Haven't we all been to Zoo's and seen the sad, bored animals laying around with nothing to do. It bothers me so much in fact, that I don't even go to zoo's or animal parks at all anymore. Thankfully, in recent years, behaviorist's have discovered that mental enrichment goes a long way toward busting their boredom. By mimicking their natural environment as much as possible and providing them with mental challenges in their daily lives, they've helped them become happier and healthier and much easier to deal with.
I know, I know, you're thinking, but my dog doesn't live in a zoo! True, however...our dog's are somewhat "captive" these days. Home all alone while we're working, running the kids around, and busy with everyday life. It can be difficult even on normal days to get them out and give them your undivided attention. Add in the hustle and bustle of the holidays and we have even less time. Utilizing work to eat toys or brain toys as they're more commonly called, can help Fido feel tired and relaxed and ease the pressure on us to get him out when we're already stressed with all of our own goings on. So...I'm here to help!
I put Brain Toys into two categories. Those that your dog lays down with and calmly licks and chews until they're empty, and those that your dog must push and roll around to dispense the food. I use both, and I use them for different reasons. I like Kong type toys to keep my dogs quiet when they have to be contained in their crates, or when I want a quiet hour to drink my coffee on a Sunday morning. I use the interactive type brain toys to feed them their dinner on days when we haven't been able to take a walk or do any training. Their entire meal fits inside and they must work for their dinner. They get fed and tired at the same time. Think about how dogs ate before they became domesticated. Nobody sat a bowl of food down for them twice a day. They had to scavenge or hunt in order to eat. Modern dogs still possess that instinct.
So, let's get started on some stuffing tips: It doesn't have to be difficult. Use whatever your dogs enjoys. At first you might need to use something really enticing to get her interested, but once she figures out that the toy is full of food, most dogs will dive right in. Make it easy for her at first by loosely filling it with her kibble mixed with some canned or rehydrated freeze dried food. Put a cheese stick, fresh carrot, or dog biscuit sticking out of the end to tease her into investigating further. As she becomes more adept at using it, you can make it more difficult by tightly packing it and freezing it. The more difficult it is for her to get her food out, the longer it will take and the more tired she will be. As far as what to use to stuff your Kong type toys, I like to use my dog's regular kibble since it's part of their meal. (I say part because my dog's entire meal doesn't fit into their Kongs). In order to make it more fun and prevent the kibble from just dropping out, I mix it with canned food and water so that it all sticks together. You can also put the kibble into a food processor and grind it up and then just add water or broth to make it stick together and stay inside the Kong.
When I feed a meal from an interactive toy such as a Tug-a-jug, Buster Cube, etc, I use only my dog's kibble. You'll want to use something dry so that it doesn't stick to the inside since these toys aren't designed to be licked clean. I also pick them up once they are empty to prevent them being used as chew toys.
Brain toys aren't the only way to tire out your dog when you're short on time. I love to play "find-it" with my dogs. I use Happy Howie's or Red Barn food rolls for the treats. I like these because you can cut them up into the size pieces you need. For find-it, I like the treats to be a little bigger than what I use for training. Then I take my 3 dogs out to the yard and I toss the treats one at a time, as far as I can for them to search for. They run back and forth sniffing out and eating the treats. It takes about 10 minutes to play and they end up tired afterwards. This is great for really cold days when you don't want to be outside for very long.
Spending a few minutes teaching something new, a trick or new behavior will also give your dog some mental stimulation. Your dog will love learning even an easy trick like, give me your paw, or spin. Or, you can get creative and spend a few minutes hear and there teaching something really fun. You'll need to teach it in small increments anyway.
Hopefully these tips will help you cross one thing off you list this season!