Will Work for Food

By Heather Mishefske

Giving your dog a way to work for their food can improve its behavior this holiday season.

Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers. We humans are not good at catering to our dog’s hunting prowess due to safety concerns. We do not allow them to chase squirrels, indulge in road kill, stalk squirrels, or hunt the songbirds at our feeders. These are all activities that they would LOVE to indulge in, but due to the potential for parasites, hunts gone wrong, and safety, we deter them from doing so. And rightly so!

There are safer ways to allow our dogs to bring out their huntress side without the risks. The world of canine enrichment has exploded in the past several years. There are many gadgets, games, and toys that recreate a game that allows your pooch to engage its inner hunter. Our dogs have it pretty easy. We buy baked kibble in perfect little nuggets and deliver them to our dogs in raised feeding stations. While some of us make our dogs “work” for their food, by requiring a skill before their food or treat is presented, eating the food out of their bowl is a very easy task. So, let’s use their food to fill a puzzle or interactive toy and make them REALLY work for it! And use their most highly developed organ, their incredible NOSE! By making your dog work for its food, we utilize some brain power on those days when scheduling or Wisconsin weather makes it tough to get outside for exercise. And why not feed them out of a food puzzle or toy–they have to eat anyway, right? Food puzzles and enrichment toys provide an outlet for dogs to scavenge, root, uncover, and find their food. By doing this, we give our dogs a job, help alleviate boredom, assist with confidence building, and provide a chance for them to do some serious problem solving. Many toys or puzzles are made so that the dog must tip them to get the kibble out, move parts of a puzzle, turn the toy a certain way, or uncover sections to access the food. Once your dog understands how to access the food, he or she becomes a problem solver of all puzzles that you will present them. And there are SO many options out there to explore.

An excellent place to add enrichment toys into your dog’s life are the holidays. The unpredictable days, the added stress of unfamiliar guests, the lack of routine, travel, late nights, and possible lack of physical exercise often lead to increased anxiety in our canine companions. Giving them a simple task like “find your own food” can help. Doing this uses their most developed organ, their nose. Make feeding time into a job.

Some of our faves here at emBARK are:

  • StarMark Bob-A-Lot
  • Starmark Treat Dispensing Ball
  • Planet Dog Orbee Tuff Mazee
  • Planet Dog Orbee Tuff Snoop
  • Omega Tricky Treat Ball
  • Pet Safe Tug-A-Jug OR Magic Mushroom
  • Any of the Trixie puzzles
  • Any of the Nina Ottenson puzzles
  • Kongs (the original stuffable food toy!)
  • Kong Gyro
  • Snuffle Mats – find them on Etsy or make your own!

The main rule of enrichment toys is that they are meant to be used under our supervision. Many are made of plastic or resin, creating parts that could easily be chewed off. If you pup attempts to chew the toy, simply help a bit by moving it until they understand that motion of the toy is the way that food is delivered. Once your dog understands that they have control of the food delivery, he or she will begin to enjoy the game. Dogs who eat too quickly also benefit from these food puzzles, as treats/food is delivered slowly.

For most dogs, their biggest enriching activity is learning new tricks, skills, and going to new outdoor environments to use their nose. Using food puzzle toys can quickly become something that they look forward to. Add some interactive enrichment toys to your dog’s holiday gift list—it will benefit both of you!

Heather Mishefske is a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of emBARK, LLC. She has been involved in the dog scene in the Chippewa Valley since the age of ten, and professionally since 1998. emBARK offers training classes, dog daycare, dog grooming, canine massage, and workshops. To check out the Midwest’s Hippest Hang Out for Hounds, check out www.embarkdog.com.

Aging Gracefully

By Margaret Meier Jones

Have you begun to notice that your pet is starting to slow down, play less, move cautiously, or be easily irritated? Does it hesitate before jumping onto the bed, couch, or into the car? Have you observed that its legs seem to shake when trying to lie down or after daily walks? Has it become part of your pet’s routine to circle for quite some time before lying down on their bed or having their bowel movements while walking, rather than easily arching their back and squatting? Is your aging cat having difficulty always using their litter box? If you answered yes to ANY of these questions, your pet may be suffering from osteoarthritis (OA) and not just “old age.” Together, with just a few easy changes to our daily routine, we truly can help manage the chronic pain of OA and assist them to age with grace and dignity.

The first, and easiest, thing to do is increase the amount of essential fatty acids in the diet. The most important fatty acid to supplement is Omega 3, which helps the brain, the skin, the heart, and the joints. It is important to realize that the trend of adding coconut oil to the diet does NOT provide our pets with any Omega 3, but rather mid-chain fatty acids. The best source of Omega 3 for our cats and dogs is fish oil. Cats, as carnivores, cannot convert the oils in plants, such as flax or chia seeds into Omega 3; and dogs can only convert a very small portion. As a result, if we use anything but fish oil, we unwittingly increase the inflammatory Omega 6. When comparing fish oil, it is important to look for “nordic,” or cold, processing. This ensures that your pet will not be exposed to the harsh chemicals (i.e., acetone) that are used conventionally. Give us a call if you’re not certain of the fish oil you have, or the amount to administer to your pet, and we can help!

Exercise and weight control are also a key element that can easily be incorporated to help our pets age with grace. “Move it or lose it” applies to all of us but becomes even more important with age. Having three short 10-minute walks can be much easier, and even more effective, than one 30-minute walk. As the pet gets out and moves, endorphins are produced that help eliminate pain; and shorter walks put less strain on muscles and joints. Watching portion sizes of a good quality senior diet and overall caloric intake (including treats) helps to maintain a healthy weight thereby preventing increased stress on joints. Having your pet sit and then stand, for three repetitions, before giving them their meals provides a mini yoga session that helps strengthen their core muscle groups.

Finally, taking a fresh look at your home from the eyes of our aging pet and making a few small changes can make a world of difference to them. Can we eliminate the stairs up and down on the way outside by going out a different door? If not, can we construct a ramp that is wide and has a nonslip surface to eliminate the steps? Is there an “under the bed” storage container with lower sides that we could use as a litter box? Can we help provide all of our pet’s needs on one level of our home? Asking these simple questions, and taking action on their answers, can provide the perspective our aging pets need us to consider for their comfort.