How to effectively Ditch The Food Bowl
I’ve written before about ditching your food bowl a few different times over the last few years but I’ve never focused an entire post on the subject (or not a detailed informational post). I have mentioned my use of toys frequently with regard to handling Loki’s resource guarding and generally surviving with a wild puppy in the house.
If I had my way, dogs (particularly young and energetic dogs) would never eat out of a food bowl. It is such a waste to just give a dog a pile of freebies when you could instead use that food to mentally and physical work your pooch. It doesn’t take much or any more work to fill a kibble dispensing toy than it does to fill a bowl but you can get so much out of using a toy to feed your dog. There is just no reason to not do it, it doesn’t take more time or effort (in most cases) to fill a toy and put it down while you get ready for work so your dog tires himself out while you get ready–talk about multitasking, you are exercising the dog AND getting ready for work simultaneously. The vast majority of dogs I encounter are seriously under exercised–especially mentally but also physically, and one of the main reasons I hear from folks why is that they just don’t have the time . These toys allow you to multi-task like a pro and provide some extra mental and physical exercise without having to devote extra time to the cause.
Besides helping to exercise a dog’s body and brain, kibble dispensing toys are also fantastic for teaching problem solving skills and the idea of trying new things that can help with shaping games. These toys can also build confidence as the dogs learn to do things independently and be successful. They can also be used as a bridge for dogs who don’t particularly like toys as an entry point into finding toys to be fun!
There is, however, a right way to introduce kibble dispensing toys and a way that can sabotage their long-term use. This morning I gave Loki his breakfast in a very very challenging toy and it took him over 40 minutes of activity to empty the toy. It was an extremely challenging toy for him and he had to work very hard for a long time to get all of his breakfast. If I had tried to give him this toy as his first exposure to kibble dispensing toys, he would have gotten frustrated and given up.
It is extremely important when introducing kibble dispensing toys that you start with simple toys. I used a kong with kibble inside as his very first toy since very little manipulation caused kibble to come pouring out. He figured this out in a heartbeat so I upped the challenge level a little to a variety of balls that have holes in them for dispensing kibble–these are very easy but still take longer than a kong to empty.
Using the small ball toys, he learned a few skills to empty them (rolling with his nose and flipping them up with his nose) so I introduced the Holee Treat Ball as a more challenging, but still easy, toy for him to use. I continued to add other easy toys (Wobbler, empty gatorade bottle with lid-off, etc) into his rotation for him to learn a variety of skills to empty the toys. Once he had lots of experiences with very easy and easy toys, I introduced toys that were a bit more challenging (different shapes and types of toys that rely on different skills–ie they don’t easily roll).
The medium level toys started to build up his stamina –his ability to go lengths of time without reinforcement that prepared him to take on more challenging toys. They also taught him different skills he could use to empty toys besides simply rolling (since most of the prior toys were balls). The gatorade bottle with kibble inside that he got for breakfast had him working for minutes at a time without any reinforcement (kibble coming out) and using lots of different skills. All of his experiences with the easy toys enabled him to work through the very slow rate of reinforcement without giving up and gave him additional skills to try and empty the toy. This is the piece that many people makes mistakes with–you have to work up to the challenging toys or the dogs will give up and quit trying. They need to have a long history of reinforcement AND have learned the skills they can use to empty toys–without these, the dog will not be successful and will quit.
It is almost always my preference to never feed out of a food bowl, but it’s also important to make sure that the toys you select are appropriate for the skill level of your dog. Build up their skills, stamina, and confidence using easy and medium level toys before trying to really stump them with challenging toys.