Think Outside the Bowl
Changing the way we feed our dogs can improve their quality of life AND train better behavior
A lot of what we think of as "behavior problems" in dogs aren't bugs. They're features! Once upon a time, people wanted those behaviors. They put a lot of effort into breeding dogs to make those behaviors stronger - hounds to follow a scent, herding dogs to herd, guardian dogs to guard, and so on.
Most dogs today aren't doing the jobs they were bred for, but the genetic drive is still there. We have to find creative ways to meet our dogs' physical and mental needs with our busy lives. It makes them happier and keeps them out of trouble. Bored dogs entertain themselves, and it might be chewing up your stuff, escaping the yard to find adventure, or barking non-stop for no apparent reason. Dogs NEED to use their brain, to solve problems, and to be challenged.
A simple, low-effort way to provide enrichment is to stop feeding them from a bowl. It takes about 2.5 seconds for some dogs to empty a bowl, leaving 23 hours and 55 minutes to fill! Other dogs are grazers taking bites here and there, also not interesting or challenging.
You know the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when you solve a puzzle or figure something out? Dogs get that, too! They love working out how to get the food from the toy. It triggers the SEEKING mode, one of the core emotions described by neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp. It's that same feeling you get when unwrapping a gift or hunting a Pokemon.
This short video explains why eating from puzzle toys is more fun for dogs than eating from a bowl. Food puzzles let them do fun things like sniffing, digging, chewing, pulling as well as eating. Bowls don't. Many dogs will choose a fun food toy over a bowl of easily accessible food sitting right beside it!
One of the reasons people say they don't train their dogs is lack of time. Ditching the bowl lets you use your dog's regular meals to passively train them and prevent or stop unwanted behaviors. For example, your dog can't beg at the table if they are eating their own dinner from a Kong toy that takes 30 minutes to empty. They can't jump on your guests or bark at the cable installers if they are enjoying a Toppl of frozen treats in their crate.
You are training your dog to not beg at the table, jump on visitors, or bark at service people without even needing to be there! How? Because actions repeated over time become habits. They are practicing a desirable behavior - entertain themselves alone - that will become a habit. At the same time, they are NOT practicing an undesirable behavior - barking, jumping, etc. with the visitor, so that will NOT become a habit. Or, if it already is a habit, they'll get out of practice and the bad habit will be broken.
Feeding from puzzles can also improve dogs' health. Obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs. “Being just 10% overweight decreases a dog’s lifespan by one-third and predisposes him to heart, kidney and liver disease as well as diabetes, arthritis, and cancer,” says veterinarian Dr. Carol Osborne. Just 5 extra pounds increases a dog's risk of health problems. Free-fed dogs (the food bowl is always full and available) are often overweight because they eat more than they should. Measure their daily food allowance and divide it into puzzle feeders, and you will know exactly how much they are eating.
There are tons of puzzle feeders available to choose the ones that fit your dog and situations. Some of our favorites...
Kong - the classic, the original
Kong Wobbler - a big hit with dogs
Buster Cube - dogs who like to use their paws love this one
Snuffle Mat - can be used to crate train and stop counter surfing, ask us how!
Fun Feeders - great for wet food
Licky Mat - can be used for nail trims and baths, ask us how!
Toppl - great for oddly shaped treats