What is contrafreeloading? This expert explains what you need to know

yorkshire terrier standing on the floor in front of a bowl of food
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While we often think of dogs as being motivated by food and always waiting for the food bowl to be full again, sometimes our pups might seem as though they’re uninterested in food – as surprising as this might be to us. 

To make your dog more interested in eating, award-winning trainer Lisa Burton of Listen Dog Training suggests finding out more about contrafreeloading, something animal psychologist Glen Jensen first observed way back in the 1960s. You could try her advice out with your pup’s normal food, or perhaps some of the best dog treats.

Essentially, Jensen observed that when an animal is given the choice between obtaining food via effort and getting food from a freely available source, they will generally go for the food that requires effort – even if the food is identical. But why?

“It fulfills a need to gain information about the environment,” explains Burton. Meanwhile, it also gives the animal an opportunity to express behaviors specific to their species. As Burton continues, “Animals perform elaborate behaviors when given the opportunity, because the environment lacks stimulation.”

So, what we can do is add some challenges when feeding our pups. You might decide to deliver their food via training sessions, or using snuffle mats or dispenser puzzles. Other alternatives Burton suggests are scattering food in the yard, filling a Kong with food for your dog, or using food in scentwork.

Jensen and subsequent researchers have carried out experiments around contrafreeloading with multiple animal species from gerbils to birds to fish to chimpanzees. The only animal that prefers to be served than to work for their food? The domestic cat. 

If you’d like more ideas when it comes to stimulation and food enrichment for dogs, why not consider making the most of some of the things already in your house? Got an old muffin tin in the cupboard? Fill the cups with tennis balls and hide food between the balls, or roll treats up in a tea towel and let your dog sniff them out. You could even bury some food under socks in the laundry basket! 

Or, if it’s hot and your dog’s spending a lot of time outside, you can freeze some food to make them a ‘pupsicle’ to enjoy! Grab some dry food, some low-sodium chicken or beef stock, put it in a container, and then freeze it. 

For more tips, you might find this article useful: Mental stimulation for dogs: 7 ways to keep your mutt’s mind sharp.

Frisco Bento Interactive Puzzle Dog Toy 
$18.65 at Chewy

Frisco Bento Interactive Puzzle Dog Toy
$18.65 at Chewy
Offering a moderate level of difficulty, this problem-solving game features sliding pieces and nooks where you can hide small treats or kibble. Suitable for all breeds, it's a great way to provide your pup with some mental stimulation. 

Adam England
Freelance Writer

Adam is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle, health, culture, and pets, and he has five years' experience in journalism. He's also spent the last few years studying towards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in journalism. While a cat person at heart, he's often visiting his parents' Golden Retriever, and when he's not writing about everything pets he's probably drinking coffee, visiting a cat cafe, or listening to live music.