Food for thought

A frequent question I’m asked is ‘are there foods that will improve my dog’s behaviour’ or ‘are there foods that will make my dog’s behaviour worse?’.

That might seem a simple enough question but the answer certainly isn’t straightforward.

Food does affect behaviour (anyone who’s attempted to look after small children who are full of sugar at a party will tell you it’s like the velociraptor scene in Jurassic Park!) and there are plenty of studies on how certain foods can cause hyperactivity in children.

There are diet modifications that can have a positive effect on a dog’s brain’s neurochemistry, but for most owners, as long as they make sure they’re feeding the best quality food they can from a company that invests in research and development, that is designed for their dog’s age and type, with the nutrients they need, like, they’re not going to see any dramatic behaviour changes by changing their food (unless their diet was truly shocking before!).

They might have to try a few different options to find a food that suits their dog, and most importantly, that their dog enjoys. This is as important as the quality of the food. It doesn’t matter how good it is if your dog won’t eat it – and always remember that mealtimes are one of the highlights of your dog’s day, so you owe it to them to make it as enjoyable as possible.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it

So, while choice of food is important, owners are more likely to be able to produce some marked behaviour changes by how they feed that food rather than what they feed!

For many of us, our dog’s dinner is a pretty rushed affair. A portion of food, provided in a bowl, a couple of times a day, which is gulped down in about 30 seconds.

The dog doesn’t have to think about how to get it, there is no challenge in eating it, no opportunity to gnaw, and chew and tear in the way that dogs were designed to eat and that they find so rewarding, and no brain power put into the securing of that meal.

Compare that to how dogs were historically designed to eat. Finding food took up a large part of the day, took brain power, thinking, problem solving, and physical exercise to get. Sometimes it would be small nibbles hard won, other times there would be a jackpot and there would be a glut of food which a dog would stuff themselves with never knowing where the next meal was coming from. Food and the finding of it was a key part of a dog’s day.

The dogs’ predatory sequence would go into the hunt for food – even if scavenging. The see, stalk, case, catch and eat sequence of the predator can be seen, to a greater or less degree, in a dog either hunting for scraps, finding and tearing open bin bags, raiding bins or boxes, or chasing vermin. Just performing this sequence is rewarding for dogs – whether they succeed or not – that is what ensures their continued perseverance even when food is scarce and successes few.

Dogs had to be dexterous, ingenious and perseverative in order to eat – and as well as the external reward of a meal, there was also the internal self-reward that made them feel great!

In the way we so often feed dogs, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity to provide an outlet for natural behaviour, boost the dog’s mental and emotional state, give an outlet for frustration and boredom, and create a bond and a relationship with our dogs.

Not only that, but we can produce some really positive behaviour changes in our dogs by giving them a chance to use their brains, succeed using some of their hardwired instincts (and so get that neurotransmitter brain buzz), and reduce frustration and boredom.

So, let’s have a look at some simple ways we can take our dog’s dinner and turn it into an opportunity for change – and fun!

Involve yourself in your dog’s dinner

  • Hand-feeding

A great bonding exercise that you can do on occasions is hand-feeding. It’s useful for involving you in one of the most positive parts of your dog’s day and so improving your relationship.

Don’t ask your dog to do anything to ‘earn’ their food, just give them a piece at a time from your hands at the speed they are happy eating (if you have a Labrador, you might need to be quick!).

Don’t do this if you are feeding multiple dogs, if your dog grabs their food (in this case, you can drop each piece on the floor instead), or if they resource guard their food in any way.

  • Scatter feeding

If you’re not too house or garden-proud, you can try scatter feeding. This is exactly as it sounds… Every now and then, scatter your dog’s kibble in an area in your house or the garden. Encourage them to find every bit – helping where needed and pointing out bits they might have missed. Make it a game.

This is simple, requires no equipment, and it spreads your dog’s dinner out over a long period of time – and gives them a chance to use their nose.

Interactive toys

  • Puzzle toys

These are the toys that can be bought (at a cost) that provide puzzles and games for dogs to work out. You can feed your dog’s whole meal this way – but again, don’t do it every meal.

These provide good challenges and problem-solving opportunities, however, for some dogs these are too difficult, those who are not that food driven will give up too quickly or else get frustrated, while others (often the smart ones!) will use brute force rather than brain power!

While they are great, they can be expensive, take up space, and once the dog has worked out how to use them, can get repetitive and lose the challenge.

  • Puzzle or slow feeder bowls

These are bowls with different sections or maze-like patterns that slow your dog’s eating and require them to work a bit harder and be a bit more dexerous to get all the food out.

  • Fillable toys

They can be stuffed with food (starting with loose kibble – and building up to the fiendish!) – and they can be used to hide food in and around an outdoor space, in the house etc.

Some can also provide a safe outlet for chewing and they suit most dogs although you have to vary the difficulty of the stuffing and tailor that to each dog. It has to be achievable, not frustrating.

All that gnawing and chewing instinct is put to work emptying a well stuffed toy and as you can freeze them, you can stuff them in advance too.

Find out more about occupier toys and how to use them.

  • Home-made feeding toys

These are often the very best of toys. They are often one-hit wonders that work for one meal only. They are cheap, cheerful, and always new and novel.

Food stuffed into an old kitchen roll tube with the ends folded over… Food scrunched up in brown paper. Kibble scattered onto an old scrunched up blanket… A box with food inside… The opportunities are endless – just make sure they are safe (no staples, tape etc).

It’s amazing how much rubbish and packaging can be transformed into an interactive opportunity – especially in these days of online shopping and the quest for recyclable boxes and stuffing.

Always supervise – and make this an interactive game where you quietly encourage your dog and help them if needed.

The great thing is that once you start to think about all the things you can use to feed a dog in a more interesting way, you start to see things everywhere… Boxes, plastic bottles, wrapped up towels and blankets, cardboard tubes. A trip to a charity shop – or even through your bin (cereal boxes, old toilet rolls etc) can have you thinking about new ideas. Some will work, some won’t work so well – but each one is an opportunity to try something new and for the dog, to learn something new and enhance their day with success. And it’s fun for you both and boosts your interactions.

The only rules are:

It is safe – for your dog and for you (both what you do and how you do it).

Don’t think you have to ditch the bowl completely. Just like us, often our dogs just want to be left in peace to enjoy an easy meal, but by changing the way we feed some of our dog’s meals, we can improve our relationship and our dog’s behaviour.

The important thing to remember all the time is to start simple. Start far simpler than you think you have to. Don’t think about “let’s make it really hard and leave it for the dog to work out”. You are trying to build confidence and give successes – not build frustration. Start off by having the dog thinking ‘wow, that was simple – and I got food!!’ – and slowly you can build up the difficulty. As always with dogs, we want them to succeed.

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