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.

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queen kong

Lollie is an incredibly fast learner. Because her energy level is high and she has a hard time figuring out how to settle down, we decided to introduce puzzles to her routine to help her exhaust her mental energy. First up was the Kong (a tough, rubber, pear-shaped toy that is hollow in the middle so you can put treats, food, etc in it). The first day, she merely poked at it with her nose, licked it once or twice, and walked away. She just didn’t understand. The second day, I put some more delicious treats inside and rubbed some peanut butter on the outside to keep her interest. She rolled it around a little until a couple of treats fell out, but again, lost interest. Later that day I tried again, and she went to town on it. She played with it for 20 minutes and got every last bit of treats and carrot bits out. What a little genius-dog.

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