Our early domesticated dogs had to solve a lot of problems for themselves. Even seventy years ago, our dogs had more to figure out: How to catch that mouse in the barn? How to cross that busy street? How to find my way back home? How to tell everyone Timmy fell in that stupid well again?
Dogs have much less complicated lives now—at least, outwardly. They still retain complex problem-solving capabilities, though. Sometimes giving your dog a problem and letting them solve it on their own can be extremely satisfying for them.
Save your small cardboard boxes—crackers, cereal, internet shopping, whatever—and stock up on painter’s tape. You can put anything in these boxes for your dog: a filled Kong, a handful of kibble, a half dozen treats, a bully stick, a raw bone, a few baby carrots, whatever will motivate them to open the box.
At first you’ll want to tape up the box pretty loosely, using the painter’s tape just to barely seal the flaps. If it’s a thick, sturdy box, you might even leave one flap partly open so the dog can get a good whiff of what’s inside.
If your dog “wins” really quickly, great—that’s the point, as at this stage we’re just showing them that they can get things out of these boxes if they try. Next time make it a little harder, and then a little harder still.
Now here’s the part where it gets fun. Once your dog understands that they can get food out of the box, they’ll probably start tearing up the box itself in the process. That means you can be a lot more ruthless about sealing the box. Make it so your dog HAS to rip up the box to get it open. Make them work for it!
Warning: you’ve probably already wondered this, and you’re right. You will end up with a dog that knows how to open boxes. Do not leave your Honey Nut Cheerios where the dog can reach them. I have also come home to pre-opened FedEx boxes. I choose to consider this helpful instead of annoying.
In the same way as boxes, paper bags can be an easy way to create a problem for your dog to solve.
Start with lightweight paper lunch bags, which are much easier to tear and manipulate than big heavy paper grocery bags. The same stuff you might put in a box can go in a bag, but at first, instead of taping the bag shut, you can just fold it or crinkle it closed. Your dog might open it or they might tear it a bit—either way is fine.
Once your dog is ripping bags open with enthusiasm, go back to an easy-to-open fold, but now tape it shut and hand it over. We don’t want to make it too much work so the dog gives up, but we do want the challenge to get a little bit harder every time. Observe your dog. When they’re pros at this, then start over—but with those big crazy-thick grocery bags.
Something from Nothing
Just outside the door into my garage I have a bin full of clean recycling, empty small packaging (like the boxes from tea bags), paper towel and toilet paper tubes, empty tissue boxes, small paper shopping totes, discarded rags, yogurt tubs, old newspapers—junk, basically. Things that would get recycled or thrown away.
This is a treasure box when you’re building interactive, enriching feeding games. Get creative; take your cues from engineering students and kids with building toys and see what different parts might connect, what different materials can do, et cetera.
If you feed dry foods of any kind, a great starting point is a box or tub with toilet paper tubes stuffed in there until it looks kind of like a beehive. Scatter the food so it falls down into the tubes. Your dog will either have to knock the whole thing around until stuff comes out, or they’ll have to remove some of the tubes to get their snoot down to the bottom of the container.
A chunk of food in a paper towel tube with the ends rolled or pinched shut is a great starter tear-apart toy.
Newspaper or packing paper makes a great material for foraging games. Wad the paper up into balls of various sizes, toss them in a big paper shopping tote or a box, and scatter dry food over it. If this is easy, next time make the paper balls around bits of food. Old rags, towels and blankets make great alternatives here too, although tugging-minded dogs might tear these to shreds, so don’t use anything you don’t mind finding holes in.
Sometimes when I am feeling very goofy and I have wrapping paper or a newspaper on hand, I will make my dogs a present. I like to make a big fuss of it while I’m wrapping it, because I am a mean dog-mom and like to taunt my dogs with my opposable thumbs.
Get something good out—unwrap a string cheese, or cut a chunk of roast chicken, or get a raw bone or bully stick out. Then get all the wrapping stuff and put it on the table while you’re talking to the dog about how awesome this present is going to be. Really talk it up. Your dog should be fascinated.
Carefully wrap whatever it is you’ve got for them. Make the wrapping very oversized—so, for example, that string cheese should come out wrapped like it’s a shirt box. If you can’t tell, this game is about drama, not understatement. You also don’t want your dog to just swallow the thing whole, wrapping paper and all. So make it big.
Go ahead and add a ribbon or a bow. This is supposed to be ridiculous.
You can just give the dog the present right now. But if your dog likes elaborate games, you can go hide the present.
Show the dog the present. Then, crate your dog, or lock them behind a door, or have someone hang on to their collar. If your dog has an awesome down-stay, maybe try that (though they will be tempted to cheat).
And then: time to find the present! You hid it, where did you hide it? OMG where did that present go? It was just here! Where did it go? Help your dog search for it.
By now the dog should be scrambling around the house looking for whatever it is you wrapped and hid for them. Keep the energy high. Be excited. When they find the present, you can help out by making the first tear if you need to, but try to let them figure out how to get it open.
Warning: your dog will assume that all presents are for her from now on. Unless all presents actually ARE all for her, and you don’t mind her opening them early, you might want to keep her away from the Christmas tree.