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?