Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tapping into Your Pet's Foraging Instinct

I have recently been working with a parrot and working with different species often gives me insights on how certain challenges are common to many species that are domesticated or in the case of parrots semi-domesticated. Our pets can become easily bored which in turn can lead to destructive behaviors.

With domesticated animals, we simply put their food in a bowl and walk away.  The result is that our pet's meal is over anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.  The hours an animal may spend foraging for food is now taken away.  This means that our pets now have a lot of free time.   So how can we engage our pets mentally and have them work a little harder for their meal?  Here are a few suggestions:
Training Games

I play short training games as a way for my dogs to work for their meals. It has the added benefit of bonding with your pet and working with your pet in a cooperative manner.  Instead of using treats, I take half their kibble and reward them for doing some simple behaviors or fun hide and seek games. I also like to practice recall exercises (calling your dog to you).  This engages them mentally, they work for their meal and you reinforce some of the training that you previously taught them. Then when I am done with my quickie training session which usually only lasts for a 2-3 minutes, I give them the remainder of their kibble in a Kong or other toy.  This way, they do not get so many treats during the day and if you have a pet that has a tendency to put on weight, you use their kibble in lieu of the treats.  Save the tasty treats for more distracting settings like out on a walk or outside of the house.
Hide the Kongs

One way to mimic foraging activities is stuff a few Kongs with your dog's breakfast kibble and a few treats inside the Kong and hide the Kongs in various parts of the house/yard before you. leave for work. Your dog can spend part of is her time while you are away.  So instead of putting your dog's meal in a bowl, your dog has to hunt for the meal and try to excavate the contents of the Kong.  This is also a good way to slow down fast eaters.  For younger dogs, make sure they know how to use the Kong and are proficient at excavating the contents before attempting to hide them and using the Kong in liue of a dinner bowl.  The same concept would apply to cats using a smaller Kong and using just dry cat food.


Puzzles for Mental Stimulation
Fortunately, there are many products in the market that encourage foraging and in doing so, stimulate our pets mentally.  So now a meal that would take a minute or two to devour may take as long as 10-30 minutes to complete depending on how challenging the toy is.
Here is a picture of a foraging toy for the parrot I am working with.  The bird has to manipulate the slotted ball to gain access to the treats inside the ball with her beak. 

For dogs, there are many, many products to choose from. Some of the toys roll around which has the added benefit of providing exercise as well as mental stimulation.  I have written in detail about interactive toys past articles, but I will highlight a few examples here.
The Premier Busy Buddy line of dog toys has a number of foraging toys that the dog has to manipulate in order to get at the food.  For younger puppies, I recommend the Twist-and-Treat or the Kibble Nibble.  For older dogs the Magic Mushroom or Tug-a-Jug.  I have used the small size Twist and Treat with my cat using her kibble.

Here is a video of one of my dogs using the Tug-a-Jug which is one of the more difficult toys and recommended for dogs over 6 months due to its difficulty.

Another line of toys which require more of your interaction and supervision are the Nina Ottosson line of puzzle toys.  You hide the treats in compartments and your dog has to figure out how to get the food out.  Here are a few examples:

Here is a video demonstration of the Dog Tornado:

Cats Need to Forage Too!

The same principles apply to cats.  My cat is easily bored and playing training games and creating foraging opportunities helps curb her tendencies to try to “hunt” for food in my kitchen.  Cats can access the highest of shelves so managing such behavior can be quite challenging.  One of her favorite toys is the Slim Cat Food Dispenser.  The ball rolls around the room much like the Kibble Nibble which helps to provide your cat with exercise.  Some of the smaller sized Premier toys above can also be used for cats.  I used the Twist and Treat for my cat and she spent an hour trying to get the kibble out.

The Nina Ottosson toys are also excellent for cats and since cats are not big chewers, they can be safely left with them whereas dogs need to be supervised with this type of toy.  Here is a video of my cat solving the Dog Tornado:

For more videos and examples of interactive toys click here.

So get creative and find ways to minimize the use of the food bowl!