on dog puzzles and the greatest dog trainer that ever was.

Mr. Gonzo Bunny-Ears has really taken to eating his kibble and snacks out of dog puzzles. We have been feeding our own Chick in this manner for years so to us it’s second nature, but often we get questions from bloggers about the types of puzzles we use, how we use them, when, etc.

Shortly after we adopted Chick as a young chap of two or three, he developed pretty severe separation all kinds of anxiety. He would pace nervously when we were getting ready to leave. Decorate the house with the garbage while we were gone. Refuse to eat for days during car trips. Never let us out of his sight when we were home. So, we went to a trainer. A first class, badass trainer.

Lee Mannix had a way with dogs. He was one of those people who can just communicate with them, and they with him. His craft was not teaching dogs “sit” or “shake” but rather teaching owners how to understand and interact with their dogs to prevent, treat, and manage problem behaviors. And his creativity seemed limitless. Some of the tips and tricks he came up with to help us deal with silly problems – like Chick pulling dish rags off their hooks – not only worked flawlessly, but boggled the mind. The human mind, that is. Lee left this world about a year ago, but his personality, his methods, and his lessons live on. For a longer account of the magic of Lee, read here.

But I digress. The first thing Lee asked of us was to stop feeding Chick food in a bowl. Ever. From that day forward, he was to eat only through training (kibble as reward), or in various mentally challenging games (kibble as problem solving goal). The idea was, that if meals are no longer predictable and punctual and effort-free, the dog will become more “willing to please” the owner, knowing that he’d better watch carefully lest the puzzle come soon. It also helped keep the dog busy for a while, so that we could hand him a snack, leave, and he would be so busy working on it that he wouldn’t remember to get worked up and anxious.  So we went from two meals a day, in a bowl, to five or six meals a day, in all different ways.

The simplest, and perhaps our favorite method to date for its sheer convenience and free-ness, is the Gatorade bottle. Take the plastic ring and the label off, wash and dry, shake a little kibble in, and hand it to the dog. A beginner dog may take 30 minutes to get the kibble out, trying to get at it with his tongue or his claws. A veteran only needs a few minutes. As a bonus, the dog eats more slowly than from a bowl, aiding in digestion and reducing gas.

Our second favorite is the grandfather of all dog puzzles, the kong. The easiest way to kong a dog is simply to scoop some kibble in, and seal the opening with something sticky – some peanut butter or cheese whiz works well. But this is too easy for our little geniuses.

To make a kong more difficult, we started to put a little peanut butter, yogurt, or cheese at the bottom of the kong, add the kibble, then seal the top. This way, dog has to extract the very end of the goodies with his tongue. For our geniuses? Still too easy. The next phase was mixing the kibble with yogurt or runny peanut butter in a bowl, and then stuffing the kong. The whole mixture is sticky and wet, so it takes a lot more tongue action to finish the work. This is challenging enough for Gonzo; it takes him about 20 minutes to finish one of these. For Chick, though, we have to take it to the next level: the freezer. Once frozen solid, it takes even an advanced chewer a while to get all the goodies out.  Our normal filler for these kongs is a combination of kibble, peanut butter, raw veggies, cheese, and leftovers – whatever we have that is dog-friendly and not likely to be otherwise eaten.

We usee many other food-dispensing devices and toys also, as Gonzo is modeling here. But the two originals, the ones shown to us by Lee, will always remain our favorites.

For more info about adopting Gonzo Bunny-Ears, contact us at DCpetographer [at] gmail [dot] com or through Partnership for Animal Welfare.

31 responses

  1. We live in Austin and Lee was a popular man here and I almost went to him for Freds issues but I needed an in house trainer due to Fred interhousehold agression, he was fine outside of the home with dogs it was my other dogs. Neways 🙂 I have always wanted to give meals this way but with his dog food agression the quicker he can eat and get feeding time over with the better everyone in our house is 🙂 Thats awesome about the gatorade bottle – ill have to pass that one to a few people.

    I wish mine loved kongs… They dont play with them. I spend all this time shoving bannanas, yogurt, pb, honey and everything in them and they dont eat them. I personally think they are too lazy to work for their food 🙂 or they are just dorks!

    • Our Chick protested for the first day or two that we switched from free food to working for your food. He would limply lick the kong and refuse to eat. Lee said this was normal, and that we should leave the kong out for 15 minutes. If it was untouched after 15, take it away, and subtract that amount of food from that day’s portion (so, if you feed two cups and he refuses a half cup in a kong, he is down to just 1.5 cups for the day. It seems mean, but he said no dog will allow more than a day and a half or so to go by before he caves in.

      We have a bit of a food guarding issue too, so we separate dogs when feeding. One gets a bottle in one room, the other in the other room.

  2. We feed our boys like this too – The Dogzilla Steggin’ Egg is a favourite at our house, but we also have a Doggy Casino and a few others that hit the regular rotation. It really does make a difference, doesn’t it?

  3. Pauley always finishes eating long before everyone else; we will have to give the Gatorade bottle a shot. We will all benefit if it cuts down on his gas 🙂

  4. Bless the Kong. We never, ever would have made it through the worst of Shiva’s separation anxiety without it. Unfortunately, she still struggles some days but I don’t know if it is something she can ever be completely cured of. Routine for her is so vital. If I do everything in the exact same order every single morning, she seems to understand what her job is and that we will be home again soon. It’s the hardest thing we have experienced with her, harder even than her reactivity. You have my sympathies.

    Love the idea of the Gatorade bottle. We have used pop bottles a lot in a similar way. Of course, she quickly learned she could easily chew through the material. 😛

    • That’s why I haven’t really gone the Gatorade bottle route….I was just like, “He isn’t going to try to figure this out he’s just going to go chimp crazy on the bottle and tear it to shreds….Maybe I should quit deciding what my dog is going to do for him and start letting him prove me right or wrong.

  5. Some really great suggestions here. Thanks everyone. Reggie has a kong, but he’s allegic to peanut butter so I’ve been using the liver paste. I never thought to fill it with things like honey, yogurt, cheese or cream cheese. I’ll try that soon.

    I’ve tried a few of the Nina Ottosson food puzzles. Definitely challenging!

  6. Oh, I luuuuuuuvs my Kong! And Brudder Ranger luvs his, too. Mom has to do the frozen thing with us, too, but we don’t mind cuz it’s fun! We haven’t tried the Gatorade bottle but I bet we’d like that. Maybe we’ll have to try it soon.

    Wiggles & Wags,

  7. Mine still eat twice a day, but Zoe is a smart girl and gets bored. In her senior years now, she has started destroying random items in the house. This sounds like it would be perfect. Especially freezing the kongs. Thank you for the great idea. I did notice that we share 2 out of the 3 items in the last picture. What is the orange toy?

  8. We are kong lovers as well! Luckily Molly has exhibited any anxiety issues, she is so mellow and laid back in the house (it makes me wonder if this a facade and is just the calm before the storm-lets hope not!). We still certainly love to use our kongs still. We used a lot of frozen kongs with Boss for his bit of seperation anxiety, and it worked like a charm! That is really smart concept to make them work for their food, Miss Molly only has to wait a moment before being released to devour her bowl. I always love to read your blog, I learn something new everyday!

  9. What a great post. I don’t know why I can’t think of such topics for Luna’s post as when I run across them I always have a story to match. Luna is they type of dog that if you give her a toy with something in it one time she will not play with it unless it has something in it. But we do have a kong or two.. 2/ or 3 puzzle balls, as well as ample gatorade and juice containers. Our pups are pretty good about sharing puzzles, I do keep an eye on them. My biggest thing is that they kick little kibbles into all sorts of nooks and crannies which results in me fussing at luna to get out from under the dresser or chair she is currently trying to imagine herself small enough to fit under.

    I may have to embark on an experiment and feed them in puzzles only… even if this means I will have to deal with random kibbles all over the house. Thank you for sparking a new idea

  10. I feed raw and feed both dogs ground meat frozen in Kongs or other similar food stuffable toys. It takes them between 1 and 2 hours every day to destuff them. A total requirement for Charlie who’s a recovering SA dog. Awesome post!

  11. Tommy loves the Kong! Frozen peanut butter is a favorite as well as chicken jerky. But you’ve taken the puzzle meal to a whole new level. I’ll have to look for some other puzzle options for him.

  12. The Kong saved us when we first brought Toni home. Her separation anxiety, like Chick’s, also expanded quickly into a myriad of other issues (including agoraphobia – seriously, afraid to leave the condo!) Sadly for us (delightful for her), Toni is a chewer and has jaws that have yet to meet the material they could not conquer. We go through about six Extreme XL Kongs every year. We literally come home to find little bits of Kong strewn across the carpet like cookie crumbs. But at least her anxieties are under control!

  13. This is fantastic information. I’m sharing this with my daughter who has a lab-pit mix (Fenway) – he gets into mischief because he’s bored. But this may help resolve some, if not all, of that issue! Thank you.

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  18. Last night I tried the Gatorade trick with our foster– after she finally finished all her food, I wanted to fly to Texas and give you a hug! What an amazing tip! It took her quite awhile and you could just see her determined little mind at work. I am feeding her like this from now on. A mental challenge like this is EXACTLY what she needed!
    My own kiddos didn’t seem to get it as much– in fact my boy kept walking away from it and littering me with kisses and pushing his body into me like he might charm me into changing my mind and just putting his food in a bowl, which eventually I did. Any additional tips on encouragement?

    • Hey! I’m so glad it worked!

      Some dogs will take some time to get used to working for their food. The way our trainer had us teach Chick was to measure out his food for the day in the morning, and set it aside. Every time it was time for a snack or a meal, we’d put some food in a toy (gatorade bottle, busy buddy, whatever), and hand it to him. We’d give him 30 minutes to play with it and get the food out. If at the end of 30 minutes he was working on it, we’d let him keep at it. If he walked away and left it, we’d take it away, and put the remaining food back in the dog food bin (thus subtracting it from that day’s portion). An hour or two later, try again with some more of that day’s food, and do the same thing. Some dogs will refuse to work for a day or even two, but no dog will starve himself to death in this manner. Your dogs will figure out quickly that if they don’t work for it, it will disappear and they won’t get it back in a bowl. If you try the toy and then switch to the bowl, you’re actually reinforcing their assumption that they can just wait for easy food, so working for it is pointless. They are tricky critters!

      Let me know how it goes, Aleks

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