In order to not go crazy, your dog needs a way to exercise his brain.
As we’ve already discussed, dogs are mostly working animals. Even your spoiled mutt, currently lying on the floor sniffing his own toes, is descended from a long line of wily, problem-solving critters who spent their days earning every meal.
Put them in a suburban backyard, restrict their wily problem-solving natures, and dogs start to lose their minds a bit. Symptoms of mind-loss include: endless barking, escaping, destructive digging, destructive chewing, obsessive tail-chasing, and so on.
You’ve heard that if you want your dog to behave, you have to exercise him. But that’s only half the solution. Put a bored dog on a treadmill for an hour a day and what do you get? An extremely fit bored dog.
Want Fido to stop being a pain in the ass? Put his brain to work.
This is where puzzle toys, aka “smart” toys, come in. These are objects that you fill with food, and then watch Fido attempt to get the food out. It requires your dog to actually THINK about what he’s doing, instead of mindlessly snarfing down his dinner as fast as possible.
Meet the Toys
Note: This post mentions toys by brand name and provides links to purchase them. 3 Lost Dogs is not sponsored by, nor affiliated with, any of these companies. (But hey, Kong? Premier? if you’re listening, I’d TOTALLY BE UP FOR THAT)
I’m just really passionate about puzzle toys, guys.
The workhorses of the smart toy world. Basically a solid rubber object with a hollow interior for filling with food. These toys are usually made of very tough, destruction-resistant material. They double (triple?) as chew and fetch toys. Great for leaving with Fido when he’s crated or home alone. You can fill these with kibble, soft food, treats, peanut butter, or even homemade food. Every dog should have at least a couple of these in their toy boxes.
Our favorites: Kong, Barnacle, Squirrel Dude
Dogs use their feet and noses to shove them around and dispense the treats. Usually ball- or cubed-shaped, they require more space than the classics. My dogs love to push these all over the house and into crevices. They’re usually made of hard plastic and are not meant to be chewed on.
Our favorites: Atomic Treat Ball, Kibble Nibble, Tug-a-Jug, Buster Cube
The Board Games
These look like something you’d give your toddler. They require the most brainpower; dogs really have to tap into their wily problem-solving natures to figure it out. It’ll help if your dog is familiar with the basic concept of puzzle toys before you try these ones.
These work best as a game that you and Sparky work on together. Board games are not meant to be left unsupervised, as they have moving parts and are easy to break apart.
Our favorites: Nina Ottoson, Kyjen
How To Get Started
You want your dog’s first attempt at solving a puzzle toy to be successful, so that he’ll want to play again later. If he gets frustrated and gives up, he might decide it’s not worth it and just wait for his regularly scheduled bowls of kibble.
Start on easy mode. Get a classic toy, like a Kong or a Barnacle, and some really good treats, like chicken or cheese.
Loosely fill the Kong with the treats. Make sure the food will easily fall out when the toy is pushed around. Then give it to your hungry dog and watch what happens.
How to Stuff Your First Kong
When Sparky is proficient at easy mode, level up:
- Pack more food in so that it doesn’t fall out so easily.
- Seal the opening with something soft like peanut butter or cream cheese, and freeze it.
- Start adding his regular food to the mix so that he truly has to work for his dinner.
When using kibble, put a really good treat in first, at the bottom, so Sparky has more incentive to work through the “boring” food.
Kong Stuffing Suggestions
Use these ingredients on their own for an occasional snack, or mix them with Sparky’s kibble or canned food for a meal.
Ground meat, tuna, shredded cheese, dog biscuits, mashed bananas, cottage cheese, cream cheese, peanut butter (peanut butter is full of sugar, so use it sparingly), spray cheese (use VERY sparingly) scrambled eggs, mashed sweet potato.
Make Kong-Pops: plug the bottom hole (that’s what she said) with peanut butter or soft cheese. Stand it upright in a cup, then fill the toy with chicken broth. Freeze until solid.
Homemade Puzzle Toys
To get a taste of the puzzle toy experience without shelling out the cash, you can make your own.
These toys require close supervision. Never leave your dog alone with a homemade toy.
The DIY Pushover
Get a plastic container that you don’t mind destroying: Gladware, a cottage cheese cup, etc. For this photo shoot, I used a Slim Fast shaker cup that has kept turning up in my possession for 14 years. I don’t even know where it came from)
Cut a hole in the lid, add treats, close lid. If your dog is prone to Hulk-smash mode, duct-tape the lid down for extra security.
The Muffin Tin Game
This has been going around the internet for a while. I don’t know who’s originally responsible for it (if you do, let me know!), but it’s genius. It’s a great intro to board games.
Get a muffin tin that you don’t mind getting covered in dog slobber, fill the cups with treats, then cover each cup with a tennis ball.
Here’s an example from Donna Hill:
“My dog isn’t interested.”
Make sure you use really good treats to start out. If you just use Sparky’s standard kibble, he probably won’t think it’s worth it. “I get this stuff for free twice a day. Why should I work for it?”
Make sure it’s easy for the dog to succeed at first. When introduced to puzzle toys, most dogs’ tolerance for frustration is low. Give him a few easy wins to build his confidence and attention span before you make it challenging.
And make sure he’s hungry. After a walk, before a meal is a good time to try.
“My dog is too dumb for this ****.”
So Sparky just stares blankly at the toy, or knocks it around a few times before wandering off.
He’s not dumb, o ye of little faith. He just doesn’t know how to play the game yet.
Let’s face it: we almost never ask our dogs to use their brains. We dump food in a bowl and hand-feed them treats. The concept of treat-dispensing toys is completely foreign to them.
Give it time. As extra incentive to figure it out, put the food bowl in the cupboard and feed only out of puzzle toys for a day.
Eventually, the light bulb will flicker on. I love watching the moment a dog figures it out. “Holy crap! So THAT’S how it works.”
With any luck, you’ll create a puzzle toy fiend. My overachieving border collie, Merlin, lives for a good smart toy challenge. Sometimes he’ll empty the toy without touching the food. He just wants to solve the puzzle. What a nerd.