Even the best pet parents may not know what food enrichment for dogs is, or why it is so important for their pup’s health. Though most dog owners understand their animal’s need for physical exercise, they often overlook the importance of mental exercise.
Insufficient cognitive stimulation can be a trigger for bad behaviour, such as excessive whining, barking, fur licking, or gnawing on furniture. A 2014 study found that shelter dogs exposed to enrichment behaviour from food-filled toys, for example, displayed an increase in desirable behaviour and a decrease in bad behaviour.
Mealtime is a great opportunity to pique your dog’s curiosity while you’re out at work or on days when you can’t go outside for a walk. With a few well-chosen toys and supplies you have around your house, you can improve your dog’s day every time they belly up to their bowl.
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1. Use a Kong to keep your dog intrigued and focused
Perhaps the easiest way to stimulate your dog is to use a Kong, a near-indestructible rubber toy with a hollow cavity. Fill it with food, hand it over and watch your dog happily work at it for hours. The Kong’s curvy shape makes it tricky for your dog to get a really good grip on it, making it more challenging to clean out.
You can pick up different flavored creamy treats at the pet store, but none work better than plain old peanut butter. For an extra-stimulating treat, pop the filled Kong in the fridge to chill it out before handing it over to your pup. The different temperature heightens the sensory experience and is refreshing when it’s too hot for a good walk. If you're looking for ideas on what to load a Kong with, try our guide to the best dog treats available today (opens in new tab).
2. Puzzle toys make a little bit go a long way
One of the biggest challenges with using food to maintain a dog’s interest is how quickly they gobble up whatever they’re offered. A puzzle toy puts your pup’s problem-solving skills to the test by requiring them to manipulate it with their paws or nose to get the food out.
Dogs are delighted by success, even though the reward may only be a few pieces of kibble at a time. A puzzle toy stocked with dry food or treats is also something that can sit around waiting for whenever your dog feels like playing with it. You can also have a few different puzzle toys that you swap out to keep the challenge fresh.
3. A snuffle mat puts pups on the scent of a snack
Your dog’s nose is tens of thousands times more sensitive than yours, so an easy way to stimulate their brain is to put their sniffer to the test. A snuffle mat makes treat time engaging by letting your dog use their tracking skills.
Long felt fronds stick through a rubber mat, creating a soft, safe 'lawn' for your dog to snoot around as she sniffs for hidden goodies. The snuffle mat makes dogs happy because it allows them to go 'full dog', something they’re not often allowed to do inside the house.
Be sure to use a treat with a strong smell, such as fish or bacon, but only hide one or two at a time so your dog really has to hunt for them. You can build your own snuffle mat easily enough with a rubber bathmat, some felt fabric, and a bit of free time.
4. “Hide the food” games are a quick DIY solution for food enrichment
Store-bought solutions are fantastic, but not necessary when it comes to enriching your pup’s meals. You can create a range of stimulating situations using objects that are readily to hand in your house. Stick to the general concept of 'hide a treat in something' and you’re halfway there.
Fill a muffin tin’s cups with tennis balls and hide some treats or food morsels between the balls. Roll treats up in a towel, or bury a favorite toy or snack under socks in a laundry basket. Or for something even more low-effort, just crouch on the floor and cover a treat with your hand. Your goal is to let your pup sniff out the goodie and then dig it out, and the ways to achieve that are nearly endless.
Just be mindful of your dog’s safety and remember that if you include something other than food, it is also likely to end up in their mouths.
5. Dogs like popsicles, too, so freeze some treats today
Hot weather means your dog doesn’t get to play outside as much as they want. Frozen treats stimulate their noses, tongues, and brains while keeping them cool.
To make a delicious ‘pupsicle’, take some dry food, a bit of low-sodium chicken or beef stock, put it in a container (an empty ice cream container works great once it’s cleaned) and pop it in the freezer. Pull it out and let your pup go to town.
It’s going to make a bit of a mess as it melts, so this is a treat best enjoyed outside. This can either be a snack or an entire meal. For an even easier variant of this, pour low-sodium chicken or beef stock into ice cube trays.
Be the human your dog thinks you are
You love your dog and want her to be happy, so in between belly rubs and expressions of gratitude for keeping the neighborhood squirrels at bay, stimulate your dog’s curiosity. Just like people, dogs get bored and it’s as bad for them as it is for us.
With a little effort, you can give your pup the mental stimulation she craves – and save your furniture from doggie expressions of frustration.
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Susan Arendt is a writer and editor with more than two decades of experience from companies including AOL, Conde Nast, and The New York Times. She currently resides in North Carolina with three dogs (Alice, Bridget, and Chloe) who, frankly, run her life.
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