Making the Most of Mealtime

Rebecca uses food rewards while out for a walk with Story. 

Rebecca uses food rewards while out for a walk with Story. 

HOW TO USE FOOD AS DAILY ENRICHMENT FOR YOUR DOG.

CHANGE UP THE ROUTINE

What is your dog’s favorite time of the day? For my dogs, it’s mealtime! If I had my dogs rank their favorite things on a scale of 1-10, I’m sure eating would be a 15. Nothing can make my dogs’ tails wag faster than seeing me reach for the kibble. In the past, the dogs would drool, jump up and down, bark, run in circles, run around the room, and create a general ruckus—all because they were excited to see their food bowls. 

Feeding from a bowl was a convenient routine for me, but after years of putting food in a bowl for my dogs to gulp down in less than a minute, I realized that I was wasting fantastic opportunities. If I made some changes, I could bond with my dogs, challenge them mentally, and extend their happiness past 60 seconds. There are so many ways to enrich a dog’s life during mealtime.

BEYOND THE BOWL, ALL THE WAY TO PUZZLES

There are a variety of choices for dispensing food for your dog, all more exciting than placing a lump of food in a bowl. A number of these options are toys that can even be used while your dog is crated, to make crate time more enjoyable.   Buster Cubes, Tug-A-Jugs, Tricky Treat Balls, Kong Wobblers, and other toys are designed to hold varying amounts of dry food or treats. They dispense one or two pieces of food at a time as the dog plays with the toy. (If you feed canned or raw foods, try stuffing a KONG toy or a sterilized femur bone.) 

Treat-dispensing toys are fantastic both for releasing constructive energy in active dogs and for getting more sedentary dogs up and moving. They relieve boredom and offer an alternative behavior for dogs prone to inappropriate chewing. The toys can even relieve stress in some dogs by providing an outlet for nervous energy, giving the dog something else to focus on instead of the worry. Treat-dispensing toys also help dogs learn to think and problem-solve as they discover new ways to make the toys deliver food. They provide enrichment and nourishment all in one!

There is a full line of puzzle toys to challenge your pup. Dogs learn to pull levers, push blocks, rotate disks, and remove pieces to get to food. Many toys offer ways to increase the difficulty of obtaining food so that your dog continues to be challenged even after discovering how the toy works. Who needs a boring ol’ bowl of dog food when you can eat your food out of a Tornado, a Dog Casino, a Dog Turbo, or a Dog Magic?

HIDE AND SEEK

Since dogs love to seek out food, a game of hide and seek can be the perfect way to eat a meal. Hide little piles food in various locations around your house. On the bottom shelf of the bookcase, behind the chair, under the coffee table, and beside the couch are all good places to start. Lead your dog into the room and tell him to “go find.” You may have to point out the first hiding places, but soon your dog will learn to use his keen canine nose to find the others. As your dog learns how to play the game, gradually increase the difficulty by hiding treats in higher or harder-to-reach places.

DINNER AND A SHOW

We would all love to have more time to train our pets, but sometimes it’s tough to fit training time into a busy day. The solution is to turn mealtime into a training session. When you feed your dog each day, an extra five minutes for training time is easy to work into your schedule, and we clicker trainers know that you can accomplish a lot in a five-minute session! 

Does your dog know some fun tricks or behaviors? Have him show off for you. Ask him for sit, down, or shake. Reward each behavior with a few pieces of kibble or, if you feed raw or canned food, present the food in a food tube or on a spoon. Does your dog need help with leash-walking skills? Teach him that hanging out on your left side is a fun place to be by feeding his meal from there. Walk around your house and hand out kibble by your left leg—soon your pup will be glued to your side! 

Why stop at old tricks? Imagine how many new things you could teach your dog if you worked with him at every meal. Sometimes I have something particular in mind that I want to train my dogs to do; other times I will just sit down and see what they offer. Be creative! A head dip can become “shame,” looking up can become “where are the airplanes?” My dog Karma knows that she should look snooty (by looking over her shoulder) when I ask, “Are you a snob?” These three new tricks are easy to capture with just a head movement. After that, the possibilities are endless! Two five-minute sessions a day can produce a lot of tricks! 

If you are looking for a less structured way to have fun feeding your dog, and if you like the idea of capturing new behaviors with a click, try the “show me something else” game. This game is easy to play and is a wonderful mental challenge for a dog. The goal of the game is for your dog to show you a different behavior in order to earn a click and some food. Once a behavior has been shown, it cannot be repeated to earn a reward. 

The “show me” game is a fantastic way to encourage your dog to offer new behaviors. When I play with my dog Karma, she offers me many behaviors, including sit, down, turn around, spin, play dead, roll over, paw raise, head dip, look up, cross paws, and lay with her head between her paws. Sometimes she even combines behaviors to make new ones! I’ll never forget the time she put front paw raise, back up, and look up all together. She looked like she was skipping backward! 

Another fun variation of the “show me” game is to add a prop and reward your dog for creating new ways to interact with the prop. When I introduced a road cone to my dog Abbi during this game, Abbi touched it with her nose and both paws, knocked it over, stood on it, jumped over it, picked it up, pushed it, stuck her nose in it, sat beside it, and even took a bow next to it! I doubt that I could have come up with that many things to do with a cone!

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

For fun in the sun, there are ways to feed your dog outside. In the warmer months, cool your dog off with a treat-dispensing “pupsicle!” Fill a small plastic bucket with water and throw in bits of meat, treats, KONGS stuffed with peanut butter, or canned or raw food. Freeze until solid, pop the frozen block out of the container, and place it outside on a cookie sheet. Your dog will enjoy chewing and licking the ice, discovering tasty treats and toys as the ice melts. Depending on the size of the ice block and the heat of the day, this treat can provide hours of fun for your pup!

If your dog enjoys treat-dispensing toys inside, he will love them outside as well. Many toys are durable enough for outdoor play. Grass, trees, rocks, and other elements of nature can provide a more challenging surface to play on than your carpet or wood floors. 

Another great way to feed your dog outside is to tap into his wild side. Dogs are a predator species, and predators spend time in the wild hunting for food. Dogs instinctively enjoy seeking food, one of the reasons why dogs respond so well to clicker training. They have found a way to seek food from humans. While a backyard can be a boring place, you can easily organize a treasure hunt! Scatter your dog’s entire meal across the yard (kibble works best, of course). Your dog will spend hours looking for every morsel. Food tossing is a great way to give a dog an alternative to barking, fence running, digging, and chewing your lawn furniture.

BENEFITS GALORE

Moving beyond the bowl and finding new ways to feed your dog produces many benefits. Boredom and destructive behaviors decrease while creativity and constructive activity increases. If your dog eats very quickly, taking away the bowl and feeding via a puzzle toy, treat dispenser, or by hand in a training session will slow down your dog and decrease the likelihood of bloat, poor digestion, and other problems associated with fast ingestion. 

Best of all, when you feed your dog in a training session, you’re not only training your dog, but building a stronger bond. Your dog loves to eat, loves to find ways to find food. When you hand-feed your dog during his meal, you become the source of that coveted meal. Your dog will enjoy spending this quality time with you and, chances are, you will enjoy spending the extra special time with him! 


 

Rebecca Lynch is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Training and Behavior. With 15yrs experience as a positive reinforcement dog trainer and veterinary technician, she provides loving care for dogs boarding and training in her home. 

Introducing Dogs

photo credit:  Kim Benson

photo credit: Kim Benson

How to safely introduce your new dog to your furry pal. 

Introducing your new dog to your current dogs can be a worrisome experience. Will the get along? Will there be a fight? Will they be best friends? How you introduce your new dog now can greatly influence how your dogs interact in the future. 

Setting the stage.

When introducing dogs, its best to start on neutral territory. Your current dog may be more prone to act defensively if the introduction is in his own home. 

Begin outside with both dogs on leash. Keep the leashes nice and loose as tension on the leash causes tension in your dog. Try to remain relaxed, as your dog will pick up on the change in your body language and react differently. Often, when people introduce dogs, they are tense - breathing differently, have stiff movements, have a change in the tone of their voice.  All of these changes influence how the dogs will respond to each other. 

The nose knows.

Unlike humans who rely first on their vision, a dog’s most important sense is smell. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than our own. Dogs experience the world first with their nose, then their eyes or ears. This is why dogs usually first interact by sniffing each other’s genitals and rears. They obtain lots of important information such as the other dog’s sex, reproductive status, emotional state, diet and more.  

A way to speed up this process is to apply the dogs’ scent to each other. Take a cloth and gently wipe the genitals of one of the dogs. Wipe the cloth with the scent across the face and back of the other dog. Repeat with the second dog so that the dogs have scent applied to each other. When introductions are finally made, the dogs will smell their own scent on the other dog and feel more comfortable, as if they already have met. 

Out for a walk.

Start by calmly walking the dogs parallel to each other at a distance where they are not actively trying to get to each other. An average distance is 15-20’. Walk the same path back and forth until the dogs are relaxed, allowing the dogs to sniff the ground and investigate things. After several passes, swap paths so that the each dog is walking in the other’s trail.
By walking dogs parallel to each other, then crossing paths, you give the dogs time to get accustomed with each other’s scent. This helps the dogs become familiar with each other before they are physically interacting.

While you are parallel walking, the walkers should reward their dog with tiny, bite-sized treats, for calmly looking at the other dog without showing any negative behaviors. This will help build a positive association between the dogs. 
When your dogs are relaxed and calm at a distance from each other, begin gradually decreasing the distance between the dogs without allowing them to greet. If at any time one or both of the dogs begin displaying agitation, increase the distance between the dogs until they are comfortable again.

The meet and greet.

Once your dogs are comfortable being near each other, its time to let them greet. It is very important not to allow the dogs to greet nose-to-nose while on-lead. Face-to-face greetings are confrontational in the dog world. Instead, dogs prefer to greet nose-to-tail. This is far more polite for dogs - a dog handshake.  As mentioned above, dogs receive a lot of information from sniffing each other’s rears. 

Its best to first allow dogs to greet off-lead in a neutral area. If a neutral area is not available, a fenced-in yard is the next best thing. 

If using your yard, allow your new dog to visit the yard first without your other dog present. Investigating will give him another opportunity to get used to the current dog’s scent. Swap dogs and let your old dog explore the area. 

Bring both dogs into the yard on-lead. Once both dogs are comfortable, release the dogs to visit each other. It is best to remove leashes, as leashes can cause tension with dogs. If you’re concerned there may be a fight, you can drop the leashes so that they can be picked up to move the dogs away from each other. 

If there is a fight off-lead, do not try to break up the fight by grabbing collars. People are often bitten when trying to break up fights by reaching near the dogs’ heads. Instead, lift both dogs’ hind legs off the ground. This will often be enough to diffuse a fight. 

Allow the dogs short visits with each other. If there is signs of tension - hackles raised, stiff posturing, growling, snapping - calmly call the dogs away from each other to give them a break. It is completely normal for dogs to display these behaviors - dogs are allowed to say, “back off” - but it is best to diffuse the situation before it escalates. 

When you call the dogs away, be sure to do so in a happy, calm voice. If you are demanding, you will add additional stress to the situation and may actually cause aggression. Punishing the dogs for growling or snapping will also add to the tension and could trigger a fight. 

Introducing in the home.

If you don’t have access to a neutral area or a backyard, choose the largest area of your home for greeting.  Be sure that any resources are picked up and removed from the area - bones, rawhides, favorite toys, and anything else that the dogs may feel the need to guard. 

Place your current dog in another area and let your new dog explore the room. While he is exploring, he will be leaving his scent in the house. If you have an item of the new dog’s, you can leave it with your dog for scent familiarity. Swap dogs to allow your dog to smell the new dog’s scent in the room. 

Just as with the yard greeting, begin with them on-lead on opposite sides of the room. Reward each dog for looking at the other dog without reacting. Once they are comfortable, release the dogs. 

Allow short visits, calmly interrupting any tense posturing, growling or snapping. As the dogs become familiar with each other, you can allow them longer visits. 

Maintaining the peace.

Now that introductions have been made, its important to keep the peace. Keep the dogs separate when you are away from the home. Feed them separately to avoid resource guarding. Your old dog has seniority in the home. Teach the dogs that the old dog will receive things first - attention, getting to go out of doorways, food, treats, etc. By attending to your old dog first, you create predictably and order. The dogs will learn to wait for their turn, rather than jockeying for position.

A happy coexistence

First impressions do matter. Its worth taking the time to introduce your dogs in a calm, controlled manner to set stage for future happy coexistence. Safety first! If you are introducing dogs with a history of dog aggression, or if you are worried there may be a fight, it is best to seek the help of a qualified trainer or behaviorist when making first introductions. 

Rebecca Lynch is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Training and Behavior. With 15yrs experience as a positive reinforcement dog trainer and veterinary technician, she provides loving care for dogs boarding and training in her home.