Ditch the Dish!
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Many of us have dogs that are used to getting their entire meal in a bowl. As dog owners I believe we have a responsibility to our animals to give them a well rounded and enriching life. One of those things is how we choose to present them their daily food allowance.
One of the leading problems plaguing modern pets is boredom. Think, how many total hours on an average work day do you spend ACTIVELY interacting with your pet? This does not include time spent petting them while you multi-task. One? Two? How many hours a day is your pet expected to amuse themselves?
Boredom has been extensively studied in captive animals. When left without mental stimulation, boredom has been shown to cause aberrant behaviors. This is the reason why mental stimulation is one of 4 key components of any facility that takes animal welfare seriously. The 4 being a balanced and nutritious diet, access to good medical care, a well designed environment free of stressors, and a training and enrichment program that stimulates a healthy mind and body.
In fact, most pet owners are aware of how important these points are. Those of us that own pets take care to meet our pets nutritional needs, when they are not healthy we bring them to a vet, and keep a relatively comfortable home environment where our pets feel safe. Yet, the majority of pet owners tend to neglect the last component of keeping a healthy animal and think of training as a “bonus” and not necessarily a necessity. This could be farther from the truth.
Training is not only crucial for our pets mental health but also for their emotional well being. Training and enrichment is AS IMPORTANT AS providing our pets with food and water. It shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought but as an integral part of your family member’s health. For the same reason why a good education is important for human children, training helps teach our dogs how to successfully navigate the modern human world and develop into happy, confident, well adjusted companions. Furthermore, modern training methods help individuals develop their cognitive ability and critical thinking skills which work to actively keep healthy brain function. In fact, mental stimulation has been proven to slow down the loss of learning ability associated with aging.*
Dogs given enrichment feeders and activities are more active when alone, yet less likely to bark and show aberrant behaviors. Enrichment feeders and activities allow animals to express natural behaviors such as foraging, and have also been shown to increase food drive. They also slow down how quickly a dog may bolt down their food which reduces bloat and other gastrointestinal issues.
Some of my favorite enrichment feeders are both store bought and D.I.Y.
These days, you can find all sorts of creative enrichment feeders online as well. There are toys for you to stuff, feeder puzzles, snuffle mats, treat dispensers, and slow feeder bowls. All of these are a great way to add variety to the way you may feed your dog.
You can find links to my favorite enrichment products on the market on my enrichment page. These toys have been tried and tested and are highly recommended for a variety of different scenarios. I have purchased and use all these products myself and am not sponsored by any brand to promote them. Clients are more than welcome to ask me which products I would specifically recommend for their pooch.
As for DIY, the possibilities are endless! Some easy ideas are:
-spreading out some food in muffin tins and place tennis balls or other similar objects on top for an added challenge.
-cardboard boxes (as long as your dog doesn't injest)
-empty toilet paper or paper towel rolls
-old towel or blanket filled with some treats and rolled up or knotted
-old t-shirts and other fabrics can be used just as easily as towels
All toys, homemade or bought, are meant to be used under supervision. Some owners are ok leaving their dogs with a toy unsupervised if they have demonstrated safe play habits over a period of time with certain materials.
What if my dog isn’t interested in it?
Sometimes dogs aren’t sure what to do with this novel idea. Make sure you “show and tell”. Show your dog how it works, and tell them they are on the right track with praise and rewards if necessary. Be patient! A dog who is used to getting free fed may not be motivated to try something new. Make it as easy as possible for them to succeed until they get the hang of it.
This is an easy first step towards building a dog that is more engaged with you than with their food bowl and what is in it. A way to encourage you to have more playful interactions with your pooch.
When we feed out our dogs their daily food allowance, we have choices! We can do things conventionally and put an entire lump sum of value into one bowl all at one time for them to finish in a matter of minutes (or even seconds for some!), use enrichment feeders to help engage brain activity during feeding, or we can set aside part of all of their meal for hand feeding games. Each morsel of food can become an opportunity to engage with our dogs in a way that becomes exciting to them. An investment of our time and energy into our relationship bank account.
We have choices when it comes to feeding out diets. As children we are taught not to play with our food. But consider a world where we make eating a meal another exciting part of the day for our furry companions.
Some believe that their dogs aren’t very food motivated and therefore will find it hard to use their daily food allowance as a motivator. In fact the opposite is true. Dogs who have ditched the dish tend to desire their food more, want to work for their food more, and become more engaged with us. This is because we aren’t focusing on the taste or the hunger. We are focusing on the experience we can create for our dogs. Your dog doesn't have to be hungry or love their food in order for hand feeding to be an exciting part of their day that they look forward to.
Now some of you may believe that it isn’t kind to make an animal work for their daily food allowance. But rather than looking it as a way of withholding food unless they do what we ask, consider instead of looking it as an opportunity to playfully engage with your dog. An opportunity for relationship building and learning through game play. An opportunity to become the most interesting thing to your dog.
In behavioral science there is a term called "Contra-Freeloading" which was coined by animal psychologist, Glen Jensen. This is an observed behavioral response where an individual, when offered a choice between food in a bowl and food that requires effort to obtain, prefers the food that that requires effort. This is because animals, like us, need and want stimulation in their lives.
This hand feeding exercise is not about making your dog hungry or frustrated. It doesn't need to look like a conventional "training session". In fact, the point of ditching the bowl is about giving them a stimulating outlet for an otherwise unstimulating part of their day. Earning a meal is not only fun and easy, the satisfaction that one gets from earning reward is far greater than many realize. The reward doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t matter if they get kibble, wet food, get fed a raw diet or special diet. It is the experience you create of acquiring that piece of food by play that makes it fun!
So how can we make hand feeding fun? Intent, approach, and execution is important in working with animals. To start hand feeding, we want to get creative and really animate our food delivery. Tossing, rolling, weaving, flicking, dropping, etc. Think of a simple video game that a young child might play and enjoy engaging with. Those games are fun because of the way the game is presented to them! Colors, sounds, and easy goals that make gathering points fun are all ways that game creators design a successful interactive game. And every time we see a "+2pts" pop up we get a hit of dopamine! Our kibble (or whatever your dog's diet is) represents those pts to your dog. Playing that interactive game drives them more than the fact that they are getting food out of it. We want to stay away from setting too many strict rules here as our goal is just to have playful and varied interactions.
There is a huge variety of ways in which we can enrich our dogs' lives, only limited by our imagination. We all have busy lives and may not have the time to dedicate to serious training everyday. But it doesn't take much to further enrich their lives by making an effort in the way they receive their food. Using a mix of enrichment toys, novel food items, hand feeding, and training, we can go a long way in enhancing our companions lives and therefore yours. When quality of life is improved and boredom decreased, unwanted behaviors caused by boredom and inactivity can lessen or go away. Variety is the spice of life. And besides, don't we want the best for our dogs who do so much in enriching our own lives? <3
If you have any further questions on how to hand feed or give enrichment, we do discuss this topic on a deeper level during coaching sessions. Both virtual and in-person training sessions are available for booking.