Sunday, May 30, 2010

Management 101: Mental Stimulation, or, The Joy of Food Toys

I think everyone knows that regular physical exercise is important for dogs. After all, the old trainer maxim, a tired dog is a good dog, is well known. And while I agree with this, I think dog owners often overlook the importance of providing our canine companions with mental stimulation. In fact, if I could only have one or the other, I’d choose mental stimulation, hands down.

For the “normal” dogs among us, mental stimulation helps relieve the boredom that can lead to problem behaviors like destructive chewing, digging, and excessive barking. It also helps burn off excess energy, to the point that Patricia McConnell says in her book For the Love of a Dog that she believes a half an hour of mental stimulation will provide the same energy-reduction benefits as an hour of physical exercise. For the reactive dogs, whose behaviors are often rooted in fear, mental stimulation can help build confidence by allowing the dog to solve progressively more difficult problems.

Mental stimulation can take many forms: training, going to new places, allowing our dogs to sniff new smells, playing games, and visiting other people and dogs. And while all of those are great, they do require a certain amount of time from the owner. Now, you all know that I have no problem spending time with my dog- it’s one of my preferred activities!- but there are times when I’m tired, busy, or even sick. Unfortunately, that’s when I have the least amount of time or energy to tend to Maisy’s mental needs.

Which brings me to my favorite type of mental stimulation: food toys.

I love food toys. In addition to providing mental stimulation, they slow down how fast my dog eats, and give me a break from the constant thudding of a tennis ball in my lap. It doesn’t hurt that Maisy thinks they’re pretty cool, too.

The most famous of the food toys has got to be the Kong, and don’t get me wrong- it’s pretty awesome. I feed Maisy breakfast from her Kong every day. It’s great to leave with a dog who will be alone during the day, and it gives puppies (and other dogs that like to chew) a legal object to chomp on. The biggest downfall to the Kong is that it takes a bit of time to stuff, especially if you feed kibble. Thankfully, there are so many kibble-dispensing options that are quick and easy to load…

Maisy’s first food toy was the Tricky Treat Ball. She got it when she was 5 or 6 months old, and loved it from the start. It’s probably her least challenging food dispensing toy as it rolls around readily, and the treats come out of it easily.

A similar toy, though more difficult, is the Buster Cube, which is a cube shaped toy. It is supposed to be adjustable so you can make it easier or harder for the kibble to come out, but I’ve never been able to get it to change. Ditto for the supposedly-removable core. Still, it’s a great option, though it can be loud unless it’s on carpet.

The next two toys are very similar: Nina Ottosson’s Dog Pyramid and the Bob-a-Lot. (Incidentally, if you do a Google search for “Nina Ottosson Pyramid,” the third result is two YouTube videos. Guess who is the second video?)

These toys are pretty cool. They have a weighted bottom, and the food comes out when you tilt them sideways. These were great for building Maisy’s confidence because she found the motion a bit scary and intimidating at first. Now she runs those things all over the house.(Both of these videos are from the first time she used the toy. I really ought to take new video to show how quick she is with them now!) I think the Pyramid is a bit more difficult, but the Bob-A-Lot is a bit easier to fill. Kong has also come out with a similar product, but I haven’t tried it.

Maisy’s final food toy is my favorite, and hers, hands down: the Tug-a-Jug. This is probably one of the most difficult food dispensing toys on the market, and it did take Maisy awhile to figure it out. (Actually, it was her second ever food toy, and it scared the bejeezus out of her when I first brought it home. I actually had to slather it in peanut butter to get her to approach it.) Still, it’s our favorite, and it makes for a great party game- really! When we were on vacation, and Maisy stayed with our aunt and uncle, I sent her Tug-a-Jug along. They were so tickled by her performance that they invited the entire neighborhood over to watch Maisy eat.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of food toys on the market, and Maisy and I couldn’t live without them. But I want to hear from you: Do you use food toys? Why or why not? Which is your favorite, or your dog’s favorite? Do you see a difference in your dog’s behavior when you use them?


Sam said...

thanks so much for this post -- I have a few treat-dispensing toys but I think I'm going to add a few to my arsenal.

What size tug-a-jug do you have? It says Large is for dogs 40 pounds and up.. well, Marge IS 40 pounds, and is likely going to be afraid of it.. so maybe smaller is better?

Crystal said...

I think we have the "small" for dogs 10-40 pounds. It's a nice size. It's probably about ten inches tall (not including the rope) and about 4 inches in diameter. I've never tested it, but I imagine it would hold up to about 2 cups of kibble, though I'm not sure how well it would work if it was that full.

If you can find it in the large size, that's probably what I'd recommend for a dog any bigger than Maisy (17 lbs). Hers is pretty much the perfect size for her, and I prefer the toys on the larger side anyway.

They're available at Target and PetSmart, so you might want to go check out the size and see what makes the most sense to you.

M.T. said...

The tricky treat ball and tug-a-jug is Dante's absolutely favourite treat dispensing toys! He would have played with them for hours and hours on end, of course with continuous refills from me ;) I say "would have" in the past tense because ever since switching to raw i can't really feed Dante his meals from the toys anymore ... kind of hard to stuff raw food into those toys ...

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I have a tricky treat ball and the tug a jug. The tug a jug is somewhat new and maybe I just didn't give my dogs enough time, but I got frustrated watching them try. It was extremely hard to get our kibble out of it, even I had the hardest time and could only do it when held upside down and gave it a really hard tug. So I stopped giving it to the dogs. Maybe we just had an oddly shaped kibble that made it harder? Or maybe I should just give them time and let them figure it out? I did actually use shaping to get them to tug on the rope whic they picked up quickly, but food never came out.

Crystal said...

MT- That's part of the reason I still feed kibble. I do feed some raw, but I just can't give up the food toys!

Laura- what are you putting in the tug-a-jug? I actually buy a special kibble to go in it. Her usual kibble is Wellnes CORE, but it clogs up the tug-a-jug, so I put Taste of the Wild in on it on tug-a-jug days... it's flatter than the CORE is.

Bea said...

Patches hasn't eaten food in a bowl since he was 7 mo. old! We have a kong, a tug-a-jug, a buster cube, and a tricky treat ball. We also have two sizes of round hollow balls that can be stuffed. The treats must be squeezed out--lots of good jaw exercise. We also tried a sort of flying saucer shaped one that didn't work very well at all. I would buy more food dispensing toys if I could find any more locally--I may have to order off the Internet. I haven't had any problems removing or adjusting the core of the buster cube. One thing I don't like about the tricky treat ball is that it takes a long time to dry after washing. The tug-a-jug can be used with multi-grain cheerios--if you're in to feeding your dog those--and with Charley Bear Treats. Although Patches regular kibble works in it too. His approach to the tug-a-jug is a little different because he can get his jaws around the end--he picks it up and shakes it. I would also like to order some of Ottosson's puzzle toys, but will have to wait until I can afford one! I also like to play "Find It" with food. Patches does a sit stay while I hide food around the house. We started with one piece at a time--now I can hide many pieces and he knows to keep searching until I say "All Done". Another good way to keep a high drive dog happy on foul weather days! When I occasionally had to be away all day, I would prepare several food dispensing toys, hide them throughout the house before I left. Sometimes when I came home, they would all be on my bed (empty of course) and sometimes they'd be near where I had hidden them. I think they're fantastic!

Kristen said...

ANOTHER great post! I will probably have to refer other people to this, it's really well done.

I'm very big on "all dogs should have meals fed through food dispensing toys or training" (and luckily 98% of my students feed kibble...'cause raw just doesn't work so well in the tug a jug!) and providing other types of enrichment.

The kibble nibble and tug a jug (and kibble-mush-frozen-stuffed-kongs) are big here. The dogs have mastered those kibble toys so we'll put other items in there (crumpled paper, balls, etc) to make it harder for the food to come out. Our training group friends passed on that idea and it's brilliant.

Laura: I've "taught" dogs to use the tugajug by removing the rope (not possible when it's an actual rope, but the plastic rope ones allow for it). And after many sessions with that, we'll put the rope back in.

We also have several of the "linkables" from premier. They're way easier (I had to buy special kibbles too...the regular ones were too has HUGE holes) but for whatever reason the dogs completely love this one by far. It's somehow really really exciting.

In the future I will probably introduce dogs to the manners minder before kibble toys... my board and train puppies REALLY tried hard to push and knock around the MM!

elegy said...

I should get a Tug-a-Jug for Steve. I don't use a lot of food-dispensing toys because all three of my dogs eat crated. I do use stuffed Kongs for them sometimes, though maybe not as frequently as I should.

I pack the pit bulls' Kongs with large pieces that take some manipulating to get out- apple slices, milkbones, etc. They will take the time to work on it. Steve will not. If it's at all challenging, he just eats the easy stuff and lets the rest of it in the Kong. And of course he's the one who needs the stimulation.

Crystal said...

Maisy is the same way- if it's too hard, she won't bother with the Kong. These days, I put Primal pre-made raw in her Kong- the 1 ounce portions fit perfectly in a medium. I also cook, puree and then freeze veggies in an ice cube tray- they also fit in a medium Kong well. She's motivated enough to go after those things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting these. I have been looking at the Tug a Jug, but wasnt entirely clear on how it worked. This helps! We do Kongs, but unless I take the time to plan ahead and freeze them they clear them out really fast. Even frozen they are pretty quick to finish them (like well under 10 min). We also have the flying saucer, but they just crush it between their jaws and it all comes right out (and my dogs are both 15lbs!).

Unfortunately we have multiple dogs which means we need multiple toys... expensive, but probably worth it.

Anonymous said...

Ira has a bunch of toys that he doesn't get anymore since he's on raw. On the plus side, I can still freeze his meat meal in a breakfast, and it takes him almost an HOUR to get it all out.

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart said...

Great list of options. Lilly recently ate the knot off of the rope in her tug-a-jug. I need to replace it because w/o the rope ... it's WAY too easy.