Back To Nature: How Food Puzzles Beat Boredom By Sparking Dogs’ Instincts to Hunt

Dogs were bred to be hardworking, helpful, and loving companions. In this busy modern era, however, these fun-loving pets can sometimes miss out on all the mental stimulation they need, leading to boredom and behavioral issues.

So how do you keep a dog engaged when you’re on a tight schedule? Food puzzles are the answer!

Food Puzzles 101
Courtesy of Dale Leschnitzer via Flickr

Food puzzles are toys designed to tap into a dog’s natural instincts, making him or her work to solve a problem before getting food or treats. According to The Bark, these puzzles, also called enrichment toys, stimulate a dog’s natural problem-solving instincts in order to cut down on bad behavior caused by boredom.

Food puzzles are made of durable materials, such as rubber, and may have different holes or slots in which to hide treats. Dogs must then work at the puzzle with their nose, teeth, and paws to figure out how to free the food, thus rewarding themselves for their thorough mental workout.

The Hunting Instinct
Courtesy of Angell Williams via Flickr

Though dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, the instinct to hunt, inherited from their wolf ancestors, is still very much present. The ASPCA says that 80 percent of a wild dog’s time is used for hunting.

Using a food puzzle meets this natural need, encouraging your dog to search for his or her food and meet the challenges that arise along the way. You can even hide the food puzzle for an extra sniffing-related challenge!

Bad Dog…?

Courtesy of R. Pavich via Flickr

Unfortunately, many dogs don’t get as much physical or mental exercise as they need. Neglecting a dog’s natural instincts, such as the instinct to hunt, causes a dog to be under-stimulated, which can lead to behavioral issues.

A dog who is left alone all day with no outlet for his energy finds his own way to release some steam, even if that means chewing furniture, barking incessantly, or jumping on visitors. Don’t let your dog be that dog!

Back to Nature
Courtesy of LocalPups via Flickr

Dogs were bred to be workers. Many popular breeds were hunting dogs before they became family dogs. Others were farm dogs who spent their days running around livestock.

Whatever their family history, all dogs have the urge to run, play, and work for what they get. What better way to address behavioral issues than to bring your dog back to a natural state of mind?

Whose Dog?
Courtesy of Roman Boed via Flickr

As great as food puzzles are, they may not be right for every dog. Animal Behavior recommends that food puzzles not be given to sick or old dogs who may not have the energy to free the food and feed themselves, or hyperactive dogs who may get so excited that they lose focus. Food puzzles are most appropriate for healthy dogs who need some extra stimulation to relieve boredom.

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Favorite Food Puzzles
Courtesy Mike McCune via Flickr

Food puzzles come in all different shapes, sizes, and difficulties. The KONG® Toy is one of the most popular puzzles. The ASPCA also recommends looking into the Buster® Cube, the Tricky Treat™ Ball, the Tug-a-Jug™, the Twist ‘n Treat™, the Atomic Treat Ball™, and the TreatStik®. Take a look at your dog’s temperament and needs, and decide which food puzzle is right for you.

Pup Gourmet
Courtesy of BuzzFarmers via Flickr

There are tons of great, dog-safe food combos for your food puzzle. Your dog’s regular food or treats are always a good option. Mixing dry and wet food can be a fun change of pace. Pets WebMD even recommends trying peanut butter, cream cheese, yogurt, pumpkin, or banana. If you have any concerns about your pet’s diet or foods to use with a food puzzle, consult your vet.

Your Fun New Toy
Courtesy of Derik DeLong via Flickr

Now that you have your new food puzzle, it’s time to try it out. Depending on the type of puzzle you’ve selected, choose what treat would be best for your dog, and fill the puzzle accordingly. Taking it slow is best; go easy on your pup the first time around, and gradually build up to more difficult tasks.

Whether you want to feed your dog full meals with a puzzle or just give occasional treats is up to you. You can leave the puzzle out in the open, or you can hide it to really engage those hunting instincts.

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