In our last blog entry, we spoke a lot about the importance of keeping your dog healthy with exercise but that is only be half of the equation when it comes to taking care of the overall well-being of your furry family member. To avoid the common misconception that in order to create fatigue, you have to walk, run, hike or play fetch with Fluffy for hours on end, we have to acknowledge what I call the "Forest Gump Effect". Even for a human, simply getting up every day and doing nothing but running would indeed create physical exhaustion but what happens to your mind when the only need that you're satisfying is the physical element via ongoing or relentless physical exercise? Now, for those of you who might initially disagree, you have clearly not had to sit through a full day of meetings or a workshop where there was little, if any, physical stimulation but instead it was all thinking, problem solving, discussing, learning and teaching. If you're at all like me, I am exhausted after such a day!
The key to overall well-being is creating BALANCE between the physical and mental needs of your canine friend(s). Physical exercise is awesome but needs to be balanced with mental stimulation and vice versa.
There are tonnes of options available for pet parents in this 6B/year pet care industry to satisfy the mental needs of our pets, however, I want to make sure that you are indeed investing your money on items that are safe and will stand the test of time. In my house, we have 4 dogs who vary significantly in their activity level and willingness to problem solve but the one this that many dogs have in common is a great sense of small and a strong desire to eat yummy things.
For the purposes of this blog entry, I am going to break down the options into 3 fundamental groups, (1) Treat Dispensing Toys (2) Food Driven Chew Toys and, (3) Puzzles and Problem Solving Games.
Just like with physical games and activities, the size of your dog is the very first consideration. You certainly don't want to purchase any product that, due to it's size, either can't be used by your little pup or that, if used by your larger dog, has parts/equipment that would be unsafe. The second and equally important consideration is the ability to clean to toy after use to prevent bacteria. The third consideration is going to be difficulty level/ease of use for your pup.
Treat dispensing toys can add a lot of variety to your dog's playtime either indoors or outside. Most of these are not intended to be left with the dog unsupervised but offer a great way to keep your dog busy when they need some mental stimulation or when you need a bit of a break (making dinner, watching a television show, folding laundry or just sitting outside on the deck wanting to enjoy your day with your dog constantly wanting you to entertain them). The trick to making these toys last longer than it takes to empty the treats is all in how you load them. I recommend always putting 1 or 2 pieces of especially yummy/smelly treats in the toy that are simply too big to come out during regular use. By doing this, the toy is never actually empty and will maintain the dog's attention for a longer period of time. You can fill these with yummy treats (with 1 -3 BIG pieces) OR, if your dog eats a dry kibble, this is also a great way to feed your dog their entire meal. Here are a few that we use on a regular basis that are easy to clean, versatile and have stood the test of time.
Now maybe the goal is to get your dog to slow down a bit when they're eating to avoid indigestion, choking or maybe even spitting out mouthfuls of food because they are "Hoover-ing" their meals. The treat dispensing toys above will certainly assist in slowing them down during meal times AND cause them to have to "work" and "think" for their meals but if your sole goal is simply to slow them down, you probably have all that you need right in your home already. In cases like this, put the dog's meal into the individual sections of a plain muffin tin OR you can make things a bit more difficult still by turning the muffin tin upside down and pouring the food onto the backside as it lies on the floor. Another rather popular method is to place a safe object in the bowl that the dog has to work around in order to get to the food. You could try a ball or another small household item - just be sure that the item placed in the bowl cannot be otherwise consumed.
For those times when you want to leave a toy with food with your dog when you can't be with them for short periods the only products recommended for such instances need to stand up to chewing. Again, it's all in how you load them that makes all of the difference. Using a soft mouldable treat substance such as peanut butter, spreadable cheese product or yogurt, put some into the toy and place some yummy treats in the mixture randomly. Once you have prepared the toy by filling it with the yummy mixture, freeze it! Freeze it for at least 12 hours (advisable to have more than 1 of these types of toys on hand so you always have one ready to go in the freezer). Here are my favourites (again, you want to initially purchase the size that will be most appropriate for your dog when they are fully gown):
Now to really get serious about learning and problem solving, we have to really engage the dog to move through varying degrees of thinking and also using their sense of smell to best guide them through to the treat. Puzzle toys are a wonderful way to entice the dog to use their natural abilities to solve the puzzle/game. The method of loading of these puzzles/games is less important since the dog will have to get creative and work for the treats. Using what you know of your dog's creative abilities combined with their drive for yummy treats, it's important to select the puzzle toy most appropriate for your pup. We certainly don't want the puzzle to be too difficult causing them to be frustrated but at the same we don't want it to be so easy that they solve it in a matter of seconds. Choosing a puzzle that allows you to increase the level of difficulty with their increasing ability will be important. Puppies should begin with the most simply of puzzle games since they can get easily frustrated and lose patience. Pay close attention to the smaller pieces of the puzzle to make sure that there are none that would be easily swallowed even when supervised. Here are a few of our favourites by difficulty level.
Medium - Difficult Level
The COMBO - for physical and mental stimulation at the same time. The dog learns to retrieve the ball and bring it back to the launch machine so another ball can be launched.
Now while all of this looks lovely, there is an investment of time that needs to be made when introducing your dog to a new game or puzzle. Up until this point, they haven't had to use their brain too much aside from some basic obedience commands and now we are asking them to think about things in exchange for a motivator. It's important that you know that the first time that they use any of these puzzles/games, you are going to be right beside them to show/teach them how it works. Don't make things too difficult right away - be prepared to ease them into it with you as their guide. This is a wonderful investment of your time however.... in my experience, a half an hour with an interactive puzzle/game creates the same amount of fatigue as a 2 hour walk. You no longer need to dread cold or rainy days!
Many of the puzzles and games can be purchased at your local pet store if time is of the essence however, I have found that the prices on Amazon to be significantly lower and, because of this, I have listed the links right here on this page in an attempt to allow you to see the actual product and click on any of the pictures for details about each product.
I am happy to share with you those things that we have found to be most beneficial for the dogs in our care and doesn't cost a small fortune in replacement costs. We use these puzzles and games every single day here at Paw & Order and they have proven themselves time and time again :).
Now, go and get busy working alongside your dog to help them learn to use that wonderfully creative brain of theirs for good and not trying to find new ways for you to entertain them.
Until next time.... keep on learning :)