It can be easy to overlook what and how we feed our dogs, particularly if we are buying a commercial dog food that makes lots of promises about quality. We can use their diet in so many ways though, taking them into a world of enriching experiences with foods that nurture their body and mind perfectly.
So, let’s take a look at how our dogs eat and how we can make it the most enriching experience possible for them. Finding food is one of the most natural behaviour types dogs have, it’s literally ingrained – often even if it looks like something else. Food finding behaviour is naturally central to everything our dogs do, so let’s help them to use it.
We can be good guardians by turning our dog’s mealtimes into an opportunity to practice natural behaviour. Again, it’s a good idea to look at the breed of your dog to see what they like most and which type of feeding enrichment will be most suited to them. Terriers for example might dig, tear and chew whilst spaniels might like to search for longer to find their food. That said, all dogs have the ability to orient because not only have our dogs come from hunter ancestors they are also from a long, long line of scavengers.
As people we love to sit down to a plate of food and make it a social occasion. Our eyes widen when we see a plate of delicious food. We tend to attach that pleasure to our dog’s interpretation of food too, but it’s an assumption about how our dogs experience pleasure that might not actually be accurate.
Posy with an inside out Licki mat and her frozen dinner on a warm day.
Some dogs are preoccupied with food whilst others can feel intimidated by a big bowl being put in front of them. Either way, giving them a bowl of food that’s gone in no time at all is a missed opportunity of good guardianship. We can turn a big bowl of food into a life enriching experience, so it takes half an hour to eat because they need to find it bit by bit, by freezing it into a Kong toy so they need to work it free, or even by making one of their meals a wing or another safe bone, so they get to eat like their ancestors did.
Canine enrichment has been around for a while now and it’s an excellent concept, particularly so when we are looking at good guardianship of an animal who generally has to live their lives based around how we live ours. It’s not just a case of making your dog’s meals harder to attain though as that can be frustrating and upsetting if they can’t do it. It’s crucial that we are setting them tasks akin to building their confidence as we do it. Enriching your dog’s life by making changes to their eating scenarios must be kind and enjoyable for them or it’s not going to be enriching and it won’t make their lives better – in fact it could make them worse.
Millie relaxing after dinner in a snuffle rug
Chips enjoying his evening meal
You know your dog best. You know what makes them feel good, what gives them a big confidence boost, what they avoid, and you do this by seeing how they look in old and new situations. You can use this ability to know through observation – how to set your dog’s feeding times up to make them the best possible enriching experience. Remember that just outside their ability to succeed, but not beyond it – that’s the aim of the game in canine enrichment.
There are many types of mental activity which will use a dog’s psychological needs. A popular one is scentwork, yet there is also scent related problem-solving games along with general brain games. Scentwork would be the activity I would choose for helping people use up their dog’s mental energy. Use of the nose is tiring and leads to excellent relaxation.
The average dog has 220 million olfactory receptors in his or her nose. This is a huge amount, when we compare it to the average six million within the human nose. Whilst the average dog is a great sniffer, the ones that have been further bred for scentwork can have up to 300 million scent receptors. In addition to this, some of the ‘sniffer’ dog breeds also have long ears which is said to ‘capture’ scent more effectively.
Food will always motivate a dog. Eating keeps him alive and even the fussiest dogs get hungry. When we think a dog is not motivated by food, it’s usually because we haven’t yet learned how to use the right kind of food, in the right way, for motivation.
Scatter feeding is simple yet can use a dog’s scenting ability enough that he properly relaxes afterwards. Simply find a food that the dog loves and scatter it around the home or garden, in tiny bits and at a reasonable portion and let him sniff out the food and eat it.
Many dogs love scatter feeding so much that they will ignore the bowl with food in but eat every last scattered scrap, engaging their mind and body simultaneously. This type of engagement will use up lots of excess energy and the dog is highly likely to settle afterwards.
If you suspect your dog isn’t going to get immediately stuck in, start with less food in a smaller area. Make it extra special to sniff, for example grated cheese or tiny bits of chopped meat and build from there.