Food Puzzles: Unleash Your Pet's Wild Side

Pet Doctor with Marty Becker

Pursuing food was an all-consuming life for our dogs' ancestors. While it might seem an improvement to have meals handed to you, that's not really true. The mental and physical lives of pets suffer when their minds and bodies lie idle.

Food puzzles are an easy way to make the modern dog work for a living, and become happier and healthier besides.

Our dogs' wild relatives -- wolves and coyotes -- spend nearly all their waking hours in pursuit of food. In the wild, whether scavenging or hunting, canids have to work to find what they eat. Nature, after all, doesn't conveniently leave nourishment in bite-size pieces. "Fast food" means quick to find, requiring six steps in graduate-level hunting: prey, pursue, apprehend, kill, compete with the rest of the pack and, finally, consume.

For today's house dogs, though, eating means simply a trip to the food bowl, a kindergarten-level skill that has but a single step: consumption. Our dogs are still wired to work, but they've become permanent couch potatoes that are lucky to get a couple of short walks a day.

They're "born retired," and this out-of-the-wild lifestyle often means behavioral problems: excess barking, leash pulling or chewing furniture when they need mind and body stimulation they're no longer getting. Too often, these problems put their lives at risk, when fed-up pet owners dump them at animal shelters, where they may not find new homes.

And it's all so unnecessary, when you can give a dog a food puzzle to work off energy, work their brain, enrich their lives.

Food puzzles are toys designed to be filled with kibble, small treats, even frozen foods that encourage dogs to work to get to the goodies. Instead of mindlessly emptying the food bowl, the dog has to hunt to bring down the "prey" and work for a long time to eat what would have once taken a minute to do. Eating out of food puzzles takes memory, skill and manipulation, all of which help our dogs find healthier, less-destructive ways to release pent-up energy.

The Benefits of Food Puzzles for Your Pet

Food puzzles offer as much variety as there are kinds of dogs. They are designed for puppies, for older dogs, for hard chewers, for the tiniest dogs and the most giant. There are puzzles to match a dog's intelligence, challenging the canines to the genius level in pursuit of their supper.

But you don't even have to use a puzzle: You can hide food and make your dog work to find it. When a dog's kibble is scattered in the grass, every day is a holiday, bringing the fun of an Easter egg hunt.

So throw away that food bowl, or at least make your dog work for most of what you used to put in there. With food puzzles, you unleash the wild thing, and your dog will be happier -- and so will you.

Recommended food puzzles manufacturers (listed alphabetically): 1. Kong (Kong, Kong Wobbler, Kong Genius, Ziggies)

2. Premier (Linkables, Busy Buddy line including Kibble Nibble, Tug-a-Jug, Squirrel Dude)

3. Nina Ottossan

For more of Marty Becker's tips, visit PetConnection.com.

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