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Are Food Puzzles for Dogs Mean?

by Dennis ODonnell on April 29, 2020

Are food puzzles mean? This is a question we hear quite a bit from concerned and very caring pet parents who assume by adding a mental challenge to the process of eating or treating they will somehow be frustrating their dog or being unnecessarily mean to him. 

Much of this concern comes from humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize their pet and assume they perceive the world as we do. We do it all the time! But in this particular case, dogs and humans are very different. Where humans lead with their minds, driven to analyze and assess every situation they are in, and weigh the cost of energy invested against the benefits of the potential reward; dogs are stimulus-driven and are led through the world by their nose. And they have instincts we don’t have – to forage, hunt, dig and pounce.

Specific to food and treats, the challenge and fun for a dog is in the hunt. Think about how your dog acts as soon as he walks out the door – his nose goes into overdrive and he is focused on ferreting out and deciphering every scent he passes by. In constant motion, the nose of a dog has 300 million olfactory receptors allowing it to smell 10,000 – 100,000 times better than us mere mortals. Dogs take great joy in using their nose to experience the world, and in fact, the world is just one large melting pot of smells to a dog.

When you offer a dog a food puzzle, you are engaging a part of his brain that loves the work, the challenge and the experience. There aren’t many situations in today’s world when a dog needs to think. There are millions of bored, under-stimulated dogs in the United States that would benefit mentally, emotionally and physically from a few minutes of thought-provoking problem solving each day. The benefits are plentiful:

1// It will keep your dog young. Enrichment activities provide mental and physical exercise, keeping the mind sharp and the body fit. With a healthy mind and body, the length and quality of life are increased.

2// It will make your dog tired. Thinking, problem solving and physical activity are all exhausting. And as the old (and true) saying goes, “A tired dog is a good dog.” And a good dog gets positive attention and has a better bond with its owner, which is really all your dog wants.

3// It keeps life interesting. Can you imagine endless days with nothing to do? It sounds like a great vacation idea, but if that was your whole life, it would be extraordinarily boring. Enrichment breaks up the day, tosses in something new and triggers thought. It literally gives your dog a job.

4// It gives them the right thing to do. When all of your dog’s instincts tell him to bark, dig and chew, it’s hard for him to know how to channel that energy. Enrichment activities build on these innate behaviors and give your dog an appropriate outlet for his favorite fun.

So, when you think of food puzzles, don’t think of them in terms of how you would like to eat out of one. Dogs are their own breed of animal, one that gains great joy from activities that stimulate, challenge and reward them – all through the use of their awesomely powerful sniffer.


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