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Food Toys and Scent Games Are Good Holiday Helpers 

Winter is here. The days are all too brief and chilly, and the nights are dark and long. Between the cold weather and extra social obligations, many of us not only fall off of our diets at this time of year, but out of our daily routine as well. I assure you that nobody in your household is more aware of this seasonal slippage than your dog.

When the routine goes out the window, it is rarely in the dog’s favor.

Look, we know we’re busy at the holidays. We also know that when darkness consumes two-thirds of the day, we are less likely to go for an after-work hike with our dogs. Life is about the ebb and flow of energy, so I suggest we just embrace the temporary change and find alternate ways to make sure our pups’ daily needs are met.

Less time at the park or on the trails means more time in the house. For dogs, that may well mean more boredom and/or opportunities for mischief-making. If you have never before heard me say, “Banish the food bowl!” or have simply never heeded my advice before, this is a good time to start. By feeding your dogs in creative ways, they’ll get more bang for their buck (or each piece of kibble), so to speak, and so will you.

When your dog is engaged in slowly extracting food from a hollow rubber toy or a ball or puzzle designed specifically for this activity, feeding time becomes less of a five-second frenzy and more of a mealtime marathon.

Food-dispensing toys make mealtime for your dog an exercise for his mind. These types of toys provide a more natural way for dogs to enjoy the process of eating, allowing them to chase/hunt, disembowel, and then slowly consume. This is so much more satisfying and fun than just the end result of having full a tummy. Dogs that eat their meals in toys are given a project, a daily task, into which they can sink their teeth. A well-stuffed toy can take your dog 20 to 40 minutes to consume, and each toy can generally be reloaded several times a day to meet your dog’s required daily ration. The holiday bonus? You’ve just sated your dog’s desire to do something while you finished your online shopping, wrapped gifts, or baked your signature holiday dish.

This tip alone is a lifesaver. I mean that literally as well as figuratively, because when your dog is focused on his own safe and appropriate toys, he is much less likely to get into that box of chocolate goodies that you brought home from the office, for example.

Another way to keep your dog busy indoors while also efficiently meeting her doggy desires is to play search games with your savvy-sniffing machine. (I mean your dog. Your dog is your sniffing machine. All dogs are master scent detectors, and we don’t utilize this skill nearly enough in play and enrichment.) The number of scent puzzles you can dream up for your dog in your home alone is nearly endless. Dogs never get bored of sniffer games.

Teaching your dog to hunt for a certain item or scent is extraordinarily easy and will provide hours of entertainment through the winter months. There are many methods to teach canine scent work, and if you feel compelled to find a class (even online) or professional instructor to help you, more power to you. I say go for it! However, to help you save time while still satiating your dog, consider this DIY sniffer crash course as a stopgap.

Choose your item or scent and simply pair it with a super yummy and fragrant morsel of food when you hide it. Think delicious, though: a tiny piece of bacon, cheese, or roasted chicken, for instance. I do mean tiny, perhaps the size of your pinky fingernail. Hide this pairing in open boxes or under old towels in a room (it’s preferable to start this game indoors) and let your dog’s nose take over to find the yummy treat. When he does find the hidden object, your job is to walk over and reward your dog with a few extra morsels to really seal the deal. Your pup will catch on in no time, trust me.

Once you see that your dog is actively searching, the game is afoot. You can gradually make your scent-puzzle more challenging, but always keep the hidden scent within the dog’s reach. A round of scent detection need only be 15 to 20 minutes, and your dog may well take a snooze after the game. That, my friends, is the perfect time for a glass of holiday cheer. The post chew-toy or scent-game sleepy-dog induced silence is my gift to you this holiday season. Enjoy!

 Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

Main article photo by: Jonathan Meddings, Creative Commons