Most of the time, being a dog owner is really great. You don’t have to clean up food that falls on the floor, you have a snuggly ball of fur who warms up your bed for you, and you get greeted with sincere enthusiasm even if you only ran to the store to get milk and were gone for 15mins. However, there is one downside to being a dog owner that feline filled families don’t have to contend with – walks outside when the temperature is close to zero and the rain is coming down so hard that you realize walking your dog might require a wet suit. Although I can’t change the weather or how much energy your dog has, I can offer some suggestions for dogs (and homes) big and small to entertain, exercise, and avoid going outside for an extensive walk!
The Easiest Option: Puzzle Toys – the perfect winter boredom buster!
When you’re rushed, stressed, or overwhelmed and you just need your dog to settle down a bit, puzzle toys are your friend. Puzzle toys are a fantastic way for you to entertain your dog and enrich his or her life by allowing them to enjoy the challenge of working for their dinner or some tasty treats. Even better? These toys are very easy to use and don’t require much time or training. After all, simple solutions can be a blessing for many owners trying to get back into the swing of the daily grind after the craziness of the holiday season!
Why should I make Fido work for his dinner, isn’t that mean?
No, it’s not, but I’m glad you asked. Far from being mean, making your dog work to obtain food is actually deeply satisfying for him or her. Since dogs are scavenging carnivores by nature, they instinctively use their nose to sniff out potential food sources. In fact, wolves in the wild travel an average of 20-30 miles per day (but can travel up to 100 miles!) to track down prey. Even more amazing? Only 3-14% of all hunts that the pack attempts result in a successful kill, meaning that wolves – and dogs – have an instinct to gorge themselves by gulping down any available food as quickly as they can, since obtaining food in the wild (or as a stray) is a challenging and uncertain endeavour.*
You may be thinking that your little min pin or friendly labradoodle seems like a far cry from the wolves that dogs once descended from, and you’re not entirely wrong. Yet, although dogs are not wolves in every way there are still a lot of similarities – your dogs’ instinct to work to obtain their food along with their instinct to gulp it down quickly are both examples of some similarities between dogs and their wild cousins.
Ok, I’m sold. So how do these toys work, and which one should I buy?
There are many different puzzle toys on the market, so which one is best for you will be dependent on how confident and motivated your dog is to get the food (and how tasty your dog thinks the food in the toy is!). Regardless of brand or difficulty though, the basic premise of each toy is the same – to make your dog work to get their dinner instead of letting them gulp it down in 2.5 seconds from their food bowl.
The best puzzle toys are those where the difficulty level can be changed, so that as your dog improves in their ability to get the food out, the game can be made more challenging without buying a new toy. If you’re not sure what to buy, take a look at my recent review of 12 popular treat dispensing toys to help you decide. In terms of stuffing or filling, any kibble, air-dried food, or treats that are relatively small and dry will generally work. For a more extensive list of things you could put in these toys, check the link above.
I’m not sure I want to spend money on these toys yet – what if my dog doesn’t like them?
DIY Treat Roller!
If you’re not sure your dog will like these toys, you can try making your own simple version first out of a 2L pop bottle (although with many dogs, this toy may not last a long time). To start, remove the label and wash the bottle but keep the lid.
After the bottle is clean, cut 3 to 4 quarter size holes randomly in the middle section of the bottle, where the label was before. To make the toy easier, add more holes or make them bigger. Conversely, if your dog is a smarty pants, cut less holes or make them smaller. Remember – you can always add holes or widen them, but once the holes are cut, its hard to go backwards!
Next simply fill the bottle with your dog’s normal meal or some treats that they love that will fit through the size of holes that you cut - you can use a wide mouth funnel to make this easier. Finally, simply give the bottle to your dog, or place it on the ground in front of them instead of putting their meal in their food dish.
For those K9’s who like to shred things rather then solve puzzles, it may be helpful for you to demonstrate to them that if the bottle is pushed and rolled, food will fall out. If necessary, you can leash your dog and have a helper hold them back while you demonstrate how the toy works. Demonstrating this will help your dog understand that they will be able to obtain the food faster by playing then game then by destroying the bottle!
Want another DIY puzzle toy idea? Here’s a bonus one from my other article, scroll to the end to see it!
A More Advanced Idea: Teach your dog to “Find it!”
If winter snow has you trapped inside and it seems like you might be snowed in for a while, this idea could be a great fun way to play with and really exhaust even high energy pooches, but it does take some time and energy to teach your dog how to play. This is a beginner’s level nose work game that’s really fun for dogs as it allows them to use their nose and their brain to find hidden treats in your home.
How to Play
To teach your dog this game, start with a treat your dog really loves and a single plastic drinking glass. Ask your dog to sit, and then show him that you have the treat. Make it very obvious that you are placing the treat on the floor and covering it with the cup. Tell your dog enthusiastically to “find it” and allow them to knock the cup over to get the treat.
Although most dogs will accomplish this step on their own, some more nervous and timid dogs might need a more gradual introduction to this game. If your dog hesitates to knock the cup over to get the treat, start by placing the cup on its side so that your dog can see the treat is inside it. Once they are comfortable eating the treat out of the knocked over cup, start placing the cup on top of the treat (on the floor) and your dog should be willing to knock it over at that point.
Once your dog is willingly knocking the cup over to eat the treat, get a second cup and, this time, repeat the procedure but only hide a treat under one cup. Once your dog realizes that they must search both cups to find the treat, the fun really begins for them! Dogs love to use their nose to find things - and for most canine’s food is at the top of that list! If you keep practicing this game, you will eventually be able to start getting your dog to sit and wait while you hide the treats (under the cup or not) in an increasing variety of places.
Building on the Basics
If you and your furry friend play this game enough, eventually he will start to understand that when you say, “find it!”, he is being invited to start searching for food! If you want to play this game regularly, it is useful to develop a phrase that means “stop searching now, you’ve found all the food I’ve hidden”. This is important, as some high drive dogs may want to keep searching and searching long after the food is gone, wearing themselves (and you!) out. To let your dog know that the game is over, make sure you use the same consistent phrase over and over (I use “that’s it, all done”). Make sure that every time you play, your say this to your dog when he has found all the food. Since my dog is highly food motivated, I find that it helps to pair this phrase with one small treat that I get for her out of a jar of dog treats on the counter. Getting a small treat from me makes it easier for her to accept that the game is over, and I find that she is able to calm down faster this way as well.
If your dog really loves this game, considering moving on to training your dog to search for a specific toy and then get a treat from your hand when they find it. For those who are really keen, I’d highly recommend getting into the canine sport of nose work (which my dog and I do together) where participating canines are taught to find specific scents and then indicate to their handler (owner) that they have found the scent in order to be rewarded with a treat.
Overall, I hope that you have found this article enlightening in an often dark and gloomy month. Hopefully these ideas can help your pup stay busy and happy this winter so that you can both avoid the rain - and so you can still enjoy the cozy feeling of a warm dog sleeping next to you on a chilly night.
– Carly Piatocha, Pet Industry Writer