March 28, 2014

Five Ways to Ditch the Dog Dish

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

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.

Trick Training

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! 

Mat Work

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.

Basic Obedience

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!

Other Games

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!



  1. I'm not thrilled about the idea of just plunking down a food dish, but raw food makes it complicated. Plus, Silas is only going to work so hard for his regular meals--he just doesn't like food enough.

    One of the things we do every day is give him some kind of puzzle during evening rush on our front sidewalk. A frozen Kong, an actual puzzle toy, or (Silas's favorite) a taped up cardboard box with packing paper and a handful of treats inside. Part counterconditioning, part distraction, part mental workout.

    1. Yes, I should have mentioned raw, I know that creates more of a challenge for these activities, I know some of the prepared kinds come in little pieces or rolls, but that would still make a mess in most of the puzzle toys. I suppose if they were able to be disassembled and put in the dishwasher, something like the Kyjen Star Spinner, it could work.

  2. I have bookmarked this to come back to when it's just Coal and Dio. I've been thinking a lot about using puzzle toys to feed. Thanks for this!

    1. Multiple dogs adds another level - depending how the foster dog is I do have two separate gated areas I can use at mealtime, that's how I managed Ruby and Cosmo.

  3. We have a puzzle toy for our dogs. I'm going to break it out for the puppies soon. It's hard when you have four dogs.

    What surprised me was that Sydney, who doesn't usually play with toys, figured the puzzles out right away. She's very food motivated. So are our puppies so I'm excited to see how they do. :)

  4. great ideas! We've been trying to get more "creative" with feeding time. Lately I've been hiding their bowls and leaving a light trail to the general direction of their hidden food bowl - they love it! We also use it for training...what they'll do for a tiny piece of food, haha!


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