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Enrichment feeding: getting back that Paleolithic mojo

As a favor to some of my clients, I have put together some links to sales sites and demo videos for smart toys or food-dispensing gadgets for dogs. I think they are good products and potentially good for your dog. I don't sell them.

The point of these gadgets is to busy your dog in the acquisition of its nourishment. As you know, dogs evolved from wolves. They accomplished this not as pets but as active collaborators in our predecessors hunting and gathering. They lived by their wits within the context of human society. They participated in the acquisition of their food, either alone or along side humans. To do so, they watched humans for opportunities to join in hunting, foraging and cleaning up the slops; and if they were still hungry, they would scavenge in nature and around the settlement, looking for anything that would provide nourishment. Their brain was and very much still is built for this mode of behavior.

To receive food in a bowl every day on a regular schedule with little variation is a condition that most of our dogs live under but is absolutely different from that of dogs that existed before the agricultural revolution. Bowl feeding is a habit of convenience for us, not for them. As they will inform you when they find the next chicken bone on the ground: food us fun when its found.

It seems many of us imagine dogs evolved beyond those primitive days, but our dog's predecessors, truly hunter-gatherer dogs, didn't live so long ago, and they were every bit the same dogs as we have today in terms of genetics and evolution. Breeds represent an attempt by us to steer the expression of these genes, but they are still the same genes.

My point is this: by removing the acquisition of food from the lives of our dogs, we are not allowing them to fully express themselves as dogs. We are not allowing them to use their bodies and brains in the most satisfying way to them. Often when we recognize stress in our dogs, it is linked if not caused by a dog's inability to be actively and freely a dog in terms of its original mode of living. Dog behaviorists wishing to help dogs relieve stress and have a better quality of life have taken a cue from animal behaviorists in zoos. Behaviorist working with captive wild animals try to recreate natural conditions of food acquisition to improve the lives of the animals. These methods, whether used on zoo animals or dogs, are found to help animals with stress and, consequently, behavioral issues. I have found this kind of "enrichment" to work very effectively in managing stress in dogs, leading to improved behavioral outcomes. Enrichment is easy to do. If you think about it, get a little creative around the house or yard, you can probably come up with ways to make your dog's dietary life way more interesting. The simplest is to take a cup of kibble and spray it onto a lawn. Your dog will happily, eagerly snuffle away for minutes on end, looking for and finding virtually all of its meal. You'll be amazed at your dog's efficiency, providing he's hungry. This is an excellent way to enrich the life of your dog. You don't hear much about it because the doggy-industrial complex can't make money of this neat trick, so they don't promote it. What they do promote are gadgets they sell for accomplishing the same ends. How well they work depends on your dog and all kinds of other conditions, but the idea is spot on: to give your dog the fun of acquiring its own meal.

These gadgets are not toys, although they are mistakenly called that. Instead they are innovations for dramatically enriching the lives of dogs, both physically and mentally. And they are great, too, when you don't have a lawn to throw their kibble into. I am not saying throw away your dog bowls. They can be used when using a dispenser is not convenient. For instance it might be hard to use a dispenser when traveling or in a hurry to leave the house. As a dispensed meal can take fifteen minutes or longer to consume, there are situations in which an owner won't have time to oversee the meal. Some dogs will require observation when using a dispenser because they are apt to destroy it once it has emptied. This could endanger the dog. And feeding two or more dogs together with dispensers is often a recipe for trouble. Indeed there are times when a bowl is best, but whenever possible, they should be avoided.

And if you worry that your dog is gorging on its food, eating to quickly, enrichment-style feeding is probably for you. While most dogs can typically gorge without harmful effect, it would be only an occasional event for a foraging dog in a natural setting. Eating more slowly, as allowed by the dispensers, is more like the original way dogs acquired food, and it is typically better for digestion. I also recommend calorie intake be half wet food and half dry food, particularly if your dog has digestion or hydration issues. Some food-dispensing gadgets permit the use of wet food too, and very enthusiastic owners use them, though I don't press this point if it is too inconvenient. But if at all possible, use a Kong or other dispenser that can be stuffed with canned food. There is a whole range of ways to do this, using a variety of ingredients. The internet abounds with the ideas of creative owners.

When using enrichment feeding, the positive effects are seen over some weeks or months of consistent use of dispensers or the trusty lawn. They are not to be used merely as fun activities to divert the dog. The psychological and physiological benefits will not be gained unless the dispensers are used consistently.

I do not recommend dispensers be used without your supervision. Some dogs who are inveterate chewers and that like to rip things apart may especially need supervision. Understand that there is always some risk to the use of the devices. Unsupervised use of some, particularly the Kong, is OK with most dogs, but you want to be certain that your dog isn't likely to break the device and choke on anything or get hung up on something in the house or yard while trying to get at the dispenser. Be sure that the place where the dog uses the dispenser is safe as well. For instance, if a dispenser rolls into an inaccessible place, is it possible for the dog to injure itself while trying to recover the thing? Until you are confident about the dog's use of the dispenser and the environment, be nearby when your dog is using them.

Sometimes older dogs have trouble learning how to use the more work-intensive dispensers. There may be some trial and error involved for both of you. You will find hunger increases your dog's ability to learn how to use the dispenser. Hunger from a skipped meal can do wonders for the learning curve without causing undue discomfort to your dog.

Enough said. Below you will find links to products that I think are especially good. You can surf around the Web and see plenty more. Most will have demonstration videos and reviews on Youtube. If for some reason a link provided below does not work, just Google the product for sales information and videos. Have fun! Please let me know if you have any questions or if any of these links aren't working for you.

The tried and true Kong: Great because they are pretty indestructible and if you think your dog is safe with them, you can leave most dogs alone with them if you give them the correct size. They are good reward treats for when you leave the house, helping with anxiety and so forth. I would use them to feed canned "wet" food, which is an important supplement to dry kibble. Get the kind of canned food that is pasty, not soupy like stew, to allow for easy insertion into the Kong. Peanut butter is good as an occasional stuffing treat too, but watch the sugar and sodium intake. You can freeze the Kong with food in it to increase the time it takes the dog to extract the contents. You want it to take as long for the dog to extract the food as possible without the dog losing interest due to frustration. You are looking for the happy medium. Your dog will be the judge.

Here's a detailed article about how to get the most out of a Kong:

Amaze-A-Ball: (rubber -- good if noise is an issue, such as on an uncarpeted apartment floor) Amazon: video Contempo Bravo: never used it but looks great. Possible advantage: it doesn't seem to roll uncontrollably. link: video: TreatStik (hard plastic) website: Video:

Kong Wobbler Some of my clients love this one. The time it takes your dog to get the food out will depend on the size of the kibble to a large degree. Video:

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