We’ve all heard it before: stop feeding your dog out of a bowl, use his natural foraging abilities to your advantage, stimulate the brain while feeding a meal. All of this was nothing new to me, and as a dog trainer, I often recommend work-to-eat options for my clients who are struggling with their dog’s behavior. A little mental stimulation goes a long way. Turns out- it goes even further than I thought.
A few months back, we started feeding Hazel and Savannah out of stuffed marrow bones. It started as a little bit of fun, a little something different and we quickly realized how much they enjoyed it. Not only did they enjoy it, their meals lasted much longer, it was fun to watch them work at it and there was an overall improvement in their behavior (read: they became less barky). One day, I put the bowls away. My husband was sort of incredulous at first and I said that we had plenty of bones around so we could always have a bunch filled, and why not? Let’s see how it goes. Well, it’s going amazingly well. Their bones are stuffed with a mix of wet food and dry food, with some crunchy treats filling the hard to reach middle section of the bone. They are frozen, which makes it that much more challenging. It takes each dog anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to finish their meal. That’s an hour of brain activity, an hour of physical activity, as they come at the bone from different angles and, perhaps best of all, an hour of quiet. Nothing else matters in the world to them when they are working on that bone. It’s human and canine bliss.
This got me thinking about some of the other options out there. Recently, I was at a shop that run by my friend Victoria (who is also a trainer and author), called Life On The Leash, which carried the Nina Ottoson food dispensing pyramid, so I bought two. One for Hazel (who needs more stimulation than Savannah because of her age) and one for a troublesome English Cocker Spaniel I am working with named James Bond. Imagine the glee in my dog trainer’s heart when I received an email on Saturday from my client with the subject line: “He gets it!” 007 now has a new outlet for excessive energy, which was extremely wearing on his loving but exhausted owners. As for Hazel, it took her a bit to warm up to it, but once she did, she tried all sorts of strategies, a few of which left her panting and one in which she clearly assumed the easiest route to getting the food out was to pick the whole thing up in her mouth and toss it! But, she gets it, too, and really enjoys knocking that thing around.
Yesterday, Paul and I visited a store in Frenchtown, NJ, called Yellow Dog which turned out to be owned by a reward-based trainer. She had lots of great stuff, including the Buster Cube. Since I am on this kick, I had to have it. And since Hazel is sort of my built in tester for things to recommend to clients, it was a no-brainer. Had to have it.
So, tonight Hazel got her dinner (kibble) out of the Buster Cube and it was as much of a hit as the pyramid. The best thing about these toys is that if you’ve got a tough chewer, they can withstand it. I don’t feel the need to monitor the way I do with a Kong, which she can dismantle in minutes (even the XL Xtreme). These toys aren’t easy to get a hold on and they are super thick plastic. Total bonus points for me.
And when she was done? This happened. Wasted, done, exhausted, spent and relaxed. She can run in the backyard for a half hour, train for a half hour, go for an hour long walk- but, none of it adds up to a dog who has been mentally and physically stimulated the way the Buster Cube was for her (it’s “Genius Level”, btw). So, yea. I have bought in 100% to work-to-eat. I can see the difference in my dog’s behavior and know that problem solving and mental stimulation is extremely important to their well-being. It’s not just that I want them tired, it’s that I want them happy and not bored. This is one of the best ways I have found to do it. I’m all in. And I’ll be passing what I have learned on to all of my clients, some of whom have already been feeding from marrow bones based on my recommendations and have seen a difference.
In the meantime, we are also working on our waist leash walking skills, and am also sold on that as being the best thing ever (I have a lot of those!). A full blogpost is in the works with video, but for now, I can honestly say that it is changing the “let’s go for a walk” experience in so many ways. Having one’s hands free to reinforce (and click, if you use a clicker) is simply amazing. Even in the face of distractions, not just holding on with that “one stupid arm” as my friend Amie so eloquently put it really makes for a better experience. And I’m willing to bet Hazel agrees, too, because the lack of fumbling around and flailing arm even makes counterconditioning that much easier. Total win.
All of this fills me with great joy. My arsenal of resources for clients keeps growing. I am a dog geek. And I’m proud of it.