I have the right to be a dog (or a puppy) is the final life skill described in Life Skills for Puppies. The right to be a dog means having their emotional, physical and mental needs met in appropriate ways. It does not mean using misinterpreted or misunderstood notions of dominance or aggression to categorise or respond to our dog’s behaviour. There are many ways we can give our dogs the right to be a dog, and how they’re fed is one of them.
As discussed in I can be calm, dogs probably need more sleep than you think. In one (unpublished) study the authors suggest that well-balanced dogs whose needs are being met will sleep for around 17 hours a day. What I want is a dog who sleeps out of a satisfied mental and physical tiredness, not out of boredom because they have nothing else to do. One way to help meet their right to be a dog, and to provide fresh and interesting things for them to do is to use food toys on a regular basis.
Top of the list of essential items for any new dog owner will usually be a food bowl, however dogs of all shapes, sizes and ages can benefit from receiving at least some of their daily food rations from food toys. A well-designed and appropriate food toy provides a mentally-stimulating alternative to meals from a food bowl. Food toys give our dogs the opportunity to problem solve, allowing them to manipulate the toy, to sniff or chew, to seek out the food that has fallen from the toy or to work the food out of the toy by licking, chewing or nudging the toy. The thirty second meal from a food bowl becomes an enjoyable thirty minute challenge when given in a food toy.
This can be of particular importance for dogs whose owners complain that they are never tired, always on the go, or pestering for attention. Often these dogs receive large amounts of physical exercise which has ensured they are physically fit and therefore requiring even more exercise to tire them out, but lack mental stimulation which leaves them unable to settle, seeking attention, or making their own entertainment by chewing precious family items. Correctly introduced, food toys provide an outlet for the unwanted activities, have a positive impact on the dog’s welfare and should help the dog to settle and rest because the mental exercise is tiring. If nothing else, they keep the dog appropriately occupied for a longer period of time than a food bowl and therefore reduce the time the dog has for the unwanted behaviour. Food toys can also help keep teeth clean and massage gums for good dental health. On a personal note, I can’t imagine having a puppy in the house without a ready supply of food toys to help keep them appropriately occupied and out of trouble.
The downsides of food toys are generally from the human perspective. It can take longer to prepare a meal via a food toy than simply putting kibble in a bowl, especially when the dog is a PhD-level food toy user and likes increasingly complex and difficult challenges from their toys. Food toys also need to be introduced appropriately so that the dog gets some easy wins and learns how to use the toy without giving up or getting frustrated. If you find yourself saying ‘oh, we tried such and such a toy, but he wasn’t interested’, it may be worth re-visiting how you introduced the toy in the first place. Did you give the toy to your dog when it was empty and expect him just to start chewing it, or was it far too difficult at first and your dog gave up because they didn’t manage to get the food out?
Food toys can be messy too, although generally dogs will tidy up any stray bits of food that fall out that they missed initially. If you feed raw diet you can still use food toys, but it may be advisable to give them on a sheet or blanket which can be easily washed to minimise any spread of bacteria. In some cases, food toys are highly movable (I know one dog who takes their stuffed Kong to the top of the stairs and drops it so that it bounces and knocks food out on the way down) and can get stuck under or behind furniture or your dog may accidentally knock in to things as they are emptying the toy.
I would always advise that you keep an eye on your dog whilst they’re emptying their food toy, although some can be left with an unattended dog. In multi-dog households it is usually best to give food toys in separate spaces to eliminate any risk of resource guarding, as you would do with a food bowl, however the additional time spent emptying the food toy means that doors need to be closed or supervision needs to extend for longer than with a food bowl. For most of us the obvious pleasure our dogs get from receiving a food toy, and the benefits they bring, outweigh any possible disadvantages.
Whilst all dogs can gain some enjoyment and benefit from having an occasional meal from a food toy, there are some dogs for whom food toys are invaluable to maintain their mental and emotional wellbeing. If you have a puppy then I encourage you to consider a Kong (or similar chewable, stuffable food toy) as an essential part of your puppy kit to provide your puppies with mental stimulation, appropriate chewing object (all puppies chew; we have to manage them so that they choose to chew what we want them to chew), and possibly even teach your puppy to tolerate frustration as they learn to cope with the toy’s variability in delivering the reward. You can also give a stuffed Kong to your puppy to help them learn to be left alone and to keep them suitably occupied.
Like puppy owners, whose walks are necessarily restricted by age, those of us older dogs with impaired mobility or other dogs on restricted exercise regimes after surgery or illness should also consider the benefits of food toys for helping keep our dogs mentally and emotionally stimulated whilst their physical ability to go for walks is limited. A dog on crate rest post cruciate surgery, for example, can be fed all their meals via a mix of solo food toys, interactive food toys and games with us, helping to keep them mentally stimulated and reduce their stress levels during their recovery. For more on this topic see my book No Walks No Worries.
The most common and popular food toys (many of which have been personally tested by my own dogs) are those designed for the dogs to use on their own, such as the Kong range or the Premier range. In addition, Nina Ottosson produce food toys that are designed to be interactive for the dog and owner to play together. The interactive toys can be of particular benefit to dogs on restricted exercise because they allow them to maintain social interactions at a time when they can become isolated through lack of walks and physical play times. It is also possible to improvise some homemade food toys, using cardboard boxes and newspaper with hidden food for dogs who like to rip and destroy things for example. Even scattering their kibble across the lawn for them to search for will give them a mental workout and be more fun than eating from a bowl.
All food toys should be introduced so that the dog is rapidly rewarded for showing an interest in the toy and learns how to use them rather than giving up because they were unable to access the food. Exactly how to do this depends on the dog and the toy, but general advice is to make it very easy the first few times (use food that will roll out of the largest setting or hole in the device) and to use some high value foods initially too. Toys like Kongs, or the Twist N Treat, can be smeared with squeesy cheese or meat paste to encourage licking and investigating by the dog. Once a dog gains the confidence to hold, move, drop, chew a toy then you can gradually increase the difficulty for the dog. See the Kong website for video help on how to introduce their range of toys. There are also some great ideas for stuffing Kongs, which can be applied to other toys, here including creating dog ice lollies from soaked kibble, stuffed in to a Kong and then frozen. A real essential for the hot summer days.
Watch our video for more thoughts on the Right to be a Dog:
If you live close to us near Ely then check out Isle of Pets where you can buy a range of food toys, and food or treats to stuff them with.
PS. Riley and Cooper would also like it to be known that the right to be a dog includes rolling in stinky stuff too…