shapes and sizes), balls, and wobblers that dispense food when moved.  Other types of feeders include actual puzzles to solve to gain access to food and remote treat dispensers requiring your dog to push buttons to access the food inside.  

2Snuffling Games: Meeting your dog’s basic needs, these games give opportunities for your dog to scavenge, sniff, and their environment, lowering overexcitement and heart rates naturally. ​Many snuffling options are available such as hiding kibble in a rolled-up towel, in a basket with other items, or scattered in the yard for dogs to find. Snuffle mats can be purchased or crafted to hide or sniff out treats and are easy to transport. 

3. Food-Stuffed Toys: Different than puzzle toys, food-stuffed toys often require more chewing and licking to get out the food. Because they are a little more challenging, dogs often need to spend more time removing the food, keeping them occupied and calmer. Make sure the access to food is easy at first so your dog does not get frustrated or give up too quickly. Over time, you can make the puzzle harder. Many commercial brands of these types of toys are available, or you can create your own. Food or treats frozen with water in plastic containers or ice cube trays are inexpensive ways to engage your dog. Great for use outdoors or in a safe haven, these treats can easily be popped out of the tray and given to your dog to satisfy chewing needs.

4. Hand Delivery: Hand-delivering food is a great way to reinforce desired behaviors in your dog and bond at the same time. Games like capturing desirable behaviors and kibble toss are both great ways to provide mental and physical exercise. For the kibble toss, wait for your dog to approach, mark the behavior. Toss a piece of kibble for your dog to chase after and eat. Repeat. You can change up the game and practice throwing the kibble in alternating directions once your dog learns the game. An alternative version would be to teach your dog how to “catch” food in their mouth. This often requires good aim and plenty of practice for both you and your dog. 

5. Food Hunt: A food hunt, or a variation of hide and seek, requires your dog to use their nose to seek out treats. For this game, small piles of kibble or treats are hidden around the house for your dog to find. Start off easy with obvious hiding spots, but then increase the difficulty by using boxes, furniture, and other natural obstacles to place the food into. This is a great game to play outside as well. For dogs who like to climb, try the sausage tree game (created by Simone Mueller), where smelly treats are hidden partially up a tree, and they are then verbally encouraged to search for it. Rock walls also make great hiding spots when playing this game.

During these exercises and activities, it is important to always supervise your dog, not only for safety reasons but also to keep your dog engaged with you. Always start off easy to minimize frustration, and remember to have fun!