This month’s training challenge was also the September challenge from last year. Apparently September just reminds me of food puzzles! This month’s challenge is:
Teach your pet how to use a new food puzzle
As I mentioned in the beginning of the year (and throughout the other challenges), this year’s training challenges are dedicated to our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Each month focuses on a different category of enrichment. This month’s focus is “Mental Exercise”.
To effectively meet the mental exercise component, make sure that your new puzzle is challenging enough for your pet to employ their problem solving skills but not so challenging that they get frustrated and give up. There’s often a fine line between the two and that’s often why we need to teach our pets how to use their new toy.
From “They Won’t Do It” to “They Love It”
While foraging (searching for food) is a natural behavior for all species, food puzzles aren’t natural. There are no food puzzles growing in the wild so that the ancient dog or cat ancestor learned how to use them and pass that knowledge down to future generations. This is why we frequently need to teach our pets how to use a particular puzzle, especially if they haven’t used one before.
Check out our video below on how to teach your pet to use a food puzzle:
And here are some tips that I shared in last year’s blog post:
Here are some tips for teaching your pet a new food puzzle:
- Choose a puzzle with your pet’s preferences in mind. Our pets have preferences just like we do. For instance, Oso is a rough-and-tumble kind of dude. He’s great at the puzzles that he can knock over and roll around with his nose. He doesn’t mind the noise those make though he does prefer to use them on carpeted areas. I know that if I give him a new puzzle he can roll around I don’t need to show him how to to it. However, he’s not as adept at the intricate food puzzles that require a lot of small motions and steps. His way of solving those is dropping them on the floor so they break open (which, while a valid way to solve the puzzle is also expensive to buy replacements.) If I give him a more complicated puzzle I’ll have to teach him first before he can use it without breaking it.
- Choose a puzzle with your pet’s experience in mind. Giving a challenging food puzzle to a novice dog is likely to lead to frustration. On the other hand, giving a simple food puzzle to an experienced dog is not going to provide much of a challenge. Think about how much experience your dog has with food puzzles and choose a new one accordingly.
- Work up to the most challenging setting. Many puzzles have ways to make them more or less difficult. Instead of starting with the most difficult setting we should work our way up to it by first starting on the easiest, then easy-medium, medium, medium-hard, and finally the hardest setting. This allows our pet to master each setting and build a history of getting food from the puzzle. That history will help them keep at it for longer when it becomes more challenging.
- Show them how but try not to do it for them. It was once thought that only primates could learn through watching others but we now know that our pets can do this too! We can encourage them to use their new puzzle by showing them how to get the treats out a few times. Be careful though not to do it every time for them. Some learn that the best way to get the food out is to let the human do it! While that’s a clever solution in using their resources it doesn’t necessarily meet the goal we’re hoping to achieve by introducing a new puzzle. Show them how a few times then let them at it.
- Use a higher-value food. Higher-value food helps build more motivation in almost all training scenarios: this is no different! Up the ante when they’re first learning and save the kibble for when they’ve got the hang of it.
What food puzzle should I try?
Here are some of our favorite store bought options for dogs (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!):
- Slow feed bowls for absolute beginners:
- Easier puzzles:
- More challenging puzzles:
Here are some of our favorite store bought options for cats (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!):
- Easier puzzles:
- More challenging puzzles:
Small dogs and cats can often choose between these lists, too!
Don’t forget DIY!
Food puzzles don’t need to break the bank. There are a lot of simple, cheap, DIY options like these:
- Buy and/or make your new puzzle!
- Teach your pet how to use their new toy, if needed.
- Share videos of your pets having fun and using their brains with us on Facebook or Instagram: @petharmonytraining