If your dog is anything like mine, then mealtime is their favorite time of day; you would think that I was giving her filet mignon! Some of our dogs cutest behaviors happen when we have their bowl in our hands.
Feeding from a bowl is a tried, true and convenient method. However, after years of watching my dogs eat their food faster than it took to prepare it, I realized that I was wasting daily opportunities to enrich my dog. With some slight tweaks to their meals, we can mentally stimulate our dogs, strengthen our bond, and make their favorite time of day last longer than a minute!
Not only can our dogs work for their meals, but they really want to!
Toys and Puzzles
If your dogs meals have any moisture to them, you can their meals beforehand by stuffing their kibble into a Kong (or similar) toy and freezing it. Not only does the Kong add a component of isometric exercise to breakfast, but you will also have ready made “dog distractors” in your freezer. If you feed your dog dry kibble, adding spoon full of wet food for moisture will work great!
Even if your dog isn’t a risk for bloat, slow feeding is a healthier and more enriching option for meals. A slow feeder or interactive feeder is a dog food bowl or mat that has multiple obstacles that the pup needs to get around to reach their food. They force your pet to figure out how to get to the food, and then work for it.
There are also entire lines of puzzle toys to challenge your dog. Pups learn to move pieces, rotate disks, push blocks and pull levers to get to food. Many toys offer ways to increase the difficulty of obtaining food so that your dog continues to be challenged even after discovering how the toy works.
Since wild canids are natural scavengers, allowing them to forage for their food can be very beneficial. It is as easy as hiding small piles of their food around your house! Try hiding them beside the couch, behind a chair, under a coffee table or the bottom shelf. Start by leading your dog into the room where the food is and tell them “Find it!” Some pups need you to point out the first hiding places, but soon their nose takes over and you can sit by and be amazed at their olfactory skills. As your dog learns the game you will be able to hide things in more difficult places. I haven’t been able to fool my dog yet!
“Hand feeding” your dog is the act of manually giving them their meals from their bowl instead of giving them their entire bowl. Hand feeding your dog their meals is a bit like going to the gym; it feels like work in the moment but the benefits are incredibly rich and varied. By making your dog wait for you to feed them by hand, you are adding focus and impulse control.
Hand feeding is also a fantastic way to work on building a soft mouth and bite inhibition as it gives you exponentially more opportunities to give our dog feedback. By being selective and reactive to their mouthiness, you will modify their behavior so that they learn to take things from you gently, as well as asking for them politely.
Hand feeding builds trust in fearful dogs, slows down fast eaters, and strengthens your bond with your dog dramatically. I recommend hand feeding to most of my clients and the feedback I receive is universally positive! However contrary to popular belief, hand feeding is not a magic bullet for resource guarding behaviors. If you find that your dog is protective of their food or bowl, you will want to reach out to a behavior consultant before attempting hand feeding.
Stay tuned next week for more fun tips at MD Pup Scouts!