A Guide to Using Food Puzzle Toys with Your Dog
The benefits of food puzzle toys for dogs
Enrichment is important because a dog’s life can sometimes be a bit, well, boring. Dogs spend a lot of time lounging around waiting for us to have time to do something with them. Food puzzle toys are a great way to give your dog something to do and to make mealtime fun.
They can also slow down the speed at which your dog eats, which is useful if your dog is one of those who seems to inhale their food.
From an animal welfare perspective food puzzle toys are great because they give dogs positive experiences in the acquisition of food. Sometimes people are concerned that dogs might find food toys frustrating, but the challenge is fun for dogs.
You can compare it to if you are learning to play the piano or a new video game; there can be challenges but all the successes along the way keep you playing, just like the treats falling out of the toy will keep your dog engaged.
Feeding pet dogs via toys rather than bowls can lead to an increase in activity levels (Su et al 2019). It may also be helpful to feed overweight or obese pets this way as part of a weight loss program (though of course you still have to monitor the amount you are feeding; ask your vet for advice).
One study found that dogs like to work for their food or other rewards, rather than receive them ‘for free’, and the scientists dubbed it the “Eureka!” effect (McGowan et al 2014).
Another study found that when laboratory dogs who live in kennels are given food toys, they bark less, are more active, and spend more time engaged in eating compared to dogs who do not get the toys (Schipper et al 2008).
When military working dogs (all German Shepherds) were given a daily food toy in their kennel, they always emptied it, and once it was empty they were no longer particularly interested in it (Gaines et al 2008). This suggests that food puzzle toys are all about the food and are not toys in their own right. This study found that—contrary to a common view at the time—the use of food puzzle toys did not affect a dog’s ability to work.
While we need more research on food puzzle toys for pet dogs, we know more broadly that exercise and enrichment are good for dogs. Many people also enjoy watching their dog get the food out of food puzzle toys, so it’s fun for the person as well as the dog.
Choosing food puzzle toys
When choosing food puzzle toys, take into account the kinds of things your dog likes to do. Do you think they would prefer a ball to roll around with their nose, something to paw at, or something to sniff at to find the food?
The good news is that most dogs are going to like all food puzzle toys for the simple reason that they contain food. The trick is to get the level right for your dog.
Always supervise your dog with the food toys, and make sure you get toys that are the correct size for your dog so that there isn’t a choking risk. Many toys come in different sizes and some are designed for puppies while others are designed for those dogs who are extreme chewers.
How to introduce food puzzle toys to your dog
When introducing a food puzzle toy for the first time, make it very easy for your dog. If the toy has different levels, set it to the easiest level. As well, use tasty treats to help the toy get your dog’s attention and to reward them nicely for the first few times they use it. Fill it up so that the treats fall out easily.
If they don’t seem interested in the toy, manipulate it a bit yourself to get their attention and to show them that treats are going to fall out.
If you ultimately want to use the food puzzle toy to feed meals, you can gradually transition from treats to a combo of treats and kibble, and then to all kibble.
How to use food puzzle toys when you have more than one pet
If you have more than one pet, make sure that each pet can enjoy their food puzzle toy on their own without worrying about the other pet trying to interfere or take food. You can use pet gates or barriers to keep them apart, or give the toys in the dog’s crate, for example.
The best food puzzle toys for your dog
There are lots of great food puzzle toys for dogs on the market. These are some of my favourites.
A Kong is a classic food puzzle toy. It comes in different sizes as well as in a puppy version, a seniors version, and an Extreme version for heavy duty chewers, so there’s one for every dog. You can also make them harder by changing what you put inside and/or by freezing it. You can even prepare a batch in advance and put them in the freezer so you’ve always got one prepared.
Treats, peanut butter*, cream cheese, canned pumpkin, canned tuna, yoghurt, cottage cheese, and canned dog food, are all great options to go in a Kong.
You can find some easy Kong stuffing ideas in this video from Janice Z Dog Training LLC.
You put treats or kibble inside and your dog has to make the toy wobble so that they fall out of the holes. This is another classic food puzzle toy and can keep your dog entertained for a while.
I love the Nina Ottosson range of food puzzle toys. The Brick has various parts that your dog can remove or move in order to get the food hidden underneath. You can use just some of the bricks to make it easier, or all of them to make it more of a challenge for your dog.
If your dog has mastered the Brick, this is another intermediate level dog puzzle. There are flippers to swivel and blocks to slide in order to gain access to treats hidden underneath.
Put treats or kibble in and your dog has to roll the ball around to make them fall out of the hole. The hole is adjustable so you can change the difficulty setting.
There are other treat balls too and my Shih Tzu Pepper is currently using a Catit treat ball that I commandeered from the cats!
A snuffle mat is a mat with long loops of fabric. You hide the treats or food in amongst the loops and your dog has to snuffle them out.
Slow feeder dog bowls have lots of ridges to make it harder for your pet to get the food out. They are a good way to make your dog eat more slowly.
The lickimat is another way of slowing down the speed at which your dog eats. You can spread yoghurt, peanut butter, or wet dog food over the lickimat and then your dog licks it up. Lickimats are also useful in training or for management when you want to deliver a long-duration treat, such as when grooming your pet.
DIY food puzzle toys
The great thing is that you can also DIY some if you like, for example by hiding treats in cardboard box, or making a few holes in the side of a water bottle and putting treats in so that your dog has to manipulate the bottle to make the treats fall out. (Be sure not to have any sharp edges).
You can also make your own woolly snuffle mat if you are the crafty type. Sassafras Lowrey’s delightful book, Chew This Journal: An Activity Book for You and Your Dog, has instructions for making one.
Food puzzle toys are a great way to provide enrichment for your dog as they make him or her work for their food. They are fun and also slow down the rate at which your dog eats. Always introduce them slowly and with treats, and only gradually build up the difficulty level.
For expert dogs, you can give different food puzzle toys on different days of the week.
For more on why enrichment is good for your dog, see chapter 10 of my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.”
I would love to know what food puzzle toys your dog enjoys.
P.S. Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Dog, and never miss a post.
See also: Your cat would like food puzzle toys.
*Always check that peanut butter does not contain the artificial sweetener xylitol, which is poisonous to dogs.
Gaines, S. A., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. (2008). The effect of feeding enrichment upon reported working ability and behavior of kenneled working dogs. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(6), 1400-1404.
McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, & Keeling LJ (2014). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal cognition, 17 (3), 577-87 PMID: 24096703
Schipper, L. L., Vinke, C. M., Schilder, M. B., & Spruijt, B. M. (2008). The effect of feeding enrichment toys on the behaviour of kennelled dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 114(1-2), 182-195.
Su, D. K., Murphy, M., Hand, A., Zhu, X., & Witzel‐Rollins, A. (2019). Impact of feeding method on overall activity of indoor, client‐owned dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 60(7), 438-443.