Yesterday my colleagues and I filmed a short video on the wonders of food-stuffed toys for dogs. It was a blast to shoot, and, wow, did my dogs ever get to have a party at the end as they benefitted from the fruits of our labor. We filled at least 12 toys in 10 minutes and then let the dogs loose with them in the yard. They were busy for at least an hour unpacking and chewing away. It was as though they’d just won the lottery.
Thte idea behind the clip was to help people realize just how easy it is to turn canine mealtime into a much anticipated daily enrichment activity and also how to use food-dispensing toys as an incredibly useful training tool. As it’s only February, it’s the perfect time to clue you in on some indoor fun for your dog.
Banishing the food bowl and feeding via stuffed toys is definitely a top pro tip training hack. It’s such a valuable practice that I figured I’d devote this column to it as well in order to reach as many people as possible.
Mealtime fed out of a food bowl for most dogs is over in a flash. The food is put down on the floor and it’s gone in less than two minutes flat. In some cases, it’s gone in mere seconds. Gulping down large portions at once distends the stomach; it can also cause a dog to ingest a lot of air, and generally is not very a physically healthy or a natural way for a canid to eat. Eating out of food-dispensing toys, especially if the toys are delivered throughout the day (rather than only once or twice a day) greatly slows down the feeding process, both because it takes the dog longer to get the food out of a toy, but also because instead of two large mealtimes, your dog might get four to eight snack times daily, or a combination of smaller meals and supplement snacks fed from toys. While slow, protracted feeding is definitely much better for a dog’s digestive tract, and it’s tremendously beneficial for mental health as well. You see, even one food-filled toy can take a dog anywhere from five to 40 minutes to unpack. Now your dog has a project, a purpose. If you were to measure out your dog’s daily ration and feed entirely out of toys, you’d multiply that productivity several times over.
The beauty of this productivity is compounded because your dog can do this activity on his own. This builds independence and confidence. It also enhances the pleasure your dog will get out of his alone time, which is awesome, because most of us work, and most dogs spend several hours at home without our company each day. Now they’ll have an action plan.
Your dog won’t simply be occupied for much more of the day when eating out of chew toys; he’ll be exercising his brain, too. Some toys are actual puzzles; others require a certain amount of ingenuity to master the best way to chew. Even a simply toy satisfies a dog’s need to use his jaws and leave him feeling calmer and more content.
If your pup is focused on his toys, just think of all of the various things he won’t be doing when he’s so busy with his food-unpacking/puzzle-solving job. A dog that is rolling a puzzle ball around or lying down for a good chew is not: barking, pacing, whining, digging, staring out the window, licking his paws, or bothering the cat. He is most certainly not chewing your house up. Wow! You’ve just diminished the probability of most common behavior problems by adding one simple activity to your dog’s daily routine.
Now, I know there are some dogs out there who are free-feeders and do not gulp their food down. There are also some dogs that simply aren’t that into their chow. The funny thing is, even in these cases, feeding out of toys will often bring new vim and vigor to their appetite. Some dogs are kind of bored by static food in a bowl, the same day-in-day out. Spicing things up with some movement and a challenge really perks them up. It can wake up the inner hunter in a dog who has perhaps forgotten his longstanding heritage. Or, for others, just the lack of constant availability of food makes them pay more attention to the new presentation. In both cases, you’ll find that your dog is happier with the new challenge of food acquisition instead of easy access and overabundance. So please, give it try; banish the food bowl and just stuff it.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by istock/Wavetop