Our dogs are bored. Life as a pet certainly has its advantages (food, shelter, veterinary care, and a doting caretaker to name a few), but as anyone who has been forced to stay home for any length of time will tell you, not having something to do starts to wear on you after awhile.
Dogs express their boredom in different ways. Some are hyperactive when their owners are around. Others find socially unacceptable ways to fill their time (my dog Apollo has a penchant for chewing books when he gets a little stir-crazy). In the worst case scenarios, dogs that don’t receive adequate mental stimulation develop behavioral problems like anxiety and compulsive disorders.
The wild ancestors of domestic dogs spent a lot of time trying to find food. They scavenged and they hunted. If they weren’t immediately successful, they had to keep trying. Compare that to "Fido’s" life. Once or twice a day a bowl of food is plopped down in front of him and he finishes it in a matter of minutes. What’s a dog to do with all that free time between meals?
One potential answer is to extend the amount of time it takes him to eat. Well-designed food dispensing toys do just this. Some are akin to puzzles, where a dog has to rotate a slotted top or slide doors around to reveal small portions of food. Others roll or wobble and when they are in the right position gravity helps them dispense a few kibbles or treats. Others simply make it hard for a dog to reach his meal without a lot of chewing or licking.
I’m not going to make any specific product recommendations because what is right for one pet won’t work for another. A dog may be such as aggressive chewer that all but the toughest toys will fall to pieces under his assault. Some dogs are smart enough to outwit simple devices, while others may be easily frustrated by toys that are too difficult or stingy with the goodies. Product videos (many are available on YouTube) are a great way to see how dogs actually interact with a toy, and then you can determine whether or not it will work for your pet.
Whichever toy you pick, make sure it is safe, easy to clean, and can handle the type of food you want to feed. Kibble, canned (which can be frozen to increase its durability), treats, food from the kitchen (e.g., peanut butter, carrots, or apple slices), and proprietary products are all possibilities. When you first give your dog the "loaded" toy, watch him for awhile. He should not be able to bite down with such force that broken teeth or a broken toy threaten his health.
Food dispensing toys can’t replace the benefits of a long walk or time spent playing or interacting with other pets and people, but they are an added way owners can ensure their dogs get the mental stimulation they need to stay healthy and happy.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: WOAW / via Flickr