Mental Stimulation for Dogs: Food Puzzles

Give your puppy (and dog) plenty of mental stimulation to decrease destruction.
Give your puppy (and dog) plenty of mental stimulation to decrease destruction.

I don’t know about you, but if I sit around and watch t.v. all day I start to feel agitated and anxious. I feel pent-up and start pacing the house saying I need to get out and do something. I have to believe dogs experience similar feelings when they are stuck in the house all day while their owners are at work. The working dogs, or any dog that has a lot of energy and drive, must go absolutely insane. And I know this to be true as my business has had many calls for “destructive” and “out of control” dogs that just needed a little more engagement in their lives.

It is important to think of mental stimulation as an act that is taxing on the brain. You can play fetch with your dog for a half hour to tire him out but within a short period of time he is ready to go again. This is because although the game of fetch was physically tiring, it wasn’t challenging to your dog. On the flip side, if you work with your dog on a new trick, practice their obedience or play a game of hide and seek with their food, their brain is fully engaged during the session causing them to be more relaxed after.

One of the easiest things to give your dog that provides mental stimulation are food puzzles or interactive toys. You can find a large variety of food puzzles ranging in difficulty levels, sizes, shapes and colors. There’s something out there for every dog, you just need to try a few to find the right fit for your dog specifically.

There are hundreds of food puzzle toys, here are just a few of the interactive toys you can find for dogs.
There are hundreds of food puzzle toys, here are just a few of the interactive toys you can find for dogs. 

One of the added benefits of food puzzles is the length of time it takes your dog to retrieve all food. How long does it take your dog to eat out of a normal bowl? One minute? 30 seconds? Well, when a dog has to work for his food by interacting with a puzzle toy it takes a lot longer, sometimes up to 15 minutes. This is perfect for dogs that are left alone first thing in the morning while the humans go off to work. The owner can give the toy just as they are leaving the house for the day which actually teaches the dog they like when their mom and/or dad heads off to work because they get a fun toy to play with that has food in it. Puzzle toys also help time to go by faster since the dog is preoccupied with getting their food instead of sitting and waiting impatiently by the door or causing destruction due to boredom.

Food puzzles also teach your dog to use all of their senses versus just shoveling food into their mouth when fed out of a bowl. Think about it a moment. Your dog has to figure out how to get the food out of the specified holes which means they are using their eyes, nose, mouth, paws and most importantly, their brains. All of this taxing work helps to tire your dog and encourages them to think and solve problems.

I’ll share a secret I learned over the years to make the process easier on deciding which puzzle toy is best for your dog. I strongly suggest you demonstrate several times how your dog should work with the puzzle toy to get the food. For instance, if it’s a toy that is to be rolled around, roll it around with your hand several times showing your dog what happens. If it is better to toss the toy, or drop it, to get the food out then perform the same function. Dogs mimic so they will catch on quite quickly if they watch you do the same task several times first.

Caleb is ready for his breakfast toy!!
Caleb is ready for his breakfast toy!!

Approximately, only 10 percent of Caleb’s meals are fed in a bowl, the remainder are fed through training lessons or food puzzle toys. I started this when he was just a couple of months old and have kept up the routine to this day. It is a lucky day when Caleb gets what I consider to be a “free” meal, one out of a bowl. But I can tell you that after Caleb finishes these “free” meals, he is looking at me with a look that says, “What’s next?!”  You can see several videos of Caleb and Lasher figuring out some food puzzles on my YouTube channel. Just visit the Caleb’s Food Puzzle Review playlist where we rate different food toys and give them a “paws up” rating with a description of the pros and cons of each toy.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several companies out there offering interactive food toys with prices ranging from $10.00 to $50.00. I suggest you start with easy ones and work up as you see your dog’s skill improve with time. The easiest food toy to use with your dog is the Kong toys. These can be stuffed with their kibble then close the opening with a little canned dog food and stick in the freezer over night. This will make the process a little more difficult since your dog will have to thaw the frozen canned food first to get to the kibble. Please visit the below links to see some of the food puzzle companies and enjoy watching your dog learn.

Fill the Kong toy(s) to the top with your dog's kibble or favorite treats.
Fill the Kong toy(s) to the top with your dog’s kibble or favorite treats.
These Kongs hold Caleb's breakfast and are ready to go in the freezer over night. Each is filled with his kibble (pictured left) then the holes are closed with canned puppy food.
These Kongs hold Caleb’s breakfast and are ready to go in the freezer over night. Each is filled with his kibble (pictured left) then the holes are closed with canned puppy food.

Petsafe interactive toys

Kyjen games for dogs

Kong interactive food toys

Nina Ottosson’s Interactive toys

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