“Throw out your dog’s food bowl.” It’s one of the first things I tell my clients at Journey Dog Training to do.
It’s a first step for dogs with over-excitement, fear, reactivity, or separation-related issues. It’s also what I do with my own dog.
My dog, Barley, has never owned a food bowl. He has puzzle toys and a treat pouch, but no dinner bowl of any kind.
Barley is a dog who earns his meals. He’s not a working dog, and I’m not some sadistic owner, but I recognize how boring his days can be. Asking him to “earn” his dinner is a great way to work his mind and body!
Your dog probably spends a lot of time hanging out alone, waiting for his human to come home. Utilizing a food dispensing toy when you’re not home or food-based training when you are around is a great way to enrich his life and add some excitement to each day!
There are plenty of different options to use instead of a food bowl. Instead of just dumping your dog’s food into a dinner dish, why not try:
Puzzle toys work your dog’s mind and body as they earn their food. They’re different from slow feeders in that they encourage your dog to use his nose or paws to crack a problem of some sort.
However, just like slow feeders, they will slow your dog down as he eats, which can be helpful for dogs that wolf down their food and water in seconds. They also provide much-needed mental stimulation to keep your canine’s brain sharp.
Puzzle toys have other advantages too – for one, they make your dog appreciate his meals more. Working for something actually increases its value. This is called the IKEA effect in humans. Basically, by having your dog earn their dinner, you’re actually making dinner better!
Why not teach your dog something new while you’re doling out dinner?
I throw Barley’s breakfast into a treat pouch for our morning walks so that we can work on leash manners every morning. In the evening, I pull a fun trick out of a jar and we work on learning something new! He loves our training time.
Taking 10 minutes to teach your dog something new is far more valuable than just tossing kibble into a food bowl. Some fun ideas to teach your dog include:
Practical behaviors like sit, down, stay, heel, and come.
Basic tricks like shake, high five, speak, and roll over.
Fun, challenging tricks like weaves, play bows, sitting pretty, crawling, hopping onto or going under objects. I recently started teaching Barley to open a suitcase and hop inside of it!
Mat training which works by teaching your dog a specific routine that can help him relax and calm down in stressful situations.
Box tricks that involve challenges like nosing a box, stepping into a box, or carrying a box. For more info, see this great article by Karen Pryor on 101 Things to do With a Box!
Functional games like Look At That (which teaches your dog to look at distracting objects or people. Despite seeming counter-intuitive, this exercise is said to reduce reactive behavior from the trigger), It’s Your Choice (an exercise which helps teach your dog self control), and Exchange Games (teaching your dog to exchange a non-desirable chewing item for a tasty treat. Eventually this exercise can lead into teaching take it and leave it commands).
Handling Practice. Practice letting your dog handle his sensitive bits by feeding him for letting you check his paws, ears, teeth, and private bits. This becomes an especially valuable skill set for veterinarian visits or show handling.
Feeding your dog out of your hands is a great way to promote bonding and work on bite inhibition. This is especially great for puppies, as they’ll learn to control their teeth around your fingers. New and shy dogs also benefit tremendously from hand feeding – definitely give it a try!
Think about how much time your dog likely spends alone. Many of us work and can’t afford daycare, so we’re forced to leave our best friends home alone all day. What does your dog do that whole time?
Giving your dog as much stimulation as possible helps with their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. An easy way to give them more stimulation in their life is to stop giving dinner away for free. Dogs like a challenge just as much as we do!
Having your dog earn his dinner can help reduce unwanted behaviors, such as:
Chewing and Digging. Dogs that are destructive are often bored. Giving your dog something to do while you’re away helps give him a positive way to focus all that pent-up energy, so why not try a puzzle toy?
Food-dispensing toys are still helpful even if you’re doling out meals through training or when you’re present. The more mental stimulation, the better!
Barking. Dogs that bark a lot are often bored or need more attention and stimulation. Throwing out your dog’s food bowl and opting for unorthodox methods helps for these dogs for many of the reasons listed above.
Separation Distress. Being alone is hard for many dogs. But if being alone means they get to play fun games to earn their food, many dogs will start to relax when left alone.
Dogs that have adequate exercise – mental and physical – are also less likely to be stressed, so make sure to give your dog plenty of exercise in addition to a puzzle toy for a real winning combo. Dogs that have a very hard time being alone may be too stressed to eat. In that case, I’d recommend hiring a trainer or going to see a veterinarian who specializes in behavior.
Hyperactivity. Young and high energy dogs also really benefit from having something to direct that energy towards. It’s no harder for you to put their food into a puzzle toy, but it gets some of that energy out for your pup. Puzzle toys are not a substitute for exercise, but they’re another way to augment an exercise program for high-energy dogs.
Eating Too Quickly. Earning your dinner means you can’t swallow it all in one gulp! Dogs that eat so fast that they choke will benefit from the deliberate slowdown that earning their dinner provides.
Even dogs that don’t have specific behavioral issues benefit hugely from working for their meals. Many dogs enjoy having a job, even when the job is digging around for their dinner.
I have not yet found a puzzle toy that I don’t like. As long as they’re safe and not too difficult for your dog, it’s hard to go wrong.
Barley has progressively harder puzzle toys to work through. When his stomach is upset or he seems lethargic, I might give him an easier puzzle toy. If I cut our morning walk short or know I’ll be working a long day, I pull out the college-level options.
To get you started, here are some dog puzzle feeders that come especially well recommended:
Kong Wobbler. The Kong Wobbler is a great food toy to start with. It’s inexpensive, easy to clean, and most dogs get the hang of it quickly. I batted mine around for Barley a few times, and within a few minutes he was well on his way to earning his dinner! The classic Kong works great as well, since it can be stuffed with frozen meals (just check out our collection of Kong dinner recipes).
CleverPet. CleverPet is an expensive, but amazing, option. The CleverPet teaches your dog to press colored lights in patterns to earn his food. It can be programmed to go on throughout the day, spreading out the interaction throughout the work day. You can track your dog’s progress and it gets more difficult with time. This is a great next step when your dog is bored of toys like the Kong Wobbler. It’s pricey, but the reviews are glowing.
Just check out how much fun this pup is having!
SnuffleMat. Yes, it looks like a sleeping Sesame Street character. But the SnuffleMat helps tap into your dog’s natural sniffing abilities. It doesn’t have moving parts and just helps teach your dog to search through it to find dinner. This option isn’t too challenging. Dogs also find sniffing relaxing, so it can help sooth stressed dogs. Be careful using the SnuffleMat with big-time chewers though!
Various Amazon options. There are all sorts of great options available on Amazon for puzzle toys. For more recommended products, check out our lengthier guide on the best dog puzzle toys, where we review some of our top picks. Just make sure you order the right size and keep in mind your dog’s skill level.
The bottom line is that it’s hard to go wrong with throwing out your dog’s food bowl – there’s a huge selection of awesome food challenge toys on the market that can make dinner time fun and exciting for your pooch!
Make sure that your replacement is a safe option and monitor your dog’s eating habits. If your dog is struggling with a puzzle toy, try an easier option until they get better at it.
In general, I believe most healthy dogs will benefit from getting their food bowl tossed in the trash. bowl.
That said, there are some dogs who may be better off with a food bowl:
Dogs with very specific diets. If it’s imperative to his health that your dog gets his exact meal every day, a food bowl might be the easiest option. That said, you can still try to hand feed or feeding through training – that way you can ensure he’s getting everything he needs!
Dogs that need soft food or are fed raw diets. Some types of food simply aren’t well-suited to puzzle toys, training, or hand feeding. I like to freeze Kongs full of wet food, but some dogs can’t handle the frozen food. Dogs that are fed raw diets of chicken and peas may not do well being fed through most puzzle toys. Shop around and see if you can figure something out that works with your dog’s diet!
Dogs with disabilities or very limited mobility. For some dogs, the challenge presented by throwing out their food bowl is just too much. A coworker of mine has a blind and deaf dog that still uses very simple puzzle toys. I worked with a three-legged deaf dog who still earned his meals through training. But some dogs just won’t thrive living this way. Do what’s best for your dog.
Dogs that are struggling with their weight. Dogs that are severely underweight or lose weight quickly might not be well-suited to food bowl alternatives. Talk to your vet to be sure!
Even if your dog isn’t well-suited to throwing out their food bowl, you can always just put some extra-tasty treats into a puzzle toy or take some time for training.
Throwing out Fido’s food bowl is a great shortcut to giving your dog more mental and physical exercise. Take advantage of daily feedings to give your dog something to do all day!
What does your dog do to earn his dinner? We want to know!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.