Mealtime for your dog doesn't have to be just putting food in the bowl! You can use this as an opportunity to add enrichment to your dog's day by using their food as a training treat. Or, you can ditch your old bowl and feed your dog their meals in a toy or as part of an enrichment game.
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1. Training treats
A great way to increase enrichment for your dog around mealtime is to use their food as a training treat! You can do this with some or all of your dog's food, just measure or pour some of your dog's meal into your treat pouch. Kibble is going to be a lower value treat for (most) dogs than other treats, so if you're working on something very hard, or in a very distracting environment you will want to pull out a treat. If you're practicing skills and cues your dog knows, or just training around the house, Kibble makes a great reward without filling your dog up with a lot of extra treats. For ambivalent eaters, turning mealtime into training time can teach your dog some new tricks. You can practice in your living room and use bits of their food as a reward. This can make mealtime more exciting and give you a great opportunity to bond with your dog.
2. Slow feed bowls
If you have a dog who tends to gobble their food without seeming to really taste or enjoy it, one strategy for slowing your dog down and making mealtime more enjoyable and enriching is to feed your dog in a slow feed bowl. These bowls are generally made of plastic, but instead of just being open inside, they have mazes molded into the bowl that you pour the food into. When you give the bowl to your dog, they have to use their tongue to work the food out of the bowl. This slows them down while eating and also engages their brain to puzzle over how to get at the food.
3. Puzzle it out
If your dog has a lot of excess mental energy, you can use a dog puzzle for part or all of your dog's mealtime. Dog puzzles are designed for dogs to use their nose and/or paws to move parts of the puzzle and release the treat and food compartments. After a few repetitions, most dogs will remember how the puzzles work and will become faster at solving them, so it can be helpful to trade out different puzzles and come back to an older puzzle later.
Dogs love the opportunity to use their noses to forage for tasty snacks. A snuffle mat is a fun way to encourage their natural foraging behavior in your house. A snuffle mat is usually made of fleece or other washable and durable strips of fabric tied together. You can sprinkle part or all of your dog's meal into the snuffle mat and then let your dog search for the bits of kibble, by using their sense of smell and rooting through the mat to find their dinner. You can also create a similar effect by taking empty cardboard boxes from deliveries, sprinkling kibble inside, and then letting your dog forage for their meal.
5. Food balls
Got a ball--obsessed dog? You can help turn mealtime into a game for your dog with a slow release ball. These toys are designed to be filled with Kibble so that when your dog pushes the ball across the floor, it will release bits of Kibble slowly and at different intervals. These balls work best on hard floor surfaces such as hardwoods, tile, or linoleum. Just be sure your dog doesn't get their ball stuck under or behind the furniture!
6. Stuff it
One easy way to make your dog's meal last longer and be more enriching to eat is to put your dog's food in a hard rubber toy specifically designed to be stuffed. Kongs and other durable toys are designed to be stuffed and chewed. These toys are great to give your dog when crated, and they can also give them something to occupy themself with when they are going to be home alone. A way to decrease the number of extra treats your dog is getting and make mealtime more fun is to incorporate your dog's food into your stuffed toys. To make the food stuffable, you can soak it in water (or broth) and then add it to your dog's toy. For an added challenge, you can also freeze the toy once it is stuffed.
If you are planning on giving your dog any kind of toy or puzzle, be sure to always supervise during mealtime. If your dog gets overwhelmed or frustrated, you'll want to step in and help make the puzzle easier. Or you can give your dog their meal in a regular bowl and try again another day with an easier game or puzzle. The goal shouldn't be to confuse your dog or make it hard for them to eat, rather it's about creating a fun game for your dog to make their mealtime more exciting.