Most of us do a good job of providing our dogs with enough physical exercise, but we often don’t realize that our dog’s mind needs a workout too! The good news is, we don’t need to dedicate a whole lot of extra time to this; meal time is an excellent time to get some extra training and mental exercise in for your dog. You’ll find a mix of games and DIY puzzles to choose from below.
*If your family consists of multiple pets or children, prevent resource guarding and bites by making sure no children or other pets can interfere with these games and puzzles. You may want to put your dog in a room and close the door while you supervise.
*This is a good time to consider the stoppage of free-feeding if that is your current system. Training, overall, will be more effective if your dog learns that food isn’t free, it needs to be earned, and YOU are the keeper and giver of life-sustaining calories. Once your dog realizes that you hold the key to the things he wants, training will be much easier.
DIY Food Puzzles
Bottle Food Dispenser
Find an empty 2-liter soda bottle, clean and dry. Drill many holes into the bottle, just big enough for your dog’s kibble to fall through. Feed all or some of your dog’s meal from this. They will learn to bat the bottle around to make food fall out. You may need to show your dog how it works at first. If your dog seems frustrated, drill larger holes so the food falls out more easily.
Dice up some veggies and cooked meat, mix with some kibble (or just use regular kibble on its own) and stuff into a large Kong. Seal with peanut butter (ensure the peanut butter is dog-safe, no xylitol) and freeze. I will make a full week’s worth of frozen Kongs for my dogs so that I always have them on hand when I need them. Give this to your dog when you need him to quietly occupy some time on his own (during Baby’s naptime, when you’re on an important phone call, etc.). This will work without the freezer, but your dog will finish his treat quickly. Kongs can be cleaned by soaking in warm water with dish soap or on the top rack of your dishwasher. I especially like this exercise as a kennel reward.
Find an old towel you no longer care about, clean and dry. Lay the towel out flat and sprinkle some kibble all over. Fold in half, lengthwise, sandwiching the kibble inside. Sprinkle some more kibble on top of the folded towel and roll it up tightly. Let your dog unroll and enjoy! You may need to unroll slightly to show your dog for the first time. Here a few videos – Pepper, Simple Feeding, Towel and Laundry basket.
The snuffle mat works much like the towel roll, but it is easier and doesn’t move around. This is the perfect solution for dogs that startle easily or give up quickly. This is just a mat made of fabric scraps. It hides food pieces slightly. This is what they look like.
Hide small piles of food under/inside cardboard boxes. Your dog will have to learn to remove the boxes to get his meal. When your dog gets really good at this game, you can incorporate some empty boxes. This will make the hunt more difficult and heighten the excitement of finding a box that does contain food.
Simply hide small piles of food around the room or throughout the house. If your dog is a heavy resource-guarder, stick to one room and close the door to keep children and other pets from interfering. Your dog will quickly learn to hunt for his food, using up mental energy throughout the day.
Choose the Correct Hand
Place some food in one hand, leave the other empty. Make both hands into a fist. Present your fists to your dog. When he touches the correct hand with his nose, reward him by opening your fist and allowing him to eat the contents. When he gets good at this game, you can require your dog to sit before he is rewarded.
You can also use your dog’s mealtime to double as your training time. It’s a great way to train fun party tricks like this – Would you rather… It doesn’t take a ton of time; 30 seconds up to 10 minutes each day are perfect for optimal learning and retention.
For more ideas, visit the Facebook group Canine Enrichment.