When I worked in zoos, I was fascinated with enrichment, the discipline of providing captive animals with objects and activities that would stimulate natural, active behavior. I didn’t give the concept of enrichment much thought for my dogs, though. After all, they got walks, had a back yard to play in and kids to play with. And, significantly, they were domestic animals kept in homes, not wild animals housed in zoos.
But as time has gone on, I am more and more concerned about the enrichment of our companion animals. In some sense, all of our animals are captive. Dogs, horses, cats and birds would all live differently in a natural state than we currently keep them. Yes, they’d have less longevity. But they would also have lots more behavioral options.
In their book Dogs, biologist Raymond Coppinger and his writer wife Lorna Coppinger describe a process in which dogs domesticated themselves by exploiting village dumps (1). That means that dogs, like most animals living outside of the human environment, used much of their time, behavioral talents and strongest senses, searching for, acquiring and eating food. They expended a lot of energy and they solved a lot of problems related to getting fed. Dogs still live this way in many parts of the world.
While our dogs live cushier lives than the village dogs described by the Coppingers, they may be deprived of behavioral opportunity. Dogs often spend long days in a house or apartment while their people work and go to school. If they’re lucky, their days are bookended by leash walks with their people, and broken up with play sessions with kids or walks from a dog walker. Smelling opportunities are limited to yards and walks. Foraging for food? Never happens.
And, that’s unfortunate. We throw away our greatest resource for getting and reinforcing behavior we like–food–in bowls so that dogs can devour it in seconds. Unless the food sits out all day for them to pick at and otherwise ignore. It is also unfortunate because we live in blessed times for feeding dogs creatively and actively. There are a plethora of toys sometimes called puzzle feeders or work-to-eat-toys available to provide our dogs with foraging-like activities. The oft-recommended and much misunderstood classic is the Kong, a tough, oblong red or black hollow rubber toy that can be stuffed with almost any food item for the dog to extract. While people seem to reflexively think only of stuffing peanut butter or processed treats in Kongs, truly anything you feed your dog can go inside of one. For instance, my go-to Kong filling is a handful of my dog’s kibble and plain, canned pumpkin, topped off with a salmon jerky treat. I make anywhere from 6 to 12 of these at a time and freeze them, so I can distribute them as needed. An extra large one can take my tough chewing pit mix Sugar about 20 minutes to work through; an extra, extra large one about twice that. And, since I fill them with a low-fat and low-calorie concoction, I can feel free to give her as many as our days require, which is lots on bad-weather days. Or days when I’m in and out of the house a lot. Or days when other people are in and out of the house a lot. You get the idea.
I can vary that mixture, and I do. One variant might be to add a bit of peanut butter to the pumpkin. Or parmesan cheese. Or freeze dried dog food. I am not concerned about my Kongs being messy because Sugar gets them in her crate. If I didn’t crate her, I could give them to her in the kitchen or another floored area, or even outside, which I do sometimes. The point is that she gets to work to eat. Doing so helps her wear off excess energy, is calming and mentally stimulating, and occupies her when company comes over. There are many Kong-like toys available now. West Paw Design makes cup-shaped feeder toys that can be stuffed and frozen in the same manner as a Kong. Variety seems to be good for most creatures, so using different containers for frozen treats is a good idea. Google Kong recipes to see what you come up with. Invent your own!
Another type of feeder toy is one that typically holds a dog’s kibble and the dog pushes it around with her nose or paws to make the food fall out. Sugar uses the Kong Wobbler and the Buster Cube, but there are many of this kind of toy, such as the PetSafe Busy Buddy and the StarMark Bob-A-Lot. A new favorite for Sugar is the Orbee Tuff-Snoop from Planet Dog, a strange, soft feeder toy that folds in on itself to make the food more challenging to remove. I thought Sugar would tear it up, but she didn’t. It engages her for about 20 minutes. Sugar also gets chew items, such as antlers. She would get bully sticks and bones if she didn’t have allergy issues. Chewing and foraging are natural behaviors for dogs and should be fostered for behavioral health.
And, don’t forget your other companion animals! Cats can have Kongs, too! There is the same variety and wealth of options for food-dispensing toys for cats as for dogs to make their meal times more interesting, take more time, and require different behaviors to extract the food. Birds have long had feeder toys available and many need to work for food in a variety of ways to be behaviorally healthy. There are even feeder toys for horses these days, many of which can be used to make life more interesting for other farm animals or large dogs as well. And, if you don’t want to buy feeder toys, there are lots of diy options, such as putting food in boxes (tape and staples removed for safety) and letting your dog, cat, bird, horse or goat figure out how to get it out!
Our companion animals are with us because we fed them. We should use food creatively to enrich their lives and give them lots of behavioral options.
(1). Coppinger, R., & Coppinger, L. (2001). Dogs: A startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution. New York: Scribner.
Post script: I have no financial interest in any of the products mentioned in this article.