For many of our dogs, mealtime is over in a minute or two. Then what? They look for something else to do.
Unfortunately, when dogs are left to find their own entertainment, we aren't usually pleased with their choices.
"They're not going to sit down and turn on the TV," says trainer Joan Mayer of Santa Barbara, Calif. "They'll chew up the couch or bark all day."
Ask trainers how you should feed your dog and many will say you're wasting a golden opportunity by feeding out of a bowl.
At any pet store you'll see balls, puzzles and other food-dispensing objects. (The Kong is the most familiar.) Some owners worry about weight gain from extra goodies if they use them. In fact, you can use these toys to feed your dog's regular diet. If you feed dry kibble, toss it in and you're good to go. Or you can plug the hole of a Kong with canned food and freeze it for a longer-lasting meal.
Getting animals to use their natural behavior to get food is part of what zoos call "enrichment." Rather than serving a bear out of a dish, say, keepers hide food so the animal has to search and dig as it would in the wild. This technique helps reduce stress-related behaviors like pacing.
It works for dogs too, as dog trainer and former zookeeper Stephanie DeGesero DeYoung of Abilene, Texas, showed in her thesis, using the same research method used to evaluate enrichment techniques in zoos. She found that giving dogs a stuffed Kong reduced the number of stress behaviors observed, even after they were finished with it.
Tearing things apart is a basic instinct for a meat-eater, but when a dog gets that out of his system by digging breakfast and dinner out of a dispenser, he'll feel less need to shred the furniture.
Some advice for dog owners who want to get started feeding their animals this way:
First, if you've got multiple dogs, separate them to prevent conflict.
Second, some dogs need help at first, as trainer Kate Abbott of Vista, Calif., found the first time she gave a stuffed Kong to her Jack Russell, Qwill: "He was very interested, but after a few licks shrugged and went off to chase lizards."
Abbott put food in a clear plastic bottle so Qwill could see it, and then cut off the top so the food fell out easily.
Food toys can also be made with items you already have at home. DeYoung suggests putting food in the cups of a muffin tin and covering them with tennis balls. Or you can put food in an empty cereal box, tape it shut and cut a small hole so your dog gets a hint of what's inside — a toy that may reveal the vicious carnivore inside the cutest little pup as he shreds it to pieces.