Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Environmental Enrichment


Imagine that all day every day you had nothing in particular to do. No job, no one to play with, no books, television, internet or phone. You could not go outside. You could not draw or play a musical instrument. All your meals arrived on time on a plate, no work involved. You have a few toys that don’t do much and that you’ve played with many times before.

This probably sounds pretty boring, right? It’s how most dogs live and, though many dogs handle that boredom well, dogs with separation anxiety do not. Chances are you have an intelligent, sensitive dog who has way too much time on his hands (paws).

He needs things to do!

What you’re going to do is called Environmental Enrichment. Put more simply: Make things tougher, keep things interesting.

No More Free Lunch

In the name of giving your dog things to do, put away his food bowl. He no longer needs it. From now on he eats out of toys that make him work a bit more for what he gets. Think of it as making the best part of his day last longer. Instead of a minute of pleasure at meal times (or if your dog is like Pip, twenty seconds), he’ll have five to ten minutes or more. And he won’t just have pleasure, he’ll be engaged, curious, and having fun. He’ll have to think and figure things out. He’ll be seriously entertained, and that’s just what we want.

Here are some of my favorite food dispensing toys:

For Dry Food

Everlasting Fun Ball, Amaze-a-ball, Twist ‘N Treat are all fairly easy to load up and, if needed, unload, and are soft-enough not to drive you or your downstairs neighbors to distraction when your dog is kicking it around the floor.

The Twist ‘N Treat can be adjusted so food comes out more or less easily. Do not use wet food in this toy as I have seen dogs learn to unscrew it quickly as they lick at the openings.

While the Everlasting Fun Ball and the Amaze-a-ball have both held up through many dogs using them, the Twist ‘N Treat was wounded in battle with a Goldendoodle, Lola, we had in for training. She made PJ look like a weak-jawed beginner. So, even great toys have their limitations.

Beware the toys that cannot be emptied once loaded. I’ve had some get ants inside them, and that was no fun.

For Wet Food

Kongs and other hollow toys with large enough openings to be easy to clean can be lightly packed with a mixture of dry food soaked in water or broth and then mixed with wet food or plain yogurt.

You can serve this as is or freeze it for a longer lasting project.

Always give a new toy when you are home, at first, to see if the product can hold up to your dog’s chewing level. Wyatt could have any toy forever, PJ, nicknamed: The Jaws of Life, can destroy some toys in minutes. If they survive her, I consider them “durable”.

What if…

What if my dog ignores the food/toy?

If he tries and gets frustrated then the food probably doesn’t drop out fast enough; adjust the toy so it is easier. Making it a slot machine he sometimes wins at will engage him. As he learns to earn, you can make it more of a challenge.

If he’s just not interested in trying, then pick it up and offer it again at his next meal time. Dogs are bingers by design and usually can fast quite easily.

Caution: Toy breeds and especially toy breed puppies can develop hypoglycemia if they don’t eat regularly so check with your vet and consider using a half and half approach: some food in the bowl, more in the toy.

What if my dog destroys the food/toy?

Wrong toy. Google “tough dog chew toys” and you’ll find an excellent selection to choose from.

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