Fuelling your dog's brain
18 MARCH 2019
Keeping your dog healthy and stimulated isn’t just about physical exercise. You may find that your dog can spend hours running around outside but still be full of beans when you return home. This could be a sign that they’re not receiving the mental stimulation that they need.
A lack of mental stimulation can ultimately result in unwanted behaviours, so it’s really important to keep your dog’s brain busy.
These methods can also be a great tool for managing any existing undesirable behaviours in your dog. For example, giving your dog something else to focus their mind on when you’re not around can help manage separation relation behaviours.
Most techniques involve using food and toys, here are our top tips:
Activity toys are great fun for your dog, combining eating with physical movement. Usually made from hard plastic, you can fill them with treats or dried food. Your dog will need to learn to move the toy around with their nose or paws to get the food inside to fall out of the holes and get their tasty reward.
The difficulty levels can vary, some have single or multiple holes, meaning that your dog needs to work harder to get the food out. The difficulty level that you choose will depend on how interested your dog is in the toy, so it’s best to start with something easy.
Puzzle feeders and treat mats are great examples of toys that make mealtimes more interactive for your dog. The toy stays in one place but requires some problem solving and concentration from your dog. It’s an excellent way to make mealtimes more challenging.
Puzzle feeders can be quite complex, requiring your dog to move objects out of the way to release the food, so you may need to show them what to do the first time. If you want to start with something simple, why not make your own treat mat by following our helpful video.
With these toys, you pack the centre with different types of food, such as dried food, wet food or pastes.
Some dogs may be active with these whilst other may sit and concentrate on trying to get the food out, so they are great if you want to focus your dog’s attention on something else.
Usually made from rubber, they come in different sizes and levels of firmness to suit every dog. We have two sizes of this toy available to buy in the Battersea shop.
SCATTER AND SEARCH FEEDING
Scatter feeding is as simple as it sounds, and an effective way to encourage your dog’s natural foraging behaviours. If your dog tends to gulp their food down very quickly, it’s also a brilliant way to get them to slow down. Simply scatter their bowl of food on the floor, around your house or in the garden.
To progress from this, you can hide small piles of food around your house or garden and encourage your dog to search for them. As they grow in confidence, you can hide them in trickier to find locations and leave small trails of food to encourage them to search.
Choose hiding places with care, as you don’t want to encourage your dog to chew or damage furniture.
Training isn’t just about teaching your dog tricks, it’s an excellent way to engage their brain and helps build a stronger relationship between you. Depending on what motivates your dog, you can use food or toys as a reward.
Check out our advice on training your dog.
KEEP IT INTERESTING
Building up the level of difficulty and varying the foods that you use will keep your dog engaged.
With food toys, you can start by filling toys with lose food items. Once your dog is getting the food out easily, you can make it more challenging. Try capping the ends with pastes (like Peanut butter, pâté, or Marmite) or tinned meat, making it harder to get the dried food in the middle.
You can even try freezing the food inside the toy by filling it with water or gravy - a nice treat for your dog during the summer or for a teething puppy. Don’t be afraid to get creative!
With search games and training, you can make things more challenging by hiding the food in harder to find places and by progressing onto more difficult training.
IS THIS RIGHT FOR YOUR DOG?
If your dog hasn’t used a food toy before or seems hesitant, you may need to give them a little encouragement and show them what to do.
Introduce the toy slowly. Start by showing the toy to your dog in a calm manner by placing it on the floor and allow them to investigate. You can then introduce food to the situation by placing a small amount on or near the toy.
Once they seem unphased by the toy, you can start putting the food inside. Make sure that your dog can get the food out easily at first, as they may become frustrated if they are not receiving a reward and will likely lose interest.
Before starting, it’s important to make sure that your dog is comfortable and that you have a level of control when it comes to their food. Ask yourself, are they calm and relaxed when eating around you, and are they happy for you to pick up their bowl when they are done?
If your dog exhibits negative behaviours around food, such as stiffening their posture, blocking you, avoiding eye contact, growling, snapping or biting, you will need to address these behaviours before offering new food objects. If your dog begins acting like this after you’ve introduced a food toy method, make sure you only pick up the object when they are away from it and don’t interact with them until they are done eating.
Try to avoid giving your dog lots of additional food when training or using food toys. The best way to do this is to use a portion of their daily meals, and limit treats.
Be careful when using foods like cheese, Marmite, peanut butter or pâté as these are very high in calories and can contain additional salts and sugars, and it is important to limit these in your dog’s diet. We recommend a natural peanut butter, as that contains less salt and sugar, and some cheaper brands can contain palm oil or Xylitol sweetener which is harmful to dogs.
Always make sure that any non-dog food products are free of ingredients that are toxic to dogs before using them.