Note: Updated from original article published on 2/10/2011.
Change up the routine
What is your dog’s favorite time of the day? For my dogs, it’s mealtime! If I had my dogs rank their favorite things on a scale of 1-10, I’m sure eating would be a 15. Nothing can make my dogs’ tails wag faster than seeing me reach for the kibble. In the past, the dogs would drool, jump up and down, bark, run in circles, run around the room, and create a general ruckus—all because they were excited to see their food bowls.
Feeding from a bowl was a convenient routine for me, but after years of putting food in a bowl for my dogs to gulp down in less than a minute, I realized that I was wasting fantastic opportunities. If I made some changes, I could bond with my dogs, challenge them mentally, and extend their happiness past 60 seconds. There are so many ways to enrich a dog’s life during mealtime.
Beyond the bowl, all the way to puzzles
There are a variety of choices for dispensing food for your dog, all more exciting than placing a lump of food in a bowl. A number of these options are toys that can even be used while your dog is crated, to make crate time more enjoyable. A Slow Feeder Lick Mat, Corn on the Cobb Treat Dispenser, Honey Bear Treat Dispenser, and other toys are designed to hold varying amounts of dry food or treats. They dispense one or two pieces of food at a time as the dog plays with the toy. (If you feed canned or raw foods, try stuffing a KONG toy or a sterilized femur bone.)
Treat-dispensing toys are fantastic both for releasing constructive energy in active dogs and for getting more sedentary dogs up and moving. They relieve boredom and offer an alternative behavior for dogs prone to inappropriate chewing. The toys can even relieve stress in some dogs by providing an outlet for nervous energy, giving the dog something else to focus on instead of the worry. Treat-dispensing toys also help dogs learn to think and problem-solve as they discover new ways to make the toys deliver food. They provide enrichment and nourishment all in one!
There is a full line of puzzle toys to challenge your pup. Dogs learn to pull levers, push blocks, rotate disks, and remove pieces 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. Who needs a boring ol’ bowl of dog food when you can eat your food out of an Orbee-Tuff Snoop, Orbee-Tuff Mazee, or a Honey Snuggles Snuffle Ball? Check out a full assortment of these toys in the Karen Pryor Clickertraining online store!
Karma plays the "show me
Hide and seek
Since dogs love to seek out food, a game of hide and seek can be the perfect way to eat a meal. Hide little piles of food in various locations around your house. On the bottom shelf of the bookcase, behind the chair, under the coffee table, and beside the couch are all good places to start. Lead your dog into the room and tell him to “go find.” You may have to point out the first hiding places, but soon your dog will learn to use his keen canine nose to find the others. As your dog learns how to play the game, gradually increase the difficulty by hiding treats in higher or harder-to-reach places.
Dinner and a show
We would all love to have more time to train our pets, but sometimes it’s tough to fit training time into a busy day. The solution is to turn mealtime into a training session. When you feed your dog each day, an extra five minutes for training time is easy to work into your schedule. And we clicker trainers know that you can accomplish a lot in a five-minute session!
Does your dog know some fun tricks or behaviors? Have him show off for you. Ask him for sit, down, or shake. Reward each behavior with a few pieces of kibble or, if you feed raw or canned food, present the food in a food tube or on a spoon. Does your dog need help with leash-walking skills? Teach him that hanging out on your left side is a fun place to be by feeding his meal from there. Walk around your house and hand out kibble by your left leg—soon your pup will be glued to your side!
Why stop at old tricks? Imagine how many new things you could teach your dog if you worked with him at every meal. Sometimes I have something particular in mind that I want to train my dogs to do; other times I will just sit down and see what they offer. Be creative! A head dip can become “shame,” looking up can become “where are the airplanes?” My dog Karma knows that she should look snooty (by looking over her shoulder) when I ask, “Are you a snob?” These three new tricks are easy to capture with just a head movement. After that, the possibilities are endless! Two five-minute sessions a day can produce a lot of tricks!
Tricks from Karma
If you are looking for a less structured way to have fun feeding your dog, and if you like the idea of capturing new behaviors with a click, try the “show me something else” game. This game is easy to play and is a wonderful mental challenge for a dog. The goal of the game is for your dog to show you a different behavior in order to earn a click and some food. Once a behavior has been shown, it cannot be repeated to earn a reward. In her books, Reaching the Animal Mind and On Behavior, Karen Pryor describes how she and her colleagues taught a dolphin to play this game. Once the dolphin learned the “rules” of the game, she began to offer behaviors that had never been trained or rewarded previously.
The “show me” game is a fantastic way to encourage your dog to offer new behaviors. When I play with my dog Karma, she offers me many behaviors, including sit, down, turn around, spin, play dead, roll over, paw raise, head dip, look up, cross paws, and lay with her head between her paws. Sometimes she even combines behaviors to make new ones! I’ll never forget the time she put front paw raise, back up, and look up all together. She looked like she was skipping backward!
Another fun variation of the “show me” game is to add a prop and reward your dog for creating new ways to interact with the prop. When I introduced a road cone to my dog Abbi during this game, Abbi touched it with her nose and both paws, knocked it over, stood on it, jumped over it, picked it up, pushed it, stuck her nose in it, sat beside it, and even took a bow next to it! I doubt that I could have come up with that many things to do with a cone!
Abbi plays the "show me something else"
For fun in the sun, there are ways to feed your dog outside. In the warmer months, cool off your dog with a treat-dispensing “pupsicle!” Fill a small plastic bucket with water and throw in bits of meat, treats, KONGS stuffed with peanut butter, or canned or raw food. Freeze until solid, pop the frozen block out of the container, and place it outside on a cookie sheet. Your dog will enjoy chewing and licking the ice, discovering tasty treats and toys as the ice melts. Depending on the size of the ice block and the heat of the day, this treat can provide hours of fun for your pup!
If your dog enjoys treat-dispensing toys inside, he will love them outside as well. Many toys are durable enough for outdoor play. Grass, trees, rocks, and other elements of nature can provide a more challenging surface to play on than your carpet or wood floors.
Another great way to feed your dog outside is to tap into his wild side. Dogs are a predator species, and predators spend time in the wild hunting for food. Dogs instinctively enjoy seeking food, one of the reasons why dogs respond so well to clicker training. They have found a way to seek food from humans. While a backyard can be a boring place, you can easily organize a treasure hunt! Scatter your dog’s entire meal across the yard (kibble works best, of course). Your dog will spend hours looking for every morsel. Food tossing is a great way to give a dog an alternative to barking, fence running, digging, and chewing your lawn furniture.
When you feed your dog in a training session, you’re not only training your dog, but building a stronger bond.
Moving beyond the bowl and finding new ways to feed your dog produces many benefits. Boredom and destructive behaviors decrease while creativity and constructive activity increases. If your dog eats very quickly, taking away the bowl and feeding via a puzzle toy, treat dispenser, or by hand in a training session will slow down your dog and decrease the likelihood of bloat, poor digestion, and other problems associated with fast ingestion.
Best of all, when you feed your dog in a training session, you’re not only training your dog, but building a stronger bond. Your dog loves to eat, and loves to find ways to find food. When you hand-feed your dog during his meal, you become the source of that coveted meal. Your dog will enjoy spending this quality time with you, and you will enjoy spending the extra special time with him!