Toss the Food Bowl: Canine Enrichment with Food

Canine Enrichment with Food

The old saying “a tired dog is a good/happy dog” once meant that you should engage your dog in as much physical activity as possible to tire him out. At the time, we didn’t realize that we were just building a better athlete, while neglecting our dog’s mental health.

Research now shows that there are many other ways to “tire out your dog” and reduce boredom through various types of enrichment activities.

According to a 2009 study, “Non-domestic, stray and feral animals spend the majority of their time foraging for food. In addition, they must seek out or construct resting areas and avoid predators and other natural hazards. Pet animals on average spend less than 15 minutes per day eating because they do not have to forage for food. The majority of dog breeds were developed for some functional purpose (guarding, herding, hunting, etc.) yet few animals actually participate in these activities, leaving them with no constructive outlet for behavior patterns that are biologically generated.”  In fact, studies have indicated that “up to 60 percent of companion dogs don’t even get a regular walk.” (Canine Enrichment)

As early as the 1960’s, zookeepers were beginning to understand the need for enriching the lives of captive animals.  Increased enrichment has been shown to reduce stress in zoo and shelter animals, reduce reactivity and increase both physical and mental health.  In the 1970’s, Dr. Hal Markowitz, an early pioneer in captive animal behavior, defined the term enrichment as meaning “a synonym for ‘more like nature.’ ”  More recently, researchers in Sweden conducted a study with a group of beagles and found that “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward.  These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

In a recently published book on this topic, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define the term as “Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs.”

Canine Enrichment

Canine enrichment is a broad term used to describe methods that enhance a dog’s life and meet its needs.  This includes its biological need for nutrition, shelter and medical care.  Besides basic husbandry, there are four other categories of enrichment – emotional, social, physical and mental.  

  • Emotional enrichment includes the love, trust and security of a safe and happy home.  Social enrichment is met through bonding and play with both humans and other dogs.  For human play, think things like fetch, tug, flirt poles, sprinkler games, bubbles and hide & seek.  
  • Physical enrichment is met through exercise.  E.g., hikes, parkour, sniff walks, running, playing, and many different types of dog sports.  
  • Mental enrichment is an activity whereby a dog’s mind is exercised through cognitive and sensory stimulation.  Mental and sensory stimulation can be accomplished through things like trick training, puzzles, music, nosework, play, new sights and sounds, etc. 

Dogs evolved as predators, foragers and scavengers.  Studies are showing us that 24/7 access to a full bowl of food day in and day out  is simply not healthy.  An alarming number of dogs are overweight or obese – which leads to health problems and a decreased lifespan. (For more information on the problem of obesity in dogs, visit this page.)  In addition, it is, simply put, boring.  Dogs don’t have much to do during the day – a quick potty break in the morning, a walk when you get home from work and, in between, hours of time with nothing to occupy their minds.  Bored dogs, just like bored kids, will invent ways to entertain themselves.  Boredom leads to behavioral problems – from barking and inappropriate chewing to separation anxiety and hyperactivity – and can even escalate to reactivity.

Food Enrichment

One easy way to meet many of your dog’s enrichment needs is through food enrichment.  Food enrichment satisfies your dog’s natural instinct to forage, slows down eating to aid digestion and reduce bloat, makes meal times more interesting for picky eaters, provides an energy outlet, reduces stress and anxiety, reduces inclination to chew, bark and dig, etc. In addition, it is a great way to keep your dog occupied after a surgery, injury or spay/neuter when physical activity must be limited.

Did you know that many professional dog trainers provide all of their dogs’ food through training?  These dogs never eat from a bowl.

You will hear us telling our clients to “toss the food bowl.”  We mean this quite literally.  Here are some ideas for how you can join us in tossing the food bowl and enriching your dog’s day through food.

How do I get started with food enrichment?
A good first step can be as simple as adding new flavors and textures to your dog’s meals.  Add a novel topper to your pup’s kibble – a scoop of yogurt, cottage cheese or pumpkin, cut up apple, pear or banana, freeze-dried liver bits or sardines.  When training with minimal distractions, try mixing some frozen green beans, baby carrots or blueberries in with your regular treats.

Now that we have your attention, let’s work toward tossing those food bowls altogether and letting your dog engage in food enrichment activities instead.


Worried about how much food your dog will be getting if you start adding more treats and additional food-related activities to your dog’s day?

Simply take all of the food that your dog is going to get during the day and put it in a single container. This is what you have to work with throughout the day. Use some for training and some for enrichment games. When using non-kibble additions, simply calculate this into the day’s portion and remove kibble to accommodate these new items.


Be Sure to Feed Only Dog-Safe Foods


Before starting any food enrichment activity, be sure that you have a list of foods that are not safe to feed.  Read all ingredients lists and consult your list of unsafe foods before using any new food type or new product brand.

https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/people-foods-pets-should-never-eat

https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/human-foods-dogs-can-and-cant-eat/

Foods to ALWAYS Avoid!!

Chocolate
Grapes & Raisins
Macadamia nuts
Yeast dough
ANYTHING containing Xylitol

Xylitol is used as a sweetener, as a medication and as a way to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth.  It is HIGHLY toxic to dogs.  Be sure to check labels in your household for items containing xylitol and store them where your dog is not able to get to them.

https://www.preventivevet.com/xylitol-products-toxic-for-dogs

Food Enrichment Activities

Food enrichment activities should always be done under close supervision.  Take the time to introduce your dog to new activities and teach him how to do it.  When your dog is finished with the activity, pick it up and put it away so that your dog does not destroy or ingest it.  “Kong” type toys are generally safe for unsupervised crate time.  If you are absolutely certain that your dog is not going to ingest things, some food dispenser toys and cardboard tubes/boxes could be another option for your dog.

Rotate activities and toys to keep things new and exciting for your pup.

If you have a multi-dog household, they should be separated for food enrichment activities.  This will reduce resource guarding and avoid possible fights.  Working alone allows your dog to slow down and really enjoy the activity – rather than having it be a race to finish first.  If you plan to do activities without separating your dogs, be sure that you are supervising them closely and watching for any body language that may indicate a problem.

Puzzle (Slow Feed) Bowls

Canine Enrichment with Food

Puzzle bowls are the most basic type of food enrichment.  They work well for dogs that are just starting out.  Outward Hound, Northmate and PAW5 all make puzzle bowls.  If you don’t want to purchase a puzzle bowl, try putting a ball or two in with your dog’s regular kibble to make an obstacle to work around or substitute something like a muffin tin.  You can even add water or diluted broth to their food bowl and freeze.

Food Stuffer Toys

Canine Enrichment with Food

Kong-type food stuffing toys are one of the most popular food activities for dog owners.   If you shop sales, you can pick up a variety of stuffing toys.  Once you have several, prepare  them ahead of time and pop them  in the freezer – then just pull one out anytime you need it.   Kong, Busy Buddy, SodaPup and West Paw are just a few of the companies that produce a wide variety of stuffing toys.

**Be sure to pick the correct size and type for your dog.

How to Stuff a Stuffer:

  1. If your dog is a beginner, start out by filling the cavity with kibble or dry treats and capping it off with some wet food, squeeze cheese or peanut butter.  The wet topper will keep your pup interested until they reach the kibble jackpot.  
  2. Once your pup has the hang of it, try filling with kibble that has been soaked in water or broth or just mix the kibble with wet stuff  (pumpkin, yogurt, baby food, peanut butter, etc.).  
  3. Pack it loosely at first and then start packing it tighter.  
  4. Finally, once you have an advanced dog, you are ready to start freezing it.  If you are not able to freeze the entire toy, you can freeze things in ice cube trays or small silicone molds and add this to your stuffer toy, along with kibble or ingredients.

What do I use to stuff a stuffer?

Canine Enrichment with Food

You can mix wet and dry ingredients – try peanut butter, apple sauce and banana chunks or yogurt, pumpkin and green beans or soak dry kibble till soggy and mix with cottage cheese and apple chunks.

For more ideas, go to the Kong Company – or simply search the internet for kong stuffing recipes.

DIY Stuffer Toy Enrichment Ideas

  • Hoof/Horn/Bone – If you are like me, you have a variety of hooves, horns and bones lying around the house. Why not try using them as stuffing toys.
  • Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Tube – You can put kibble in a tube and either fold the ends over or cap the ends with packing paper. You can also fill the tube with kibble, cap both ends with wet ingredients and then freeze.
  • Kitchen Items – muffin tins, ice cube trays, old measuring cups, etc.
  • PVC – Pick up a pvc elbow or tee, stuff it and freeze it – or just smear some peanut butter all around the inside surface.
  • Pupsicle 
    • Try putting a few treats/veggies/fruit into ice cube trays and fill with dilute broth. Freeze and then give a cube to your dog, add one to his bowl, put one in a kong or even float a couple of cubes in a bowl of water or even in a kiddy pool on a hot day.
    • Put treats/veggies/fruit and broth in a paper cup and stick in a milk bone or carrot that will act as your pupsicle stick. Freeze, unmold and serve.
    • Same concept, but with an ice cream container. Freeze and unmold in the yard on a hot day.  If you have a large enough container, you can even freeze a ball or other toys into the mold.

Licki Mats

Canine Enrichment with Food

Licki Mats are silicone squares with ridges that will hold food in the crevices.  Smear yogurt, peanut butter or pumpkin in the recesses, stick in some kibble, cut up fruit or veggies and either feed as is or freeze.  You can use anything with a textured surface as a licki mat – silicone ice cube trays or candy molds, a grease spatter guard, silicone hot pads, etc.

Scatter Feeding

Dogs are natural foragers and scatter feeding is a perfect way to tap into that instinctive behavior.  This is as simple as taking a portion of your dog’s kibble and scattering it in the yard or on the floor and let him sniff it out.   Generally, scatter feeding can be done with multiple dogs in the same space.  However, be sure that you keep an eye on your dogs’ body language for any signs of tension. It is always safest to start by separating the dogs with something like an x-pen until you are confident that there will be no fighting

Variation on Scatter Feeding:  Change things up by putting your dog in another room and then set up a scatter trail.  Start near the doorway that your dog will enter and make a trail of treats to lead your dog to another area or room where you have done a scatter or placed a stuffer toy. Another easy idea that you can do while watching television in the evening: Grab your dog’s dinner and toss it a couple of pieces at a time around the room and ask him to “Find It”.

Snuffle Mat

Snuffle mats come in many shapes and sizes and satisfy your dog’s need for foraging and mental stimulation.  A standard snuffle mat resembles a rug with very long shag.   The idea is to tuck kibble or treats down into the mat and then let your dog snuffle around to find them.

To start out, tuck a few pieces of kibble into the mat and scatter some over the top.  Once your pup understands how the game works, you can hide the kibble deep down in the snuffle mat.  A lot of dogs will try to disassemble the mat to see if there are any stray treats hiding deep inside.  If you have such a pup, be sure to pick up the snuffle mat as soon as your dog has finished the game and put it away for next time.

Variations on the Snuffle Mat:  You can turn a basket with holes in it into a snuffle basket.  Take a few leftover pieces of fleece, roll a few pieces of kibble or treat up in them and put those in a box.  Stuff the rolled up pieces of fleece into a Hol-ee Roller ball.


Make Your Own Snuffle Mat
A simple snuffle mat can be constructed in an evening.

Materials:
– plastic sink mat
– fleece blanket or about 1 ½ yards of fleece
– scissors or rotary cutter

Directions:
Cut the fleece into strips, about 1″ wide and 8 to 10” long.  Thread a strip through each hole in the sink mat and tie it off.  Make sure that you have tied a strip through every single hole.  Viola! – snuffle mat!


Other DIY Snuffling Activities

Towel Roll

Canine Enrichment with Food

Lay out a towel, scatter kibble or treats all over it and then roll it up and let your dog unroll it.  To make it more difficult, try tying the roll in a knot, hiding it somewhere in the house or putting it in a box with the flaps closed.  You can also scatter treats along one half, fold the towel lengthwise, scatter more treats on top and then roll it up.


Variations on Towel Roll
 – Use an old pair of jeans and roll treats up in each leg.  Spread out a blanket, scatter kibble on top and then either accordion fold the blanket or grab the center and twist to create folds and swirls to hide the treats.

Cardboard Box

Simply take an empty cardboard box, toss in kibble or a few treats, and turn your dog loose.  Once your dog has the hang of this game, fill the box with packing paper, toilet paper or paper towel tubes or tennis balls.  You can use kibble or treats, veggies or fruit or even drop in a frozen stuffer toy.  To add a bit of a challenge, fold the bottom of a TP tube, drop in a few pieces of kibble, then fold the top to make a little packet. Toss these into the box. For even more of a challenge, close up the flaps of the box. Note: If your dog digests this type of material, do not attempt this activity.

Baskets

Canine Enrichment with Food

Do you have a laundry basket or a plastic tub lying around?  Toss in some kibble and top with balls.  If you have a large enough container, toss in some empty water/soda bottles.  Be sure to take of the caps and plastic ring to remove any choking hazards.

Cones

Take a set of small plastic cones, dishes or plastic cups and set them up around the room.  Place kibble or treats underneath them and let your dog work out how to get to the treats.  Once she has the hang of it, try putting kibble under only a few of them, then let her figure out which ones are hiding the kibble.

Muffin Tin

Canine Enrichment with Food

Put some treats in the cups of a muffin tin and cover them with tennis balls, toys or even silicone muffin liners.  Once your dog has the idea, place the whole thing in a basket or a box the just fits the tin.  When the dog pushes the balls off the cups, they will keep rolling back over, making it a bit more challenging.  

Egg Carton

Put some treats in the cups of an egg carton and close up the carton.  To make it more challenging, you can tape the carton shut, roll the treats in bits of packing paper or scraps of polar fleece and then put those parcels in the egg carton cups.

Purchased Enrichment Toys and Puzzles

Puzzles

Canine Enrichment with Food

There is a huge variety of puzzles for dogs on the market. Many of them are labeled with a rating of how difficult/advanced they are.

Purchased Toys


There are many different food dispensing toys on the market:  Kong Wobbler, Buster Cube, Tug a Jug, Kibble Nibble, Twist a Treat, Kong Gyro … and the list goes on and on.  Some are very simple balls with a hole in it.  Others have a plastic maze inside or other mechanism to slow the dispensing rate and make the toy more difficult.  

If you want to slow down dispensing rate, you can use larger treats/kibble that don’t fall out as easily.  Some toys that come apart have enough space to put a ball inside.  As the toy tips, the ball will cover the hole occasionally and slow the dispensing of treats.

DIY Food Dispensing Toys

Water Bottle or Milk Jug

Remove the lid and plastic ring (these are choking hazards), wash out the bottle and then drop in a few treats.  Your dog will have a great time trying to get the treats out.

Bottle Tipping Activity

You will need a couple of empty milk jugs and a curtain/tension rod. Thread the tension rod through the jug handles and then hang the whole thing in a doorway at a level between your dog’s chest and eye level.  Drop some treats in the jugs and show your pup how to tip the jug to get treats to drop.  You can also use 2-liter soda bottles.  Drill two holes on opposite sides just above the label.  Then thread the tension rod through the holes.

Clothesline Veggies

Take a long piece of string, yarn or fishing line and string on a few chunks of fruit or veggies, spacing them out along the line. Hang this at your dog’s eye level (e.g., in a doorway, between cabinets or between trees in the yard) and let your pup figure out how to get them off the string.  Watch your dog closely to be sure that he does not eat the string!

PVC Roller

Canine Enrichment with Food

Pick up an 8 to 12” piece of ~2″ diameter PVC pipe and a couple of caps. Drill a few holes in the pipe, just a bit larger than your kibble/treats.  Sand the edges of the holes until there are no rough edges.  Put in some treats/kibble, cap the ends and let your dog roll it to release treats.  If you want to be a bit fancier, use the pvc pipe, one regular cap, a threaded end and a threaded cap.  You can use pvc glue to attach the regular cap on one end of the pipe and the threaded cap on the other.  Now you just need to unscrew the end, drop in treats, screw it back on and it is ready to go.

Hide and Seek

Fill multiple toys. Put your dog in another room, hide the toys, and then turn your dog loose.  This can work well when you leave the house for the day as long as you use toys that your dog can’t/won’t ingest.  If your dog will ingest toys, try doing a snuffle trail that leads them to a frozen kong or other safe toy. You could also hide pieces of kibble or treats inside boxes or other containers and place them around the room.

Sensory Maze or Obstacle Course

On a day when you can’t get out with your dog, try putting together everything you have learned and set up a sensory maze or obstacle course.  Use x-pens, boxes or pieces of cardboard to set up a maze or obstacle course for your dog and fill it with enrichment activities and obstacles.  

Using Enrichment as a Calming Activity

Food enrichment activities can also be used to calm your dog during stressful situations.  Counter conditioning works by associating something scary with something that your dog enjoys.  He will learn to like (or at least tolerate) the scary thing since it means something good is about to happen.  

Is your dog stressed during a bath?  Smear peanut butter on your bathtub surround so you dog can lick it during a bath.  They also make a licki bone with suction cups that sticks to walls, floors, etc.  Also try lining the tub with a towel before adding water, as some dogs are more scared of the slippery surface than they are of getting a bath.
Does your dog hate having her nails clipped?  Pull one of those frozen kongs out of the freezer and give them a lick or a treat after every nail.
Is your dog afraid of the vet?  Bring a licki mat along.  A groomer mit with rubber teeth serves as a good portable licki mat. 

A mentally enriched dog is a happy (and tired) dog, so Toss that Food Bowl!!


For a million and one other food enrichments ideas, check out of these facebook pages: 

Puzzle Dog

Canine Enrichment

DIY Canine Enrichment Toys

Beyond the Bowl – Canine Enrichment


Resources

Salonen, Milla, et al.  “Prevalence, comorbidity and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs”.  Nature,  vol. 10, article 2962 (2020).

Haug, Lore Il, DVM, MS, DACVB.  “Enrichment in dogs and cats”.  DVM360 Kansas City Proceedings, August 1, 2009.

Ragen McGowan, et al.  “Positive Affect and Learning:  Exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs”.  Animal Cognition, vol. 17:  577-587 (2014).

Herron, M. E., T. M. Kirby-Madden and L. K. Lord.  “Effects of Environmental Enrichment on the Behavior of Shelter Dogs”.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 244 (6): 687-692 (2014)

Bekoff, Marc.  “Working for Food Enriches Dogs’ Lives and Break the Boredom”.  Psychology Today.  May8, 2019.

Bender, Allie and Emily Strong.  Canine Enrichment for the Real World.  Dogwise Publishing. (2019).

Kelly, Shay.  Canine Enrichment.  (2019)

“Mental exercise tires a dog physically more than physical exercise does.”

Dr. Ian Dunbar
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CPDT-KA
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CPDT-KA

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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