There are all sorts of food puzzle toys available in stores. Commercially-made toys all have their benefits and drawbacks. As a rule, they usually aren’t cheap. They also tend to only work with dry kibble. However, they can provide durable, quick entertainment for certain kinds of dogs, and are one of the easiest ways to feed a dog interactively.
Some of the fancier pet stores will have interactive food toys for you to check out and let your dog try, in-store. If they don’t, ask at the counter—they may be willing to open the packaging and let you mess with the toy to see if it’s the right fit.
Puzzle-style toys are usually a flat stationary maze or game. The dog needs to manipulate moving parts with their nose or paw in order to remove the food. These toys are good for many small dogs, and for dogs who are generally more gentle and methodical in the way they solve problems. They do require active supervision as they’re definitely not toys and can easily be broken, or have parts lost or eaten. Once your dog has found all its dinner, remove the puzzle so it doesn’t get rolled around and broken.
One of my dogs solves these puzzles by picking them up and throwing them. In her defense, this does do a quick job of getting the food out, but it’s pretty hard on the toy. If your dog also tends to solve problems by smashing them until they break, then this is not the right kind of toy for you.
If your dog doesn’t seem to “get” the puzzle, but just sits there staring at it, they might need a little more help to get into the game. Like everything in this book, the first step is to make the game easier. Show them where you’re putting the food, or use higher-value food that smells really good, or only half-close the lid or cover or flap so that it’s more obvious what needs to happen. Help them win a few times, and then see if they can solve it once on their own. Cheerlead them. Congratulate them when they solve the puzzle. Tell them they’re awesome and everyone thinks they’re good-looking and smart and a darn good person, too. You won’t have to do this cajoling forever—we’re building enthusiasm for the game so that your dog learns to do it on their own. Slowly wean them off your assistance until they’re happy to sit with the puzzle until it’s empty.
Food toys could very well save your sanity. They are quick, easy, in some cases dishwasher safe, come in a wide variety of difficulties, and require minimal human participation.
However, it does take some experimentation to find the ones that your dog really likes. Some are too hard or have mechanics that don’t make sense to your dog. Some dogs will also lose interest in toys—it’s too much effort, not enough excitement; they solved the puzzle once, and it’s not worth continuing if all they’re getting out of it is some kibble. Additionally, toys can break if they’re enjoyed with too much enthusiasm. Toys can also break other things, like table lamps, if you have a dog who solves problems like the Hulk.
If the toy is adjustable, always start on the easiest setting, even if your dog is pretty good at other food toys. The last thing we want is for the dog to quit a toy because they think it’s impossible.
If your dog isn’t interested, thinks this game is stupid, and doesn’t want to do it, then pick up the toy. Don’t feed them the rest of their meal; just pick up the toy for now. Try again in half an hour. Set the toy back down, bat it or roll it around so a few pieces of kibble come out. Sometimes it also helps to toss kibble next to the toy as the dog explores it, and pretend that it the food came out of the toy. You can even reward your dog with additional food for interacting with the toy. Encourage them, tell them they’re doing great, and just generally cheerlead. Your patience will pay off eventually.
Here is a list of food toys that I have tested myself. Start there and see what your own dog thinks.
If your dog is a fast eater, you might already be familiar with slow bowls. These are dishes that have some sort of obstruction in them that prevents the dog from gobbling up their kibble in one giant inhalation. These are great beyond just as kibble-holders, however.
Try spreading wet dog food in the bottom of a slow bowl. Another option here is low-sodium chicken or beef broth frozen into the bowl—you can even toss bits of vegetable in there, like frozen soup. A dusting of shredded cheese in these things can keep a dog busy for a surprising number of minutes as well.
You don’t have to buy a slow bowl to get the same effect. Ice cube trays are an easy alternative. A muffin tin also makes a perfectly good slow bowl, and cheaper, too. A muffin tin flipped over and smeared with wet food is great. It’s even better if you freeze it.