March 31, 2008 — -- Can well-fed, comfortably housed dogs show signs of depression or anxiety? Could these signs actually be indicators of chronic pain, or even chronic boredom?
And if it's the latter, could "food puzzles" be part of the answer? Well, let's start from the top.
First, only a cat person could think to ask the former question. But for those of us whose morning routine includes head-cradling, nose-kissing and baby-talk, and then that inevitable rock of guilt in the gut as we leave for work. well, we know there are few loves as profound as a dog's love for his or her human.
And with that love, like many great loves, comes the anguish of perceived betrayal. And retaliation can be vicious.
When I first met James at the ASPCA in 2004, he was 2-years-old. When I kneeled to get a good look at the 40-pound tangle of filthy gray hair, the bearded Collie-sheepdog mix flew into my arms, knocking me backward, covering my face with saliva.
We've been together ever since.
That first long weekend together, he was a joy. We chased rabbits in the graveyard, explored the urban landscape, lay in bed reading the Sunday paper. He gazed at me while I cooked dinner for two -- chicken and rice -- with enormous, almond-colored eyes. I took a photo when he closed them, long eyelashes fluttering, nostrils flared.
Tuesday morning I left for work. He sat at the door, cocked his head to one side and then the other as I grabbed keys and bag but, to his obvious consternation, not his new leash.
When I returned -- disaster.
Vets say that sometimes the solution can be as simple as replacing the bowl of kibble with multiple food puzzles.
Food puzzles are rubber dog toys in which you stuff dry food or treats. The simplest versions look like hand grenades, with a hole at the top. Others resemble preschool toys, and will take a smart dog hours to figure out.
The point, Becker says, is to keep the dog occupied for a good stretch of time while you're gone, making use of the skills nature gave him.
There're three goals for dog caretakers to keep in mind, says veterinary behavioralist Gary Landsberg of Toronto: Meet the animal's social needs by spending time with the dog and going out to play and exercise daily; Provide enrichment for when you're gone; Give the dog a comfortable place to nap.
Becker remembers the first time he introduced his family to food puzzles. "When we first threw out the bowls [to start feeding their dogs with puzzles] my wife, Theresa, thought it seemed cruel."
He says she watched one of their dogs just staring at the puzzle.
"'He looks unhappy,' she said. But I said, 'no, he looks like our son playing video games. He's delightfully frustrated and anxious -- like me playing poker!'"
Chad Dodd, a vet who used to work for a pharmaceutical company and now works for a Kansas-based company that specializes in scientifically formulated dog food, is another puzzle fan.
He says they can be particularly effective for older dogs whose brains could use a workout, or for dogs with separation anxiety -- like my James.
In speaking of the value of keeping a dog occupied during the day, it's easy to jump to the "dogs in the wild" metaphor. To do that takes something of an imaginative leap because dogs have been domesticated for such a long time. Still, it has been estimated that wolves, their closest cousins, spend 75 to 90 percent of their waking hours hunting, scavenging, and fighting off other carnivores.
This food-securing process requires cunning, stealth, and patience -- traits that the modern dog rarely has the chance to fully develop. (Here it should be mentioned that some vets say that dogs in multiple animal homes -- be they fellow dogs, cats, or even birds are better adjusted and develop better cognitive function than those in single pet homes.)