Before we start, let’s go over some frequent questions.
How often should I feed interactive meals? As often as you can. I recommend at least one meal a day, but if that seems overwhelming then just do the best you can. A dog could and should eat every single meal of his entire life interactively, if you’re game for it. But don’t let it overwhelm you, either. Remember, some is better than none! If you need to ease into a new schedule, that’s totally fine.
Should I go cold turkey? That depends on you! Do you function better with black-and-white rules, or are you more of a gray area person?
How much time does this take? That also depends. Many of these games don’t require more than five minutes, or just being in the same room as your dog while they work on a puzzle. Others are far more human-centric, more of a game you play together.
Stuffing Kongs can seem time consuming, but gets faster as you get better. Make a habit of thinking one or two meals ahead for your dog. (I say this, but I often don’t think ahead to what I’m going to have for lunch until it’s 2pm and I’m starving to death, so just do your best.)
This sounds messy. How do I keep my dog from ruining my carpets? If you aren’t fond of the idea of raw bones, slobbery food toys and kibble dust on your floors, you can feed your dog inside their crate. You could use a baby gate or exercise pen to confine your dog to a specific area like a bathroom or the kitchen so it’s easy to clean. During the summer, outdoors in a fenced yard is a great place for dinners al fresco. And if that’s not an option, a basement or garage could work too. Additionally, you could train your dog to work on chewing projects in their beds by always handing the chewing item to them when they’re in their bed, and redirecting them back into their dog bed whenever they get up to move.
Will this make my dog steal food? Stealing food is a different issue, and something that can be trained pretty easily, if you’re consistent. Look up “it’s your choice” training and impulse control exercises. What and how you feed your dog her own meals shouldn’t mean that she also gets to eat yours as well.
Will this turn my dog into an awful, mannerless monster who demands “people food” all the time? No.
If your dog is already a mannerless monster who demands things all the time, then these games and ideas will help you channel that energy into something more productive than mugging you at the dinner table.
If your dog has lovely table manners, then congratulations, you did a great job. This won’t impact your good dog training.
Here’s the thing about begging: dogs do what works. If soulful eyes, whining, pawing, and slobbering breaks your mental steel and forces you to share your popcorn, then your dog knows she has that power. She’ll keep doing it. If that stuff doesn’t work, ever, and never gets her a single scrap, she knows that too. She might still do it, because the power of popcorn is truly great, but she’s not really expecting you to fall for it.
My own dogs are absolutely allowed to beg, but they have a few rules: they must do it quietly, and they must do it from their bed on the far side of the dining room. As long as they stay in that bed, they can stare and drool and sigh all they want. And it even works! I reward them for laying in that bed, staring wistfully at my dinner. Why? Because it’s so much nicer than having them under the table, nudging my knee, whining, and trying to crawl into my lap. I reward my dogs’ begging because it’s polite, patient begging on my terms. That’s called compromise, and it’s an enormous part of living with dogs!
However, certain kinds of games and ideas are likely to make your dog find specific items or places very rewarding, and to associate them with food. Additionally, if your dog is the kind of dog that regularly digs through the kitchen trash, teaching them to work for food might make give them problem-solving skills that makes them better at that annoying and dangerous habit. The best thing to do if you have a garbage can hunter is to secure your trash bin in a way that the dog can’t open or access it. This is the drawback of living with smart animals—they’re smart even when it is inconvenient for us.
You must make your own assessment and decision about what’s right for your own dogs. But feeding your dog interactively enriches their lives and provides a needed outlet for mental energy—because of this, the costs are worth the payoff of a happier, more satisfied dog.
Can I feed interactively without feeding my dog “people food”? You absolutely can.
But remember, dogs did not evolve eating from a bag of Iams. Dog food was invented in the 20th century, and before that dogs ate what we ate, or what they found or caught. Food made and marketed for dogs can be healthy stuff, or it can also be highly processed and full of weird ingredients.
Really high-quality dog treats can get expensive. What’s the difference between that $10 bag of dehydrated chicken and the chicken you have left over in your fridge? Not much besides where you bought it.
Is this expensive? It can be, if you buy all the stuff. You don’t have to buy anything, though, to change the way you feed your dog. Try dumping their bowl out in the yard, burying their kibble in their toy box or a laundry basket full of blankets and towels, or teach them to follow a kibble trail.
How crazy do I have to be? You can be as crazy as you want. Interactive feeding can be as simple as using a few well-loved food toys, or as complicated as a dedicated chest freezer and closet full of doohickeys, boxes, and weird junk that might make a fun dog puzzle. You’ll figure out where you fall on that spectrum pretty naturally, but do try out things you might not initially consider “easy.” You might discover that the benefits are worth the effort required.
Will strange food make my dog sick? Dogs evolved pretty strong stomachs. They eat rotten stuff and poop and vomit and dirt and other things that would make a human ill. But they’re absolutely still susceptible to food poisoning, and can get intestinal blockages from large chunks of indigestible objects.
But here’s the truth: dogs benefit a lot more from eating diversely than they suffer for it.
Yes, your dog might get an upset tummy from a certain food. I get an upset tummy every time I eat at my favorite Sichuan restaurant, but does that make me order the food less spicy? Apparently not. Okay, maybe I’m not a great example.
Occasional ick is part of eating a varied and interesting diet. Observe how your dog reacts to new foods, and act accordingly. Don’t feed a ton of something they’ve never tried before—introduce foods slowly. Be sure to memorize, print or save what’s on the Do Not Feed List. But don’t be afraid to experiment. You’ll do them more good than harm.