Throw the Food Bowl Away!

It is one our dogs’ most salient instinct: to hunt/search for their food. They are indeed scavengers. The fact that some of the world’s dogs live their lives in a people’s world means lots of good stuff for these pups, such as them actually leading pretty “comfy” and safe lives that can  also translate into quite a boring existence.

We have literally taken away so many of their natural outlets that their quality of life is often compromised. Searching and “working” for their food is one of these outstanding canine behaviors that we need to bring back.

My strong recommendations is for you to throw away your dog’s food bowl and instead spend a little time in figuring out easy ways to serve your dog’s chow in a manner that is fun and allows him to work for it too. In return, you will be giving your dog some excellent mental stimulation as you also reap the benefits of having a pup that is able to entertain itself.

The bonus for the human when their dog is mentally as well as physically tired is that we do not need to spend too much extra time and energy either re-directing the dog out of mischief or entertaining their dog because the dog has not learned to self-sooth or entertain itself.

One of my favorite ways of giving dogs the ability to hunt for their food is the regular use of some sort of food dispensing toy. The selection of these is enormous!

The truth is that no matter what kind of food you are currently feeding your dog (kibble, raw, etc.) you can find a few ways of delivering fun while eating.

My all time favorite is the use of Kong™ toys. Kong is a company that produces some very cool products, but this particular toy was to my knowledge, how the company got started.

It is important when making the transition from feeding via a food bowl to the use of food dispensing toys to spend a few minutes making sure that your dog enjoys the particular toy as some dogs initially might be afraid of the new toy or be at a loss as to how to make it work.

I often hear from clients that they tried the Kong or another toy, but that their dog was not too interested in feeding this way; only to show them when I whipped out a Kong and filled it with some tasty stuff how interested their pup became.

Do not give up easily! Instead, go beyond just smearing some peanut butter in the inside of the Kong and really begin to feed your dog all of its meals via food dispensing toys. In my professional experience, they are only a smallish number of pups that truly would not enjoy eating out of these toys. The trick is to try different types of toys and to make things easy for the dog initially, if there is any resistance or concern, until the dog gets hooked on eating this way.

This kind of feeding is especially appropriate for dogs that suffer from anxiety since the chewing and licking needed to extract the food often calms dogs, dogs that have way too much energy, for crate training and teaching alone time, and for those dogs who spend so many hours alone with nothing to do.

Below you will find some instructions as to how to teach your pup to enjoy eating out of Kongs. Watch your dog carefully to monitor his involvement while working with the toy (or not) and either make things easier for your pup, or harder. Again, do not give up if you or your pup does not reach success ASAP… the best things in life require time!

  • Begin with as many Kongs as you need so that you can loosely fill them with your dog’s meal. If you are feeding kibble (dry food) begin by filling the Kongs with the kibble and present to your dog to extract.
  • Allow her to investigate the toy and play with it so that the kibble readily comes out of the toy.
  • Praise your pup and do not be in too much of a hurry to bail her out if she is not interested in the toy.
  • Once your pup is extracting the loose kibble from the Kong, you will proceed to making it a bit harder (and yes more fun) by placing some of the kibble in the toy and adding here and there something harder such as a piece of jerky so that some of the kibble requires a different strategy (your dog is now problem solving- nice!) to bring out. Let her work on it.
  • Once she has learned this, you can begin to wet the kibble so it will becomes a mush and much harder for your dog to extract once packed in the toy. Different levels of difficulty can be achieved by how the mush is packed inside the toy. Again, some experimentation on your part will be of value here.
  • Alternatively, you can use a mix of kibble and wet food, which many folks use for their dog’s meal and create some sort of a stickier matrix and thus a bit harder to extract.
  • If you noticed that after truly trying to engage your dog to eat this way that your dog is still reluctant, not to worry, continue to use the food bowl for main meals but give some really good stuff in a Kong as a treat.

Make this memorable for your dog: Try putting in some string cheese, sardines so that your dog will find it worth its while to try and work for the food this way. Your encouragement in this part of the process could also help in building the confidence your pup might need in extracting its daily food in this manner.

Just like us, dogs do have preferences as to what toy they find super fun, or not. So experiment a bit. Ideally you find quite a few of these toys that you can rotate on a regular basis. Finally, I suggest picking up the Kongs after each serving to avoid having them get lost of chewed on. I wash mine by hand with a bottle brush, by soaking them in soapy water or even in the dishwasher.

If you have more than one dog in the household, use good judgment as these toys might become a high value item. It is best to feed dogs separately if there is a chance of a dog fight taking place.

Since our dogs truly depend on us for their quality of life, I encourage you to really put some effort in making sure your dog’s natural instincts and desires are taking into consideration on a daily basis. Your dog and I will thank you for this!