For most pet dogs meal time isn’t very challenging time of the day. Typically owners only put the food bowl down and leave them to it. If this suits you and your dog that’s absolutely fine, but they would without a doubt not have been served food in this way in the wild. Instead they would have had to scavenge and hunt for their meals, keeping both mind and body active. If you feel like you would like to challenge your dog and enrich their daily routine, then making some changes to their meal times can be a good start.
Adding more mental stimulation to your dog’s life can have several benefits. It keeps them busy and tires them out in a similar way to a long walk. Many dog owners forget about challenging their dogs mentally, and when they encounter problems with boredom and linked behavioral issues like chewing, pacing, jumping and barking, they just presume they need to increase the physical exercise. This helps, but it doesn’t satisfy your dog’s hunger for mental stimulation.
Mentally stimulated dogs are not as hyperactive, and they tend to adapt more easily to stress. This is useful if you’ve got a very worried pup who shows aggression towards other dogs walking past the house, struggles with separation anxiety or gets stressed during thunderstorms or fireworks.
Brain games are therefore a brilliant way of tiring your dog out for the evening, or before you leave for work in the morning. By combining this with their normal feeding time, it won’t take much longer than normal, and your dog will love the extra challenge. Additionally you don’t have to worry about giving your dog too many treats as they are rewarded with food they would have eaten anyway.
So what are some fun ways of mentally stimulating your dog during meal times?
The aim is that it should take your dog 10-15 minutes to finish their food. Make sure you supervise your dog the first few times you’re trying a new way of feeding.
Our first tip is nose work. Using their nose comes naturally to dogs, and searching for their food will definitely add stimulation to their daily routine. Scatter the food in the garden so that your dog will have to sniff around to find it. You can also do this indoors, but it might be good to choose a room that’s easy to clean and where the pieces of food won’t get stuck under furniture. If you want to make it even more challenging you can hide little heaps of food under a bush, on a window sill or behind some flower pots. If your dog doesn’t get the game, start with something that smells a bit more than their normal dry food.
Our second suggestion is puzzles and food dispensing toys. There are many food dispensing toys on the market, but you can also find treat balls and complicated puzzles that provide your dog with a harder challenge before they are rewarded with food. The idea with most of these is that your dog will have to move the toy around the floor or press certain parts of the toy to make the food fall out. Dogs absolutely love this, and as they get rewarded again and again it can keep them entertained for hours.
If you don’t want to buy toys you can make some yourself. Try putting the food in a cereal box and taping it shut, in a toilet roll with folded sides, or in a plastic bottle with some holes cut out where the food can fall out. This can get a bit messy, and definitely noisy, but it’s worth it when you see your dog running around trying to get into the box, tail wagging with excitement.
You can also use mealtime as an opportunity to practice tricks and teach your dog new ones. Don’t ask your dog to do the same tricks every meal time, as it will just become a part of the routine, and not challenging or mentally stimulating. By using this time for training you are able to give your dog more than just the one treat at a time, as it’s the food he or she is supposed to eat anyway. This will form a stronger positive association, and your dog might learn faster.
Another thing you can do to change the daily routine is to change the texture of the food. If your dog normally gets wet food, try freezing it into little discs or cubes that they will love crunching on. If your dog gets dry food you can mush it up with a bit of yoghurt or water. It’s all about novelty and enriching your dog’s daily routine!