How to make mealtimes more fun for your dog
Does your dog get bored easily? Do they eat too quickly? Are you stuck in the same old routine when it comes to feeding your dog? Making meal times more fun and/or more challenging is an excellent way to address all of these things and more! Commonly referred to as “feeding enrichment”, these fun food games can reduce the amount of air swallowed whilst eating (reducing chances of bloat and other gastric complications), slow down their food consumption, add an extra challenge or game into their day, entertain their busy brain, and strengthen your bond with your dog in the process.
Frozen Treats - roll some wet dog food into balls about the size of a golf ball (a little smaller for tiny dogs) and place on baking paper on a tray and stick in the freezer for a few hours. Alternatively, you can mix wet and dry food or dry food and water (you can even stir in a little xylitol-free peanut butter or diluted marmite) and put this into ice cube trays or small plastic cups and put these in the freezer, just make sure to pop them out of their containers before giving them to your dog. You can then give these to your dog either as a long-lasting treat, a refresher in warm weather (it MUST be coming soon) or as their meal. Be aware they can get messy, so you may want to put a towel under their frozen goodie or give this to them in an easy to clean area. (Top tip: you can stick a dentastick or similar shaped treat into one of your balls/cups/cubes to make a doggie lolly!)
Pass the Parcel or Scrunchies – get some newspaper or old wrapping paper (having removed all of the tape) and use this to wrap up some dry food. No need to tape or tie it shut, just scrunch the paper around the food. You can make this more challenging by doing this over several layers of paper, just like a scrunched up pass the parcel! You can use this for a meal, or you can put a few treats in there just for a fun little challenge. Once you have made your masterpiece you can give this to your dog – beware, they will probably leave a wake of shredded paper, so be prepared to collect all this once they are done. (Top tip: if you do this in summer, you can make the centre of your pass the parcel one of your frozen treats, for added fun!)
Lucky Dip – for this one you will need some old newspaper or wrapping paper and a cardboard box (or eggbox/small box for little dogs). All you need to do is roughly shred and scrunch some paper and put it in the cardboard box, and then throw in either some treats or your dog’s dry food meal, mix it all up, and then let your dog loose so they can dive into the box and try and find all of their tasty morsels! (Top tip: if your dog starts to find this too easy, you can up the difficulty by sealing the box, and cutting windows in the sides so they have to work a little harder.)
Scatter Feeding - simply scatter your dog’s food around the garden or a room. This encourages them to use their nose and tap into that natural foraging instinct. Dogs love this and usually see it as a game. (Top tip: basic scatter feeding works best with dry food, but you can use a selection of small, frozen goodies if you are scatter feeding outside, or you can scatter some small scrunchies or pass the parcels to really mix it up.)
Training Session - use your dog's meal as a reward for a short training session. This could be strengthening a command they already know or learning a new one. Sometimes it is easy to forget that mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise, and dogs love having an opportunity to work for their food. Use this method for a happy brain and a happier tum!
Trail Hunt - this is easier with two people. One person stays in a room with the dog and the other lays a trail of their food leading to a reward at the end of the trail. (Top tip: the reward can be anything your dog loves, such as a food jackpot, their favourite toy with a rewarding game at the end, or the prize could be you with lots of praise and fuss!)
Slow and Puzzle Feeders - could your dog benefit from a slow or puzzle feeder? Puzzle and slow feeders have the potential to be life-saving, especially for deep-chested breeds as they reduce the risk of bloat, and they can reduce flatulence in greedy dogs! Eager or speedy eaters often ingest air as well as food. This can cause flatulence, or the air in the stomach can cause it to swell up and bloat, which is potentially life threatening. Puzzle feeders not only act as slow feeders, but they allow your dog to get valuable mental stimulation in the form of a fun food game! Having to problem-solve in this way is extremely beneficial to your dog. It reduces boredom, which in turn alleviates frustration, and can help to reduce problem behaviours such as excessive chewing. Slow and puzzle feeders can be used to feed entire meals or you can just put a few treats in a puzzle feeder for a fun challenge. (Top tip: if your dog has never used a puzzle feeder before, you may want to start with some of the simpler versions, and work your way up to the more complicated ones as your dog gets the hang of problem solving!)
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Hand feeding - if safe to do so, it can be fun to add hand feeding to your dog’s regular feeding routine. With hand feeding, you don't need to ask your dog to do anything - just have a peaceful bonding session over their normal food. It can be a lovely experience for your dog, as it involves one-to-one time, special attention, and food. They will eat more slowly, and most dogs find gentle hand feeding very relaxing. Just feed one kibble at a time, or small pieces of wet food until you have fed the entire meal. (Top tip: you can make this extra special by keeping the environment calm and relaxing with no distractions – just you and your furry best friend.)
Interestingly, studies have found that dogs fed with slow feeders, puzzle feeders or feeding enrichment methods are less likely to overeat, probably as these methods give your dog an opportunity to work for their food, and carry out natural foraging and scavenging behaviours, and make them feel more like they have had a real meal. So not only are all of these forms of feeding enrichment fun and excellent for bonding and stimulation, they can also help with weight control and work excellently alongside a vet approved diet to help your portly pooch lose a few!