It’s great to be a dog. Unlike the other small mammals in the house (AKA: kids), dogs are actually encouraged to play with their food. In fact, animal behaviorist and dog training publisher Ian Dunbar, PhD, MRCVS recommends “doing away with food bowls and mealtime altogether – your dog should “hunt” for her sustenance.” Bear in mind, he’s not suggesting that you turn the pup loose to catch a squirrel for supper. Dunbar and a growing number of behaviorists, trainers and vets recommend food dispensing toys for their pup protégés and patients. You know the ones, Kong toys, Canine Genius and others that put pups to work to free their food, one bite at a time. Food dispensing toys can be used for 80-90% of your dog’s daily requirement while the remaining 10-20% can be used for treats for behavior training.
Just think about it: It’s time to leave for work, your dog’s staring at you, then the food bowl, you, then the food bowl, all the while whining away because she knows you’re about to leave. Instead of filling up her bowl so she can eat mindlessly in 3 minutes flat, you pull a frozen food dispensing toy from the freezer. Loaded with delectable kibble and/or her frozen wet food, you place the pupsicle before the pup. She gets to work licking, gnawing and feasting on her reward while you slip out the door. Everybody’s happy. It’s genius.
Now maybe your dog seems perfectly happy to gobble down her food straight from the bowl. Perhaps she isn’t prone to eating footwear or barking in your absence. What’s the point of the toy? Consider this. Humans bred dogs to help us hunt for food. Their incredible stamina and evolving abilities to detect scent and movement were cultivated over centuries, maximizing their brain and physical powers equally. Dunbar warns, “Without a doubt, regularly feeding a new puppy (or adult dog) from a bowl is the single most disastrous mistake in dog husbandry and training. Within seconds of gulping, the poor dog now faces a mental void for the rest of the day with nothing but long, lonely hours to worry and fret, or work itself into a frenzy.” In other words, without the thrill of the chase, we deprive our dogs of their most primal need – to hunt for food. No wonder some trash the house, they’re bored beyond belief.
Of course, not all vets and trainers agree with Dunbar and encourage feeding all or most of your dog’s meals from food dispensing toys. Some recommend starting out with snacks first and building up to meals. Others see the toys as just another handy solution for managing destructive behaviors that may result from boredom or separation anxiety. That’s why it’s important to talk to your vet about what’s right for your dog.
But for pups that get their vet’s thumbs up, pick up an assortment to rotate into mealtimes at your house and give them a try.
Thank you to Bay Area’s Adam Behrens, VMD for assistance with this tip.
Thank you to Brian Burke from Back in the Pack Dog Portraits for the photo.