Friday, March 18, 2016

Ditch the dish

Twice a day, your dog hears that familiar clang of tiny biscuits cascading into metal. Twice a day, your dog feels the excitement of feeding. Five seconds later, it's all over until the next meal. He spends the rest of the day waiting for you while his wild counterpart would spend hours each day skirting about the edges of a village in search of scraps or traversing vast terrain in pursuit of wild game. Before I adopted my primitive dog, I watched her spend her days stalking and pursuing live prey, both solo and in intricate collaboration with her family members. I saw a couple of her family members lean more toward scavenging, much like the early ancestors of your average household pet. These primitive dogs would observe human patterns and plan their raids strategically to maximise loot while avoiding detection. Aipa is still happiest on training days, when she fully engages her mind and body in hours of searching through the vast wilderness. When I take tea, she daintily laps broth from a bowl, but that is the extent of its use for her.

If you're lucky, domestic life will take its only toll on your dog's psyche, leaving your furniture and leather shoes intact. Many owners aren't that lucky, especially if they have puppies or adolescents. That pent-up mental and physical energy has to go somewhere, and from the canine vantage, your new Persian rug and your great-great-grandmother's antique vanity both look like great places to start. And if your dog doesn't take matters into his own mouth, then he is still likely to suffer from boredom while you're gone, possibly even developing separation distress that's just mild enough to escape your notice. Why not let him scavenge, hunt, and work for his food instead? Seeking behaviour is crucial to a dog's mental and emotional well-being, just as it is to ours. Without leaving the safety of your home, he can engage his mind, all five senses, and even his body for hours on end while you're at work, all with one simple trick: ditch the dish.

Numerous meal-dispensing toys are now available, some of which take about 2 seconds longer to fill with kibble than a traditional dog dish, others of which are perfect vessels for wet food.
  • The Jolly Pets Monster Balls win hands-down in ease of filling as well as purchase price. They won't stand up to a true power chewer, but for something as easy as single-handed squeeze and scoop, they provide considerable duration and quality of enrichment.
  • The Busy Buddy Barnacle's largest of three compartments is easy to fill by squeezing with one hand and scooping in with the other. The inward-facing rubber prongs slow the release of kibble in a way that the KONG Classic doesn't. The two smaller compartments can be filled with kibble as well or quickly stuffed with tantalizing bonuses like larger biscuits or jerky, encouraging chewing. Exterior grooves can be smeared with anything wet: canned food, peanut butter, yoghurt, enzymatic toothpaste, or anything else you don't mind on your floors. This is Aipa's favourite kibble toy!
  • The KONG Genius Mike and Leo can be filled the same way as the Barnacle - squeeze with one hand, scoop or pour in with the other. Adding a couple of larger treats easily ups the challenge, as does combining the two into a new puzzle feeder.
  • The KONG Wobbler can be cleared out within five minutes by a foodie if filled with average-sized dry kibble, but if you happen to feed raw frozen bites, then this is the dispenser for you. It takes my obsessive cat, Lily, up to two hours of full-body wrestling with this slippery opponent to consume a 1/4 cup of Nature's Variety Instinct raw bites. Two of those meals translates to four hours of daily peace for her canine sister!
  • KONG Classics are truly the classic canine enrichment toy, especially if you feed wet food, such as canned, homemade, or a dehydrated mix. They can be filled with moistened kibble or wet food and frozen for a comprehensive sensory experience. To add challenge, mix the moistened kibble with a little wet food, peanut butter, puréed pumpkin, or yoghurt. Another option is to purée the kibble and water, then use a pastry bag to pipe the mixture into a week's worth of KONG's. The downsides are the time involved in filling and the capacity: a KONG that is correctly sized for the individual dog's jaws might only hold half a meal.
  • The Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug is rough on wood floors, human legs, and fine china, but if you're looking for an unscrew-and-fill kibble toy for a genius foodie whom you can't seem to challenge, then get this weird contraption and put the dog where he can't destroy anything by throwing a large, hard plastic object around. This is Lily's favourite kibble toy!
  • Scatter. That's right, no toy involved. Just scatter dry kibble in your dog's crate, anywhere you want him to enjoy spending time, even your whole house and yard. If you feed something other than dry food, and you have a backyard, then scatter across your yard. Neighbours love seeing rabbit entrails being flung from the second storey. Go on, try it, then come back and comment below. In all seriousness, this is an excellent method that requires zero time or money. Take that scoop that you were about to invert over your dog's dish and, since that dish has been ditched, fling it far and wide for your dog to snuffle up.
  • YOU! Pop a portion of his breakfast into a treat bag, and reinforce the nice things your dog does, teach him something new, or keep his existing cues sharp.
How do you use your dog's regular food to spice up his life? Add your thoughts and tips to the comments below!

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About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.