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Nourish your dog's mind as well as their body with searches and food toys to enrich their mealtime experience

Updated: Jul 6

Interactive food toys and food searches can enrich your dog's mealtime, improve their quality of life, and can make your life easier.

Your approach can be as simple as scattering kibble in the grass, or as elaborate as stuffing a variety of toys and hiding them around the house. The best strategy is tailored to the personality and needs of each dog.
Part 1 in a series on interactive food toys
A dog searches for treats hidden in the fleece shag of a Snuffle Mat
Molly's Snuffle Mat helps her decompress and relax

Why use food dispensing toys and food searches?


Reason 1. An appropriate challenge prolongs the pleasure of your dog’s mealtime, provides healthy mental stimulation and can stimulate the appetite of picky eaters.

What approach to eating does your dog take?

There are the inhalers: their meal disappears in seconds.

There are the grazers, who eat a nibble now and then throughout the day.

There are even a few sensible eaters who methodically chew and savor their meal as they consume it all.

Food dispensing toys and/or searching for their food can help dogs with any of these types of eating styles.

The inhalers slow down and have a chance to notice the sensation of their stomach getting full and their hunger satisfied. They're less likely to pester you for more food which can lead to obesity.

The grazers often show more interest in food when it involves an appropriate degree of challenge.

The sensible eaters get the enjoyment of exercising their mind and moving their body as explained below.


Reason 2. Interactive feeding toys and food searches provide a safe and constructive outlet for your dog’s instinctive desire to forage.

Does your puppy or young dog drive you crazy by stealing socks, shoes, things they find on the coffee table and counter surfing?

Dogs have an inborn drive to search out things to chew and eat - this is how generations of free living dogs survived in the thousands of years when they roamed village streets, before we brought them into our houses as full time companions.

Some dogs have a super-sized dose of this instinct - these are the ones that tirelessly counter surf, pull things off of shelves, and find every single shoe or article of clothing the kids forgot to put away.


Fulfill this instinctive need to search by providing things you want your dog to find:


The easiest and cheapest approach: food scatters
Scatter food or treats on the grass or on a rug.

Sniffing it out has a soothing effect and can help an agitated dog calm down after a stressful experience

Help your dog learn to search by making the scatter in a small area at first so the pieces of food are close together.

As your dog gains experience and confidence, scatter the food more broadly.

Lay a Hansel and Gretel style trail of food for the dog to follow.

At first make it easy by placing the pieces close together.

As your dog gains experience and confidence you can increase the challenge by placing the pieces farther apart, or by placing small piles of food in various places around the room.

For advanced searchers: prolong the pleasure of a search:

Hide food dispensing toys such as treat balls or stuffed Kongs so your dog has to spend additional time getting the food out after they've found it.


Strategies for "busy" dogs or for eating in small spaces

Variety is often appreciated (plus shopping for dog toys can be fun). Sometimes I scatter food but I also have a collection of feeding devices and puzzles that I rotate.

Some dogs have to eat in a restricted area; for example, if you have multiple dogs and need to feed each specific amounts or prevent fights over food.

In this case, you can provide challenge and variety by using toys that your dog has to lick or roll around to extract the food. Pet stores and online retailers offer a huge variety and I'll discuss the pros and cons of the different styles in future posts.

A rollable toy placed inside a dog crate
A “Rumbl” toy restrained within a crate

Some dogs benefit from extra challenge. For these dogs you can distribute a meal among several toys and hide them as described above.


Reason 3. Many dogs choose to relax after a good foraging session.

Three activities are intrinsically soothing for dogs: sniffing, licking and gnawing.

Providing opportunities to self-soothe with these activities, according to the preference of the dog, can prevent behavior problems caused by the build-up of stress.

Food searches and puzzle toys are a good way to entertain and exercise your dog when it's too hot or too stormy to go outside.



 


Tips for choosing and using food dispensing toys

1. Test your dog's preferences:

Some dogs have specific tastes in toys, so you may have to experiment to find your dog’s favorites.

Consider their personality

For example, does your dog enjoy calmly rolling a ball that drops a piece of food intermittently, or does that get them frustrated and amped-up?

Does your dog enjoy the challenge of squeezing and licking deep into a Kong, or do they prefer a shallower toy from which they can lick the food more easily?

Consider their physical abilities

Dogs with short muzzles, such as Shih Tzus and French Bulldogs do better with a shallow licky-toy such as the West Paw Toppl or Tux, rather than the deep and narrow Kong.

Consider their experience

Start with easy toys and introduce more challenging ones as your dog's skills grow.

A toy or puzzle is enriching only if your dog interacts with it!

During the learning phase, fill kibble-dispensing toys very full, so the kibble comes out easily. Once your dog understands how to work it, then fill with a measured portion.

Consider your environment

Toys that roll are lots of fun, as long as you don’t have furniture on legs such that they’ll get stuck underneath. In my house, we stick to toys that can be enjoyed on a dog bed or rolled around inside a pen or crate.


2. Keep it safe!

Supervise

Supervise and be prepared to retrieve the toy when it is empty. Once it stops delivering food, many dogs will start to gnaw on the toy.

Some toys such as the heavy duty rubber varieties made by Kong and West Paw can stand up to a certain amount of gnawing but many of the plastic food dispensing toys will not.

Provide clear context for searching

Dogs appreciate clarity about when resources are available to them. If you consistently give a clear cue (e.g., "search" or "find it") to start a search for hidden or scattered food, your dog will become less likely to scrounge in the absence of the cue.


3.  Variety is appreciated

If you're able, keep a variety of food delivery options that match your dog's taste, and rotate among them. This exercises mental flexibility and prevents boredom.


Part 2 of this series will describe simple DIY puzzles you can make for your dog from inexpensive and recycled materials.

Part 3 will review a variety of food toys enjoyed by my dogs and my client's dogs.

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