|Ruby with her Nina Ottosson treat maze|
Recently I listed to Episode 17 of The Great Dog Adventure podcast, which featured an interview with renowned dog trainer and behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar. It contained some wonderful information, and at the end, host Fern Camacho asked Dr. Dunbar what was the one single most valuable piece of advice he would tell every dog owner. Dr. Dunbar replied "take away the food bowl." Don't worry, he didn't mean not to feed your dog! What he meant was, use your dog's food to train, reward and build your relationship. It's a powerful tool that we take for granted, setting down a dish of kibble thoughtlessly when we could be using at currency for communication and bonding! While he suggested doing this for one week's time, I think it's a tool that can be incorporated regularly, and something I've included in Ruby's routine from the beginning. Breakfast is normally a little more hurried since I'm rushing out the door to work, and I feed canned or freeze-dried/dehydrated in the morning, but dinnertime kibble is usually doled out in a number of different ways:
Puzzle toys are a great way for busy, inquisitive dogs to use their natural seeking and foraging instincts to work food out of a variety of doors, compartments and mazes. Kyjen and Nina Ottosson make some good ones. You may need to help your dog out at first, by showing them where the food is and possibly using a clicker to reward their attempts. Some dogs are more "pawsy" or mouthy than others. Ruby tends to use her paws a lot, and our favorite is the Nina Ottosson Treat Maze. We also like the PetSafe Busy Buddy Mushroom.
Kibble can be used just like treats (if your dog considers it high-value enough) to teach new tricks or practice old ones. I think trick training is a fun activity that nearly every dog/human team can benefit from. For more about it, check out my guest post on the Kyjen dog blog!
I've talked a lot here about the Relaxation Protocol, a training regimen that is especially beneficial to anxious, high energy dogs to help them learn impulse control and, well, relaxation! It's a perfect way to distribute dinner. Sometimes I take a more informal approach and just ask Ruby to "go to your mat" while I clean up the kitchen, periodically giving her a small handful of kibble on the mat.
One of the things Dr. Dunbar suggests is that you pocket the dog's kibble ration for the day and hand it out whenever the dog is showing appropriate behavior. You could reward the dog choosing to go lay on its bed while you're having a snack, or sitting nicely when a visitor arrives. The possibilities are endless!
There are so many ways you can turn mealtime into engaging, interactive quality time with your dog. One of Ruby's favorite games is "Catch the Kibble" where I toss each piece on the floor and she scrambles after it, or tries to catch it directly. We have contests in which I see how many pieces she can catch in a row. Sometimes I ask for sit or a down before I toss, and we also practice "leave it." You can turn recall practice into a game, play hide-and-seek, or introduce nose work.
However you choose to integrate training or games into your dog's meals, I encourage you to take advantage of your time together, and teach your dog to play with its food!