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Feeding Boarding Dogs from Food Puzzles

What are food puzzles?

A "food puzzle" is any toy or object that can contain food, and requires the pet to work to find a way to obtain the food.  The most common food puzzle is a, "Kong" toy with dry kibble inside.  A variation is a Kong with frozen canned food that slowly melts and becomes available.  Another variation is a Kong with an inch of peanut butter smeared just inside the opening, reserved for special cases.

There are many other brands and types of food puzzles, and ideally the practice has a large number of puzzles available.  For the very active and motivated dog a, "Buster Cube™" is a good option.  Finally, some individuals make their own food puzzles using PVC pipe or other improvised devices. 

 A "food puzzle" is any toy or object that can contain food, and requires the pet to work to find a way to obtain the food.

Why bother?

One way to measure the quality of a kennel, is the odor, sound, and sight. 

The REASON to feed from food puzzles instead of bowls is to entertain and occupy the dog's mind during the day, keeping them quiet and focused, instead of jumping and barking.  During evolution, or in the wild, Canids (wolves, dogs, foxes, etc.) spend about 60% of their waking hours attempting to obtain food.  This produces physical exercise and mental stimulation.  Feeding a dog its entire day's food in 5 minutes without any effort or mental stimulation effectively, "short-circuits" nature's design.  The question now becomes, how can we substitute something else to obtain that physical and mental stimulation, while the dog is confined all day in a kennel.  The best answer is:  Feed from Food Puzzles, and allow hunger to be the motivation to play with the puzzle for hours.  Many owners are beginning to feed all home food from puzzles instead of bowls, and reporting great success.

Is it fair to frustrate the dog with a puzzle?

This is a natural response from a person who is uneducated in the evolutionary biology of the canine species.  Because PEOPLE eat fast food, they think dogs should.  People, then spend the rest of the day in mental and physical pursuit of the money needed to buy the food.  Ideally, dogs spend about the same amount of time "working" for their food.  (in a great natural hunting area, about 4 hours per day).

Does a dog become frustrated with a puzzle?  Sure.  The same way a teenager becomes frustrated with a video game.  In both cases, the intermittent reward keeps them engrossed and excited.

Do all dogs benefit from food puzzles?

Not all dogs benefit from food puzzles.  Dogs who are thin, poor eaters, or sick, often do not have the motivation to work to get the food out, and may lose weight.  Some of the hyperactive, nervous dogs really NEED the stimulation, but because of a short attention span, they lose interest and just bark out of frustration.  Other dogs are calm and easy going, and sleep most of the time, and do not benefit.

Food Puzzles are indicated for boarders who are healthy, bored, active, and especially those that pace or bark from the following categories: 
solicitive, sympathetic, social, excitatory. 

It may help separation anxiety barkers to turn their mind to something else. It is not usually helpful for territorial, fearful, threatening, or food possessive barkers.

How do we select dogs for food puzzles?
This can be determined either from a food list generated by a supervisor, or from notes written on the kennel card.  Examples are:

  • FP Feeding:  = this dog does well eating from Food Puzzles
  • Bowl Feeding = This dog does better from a bowl (i.e. is quiet and relaxed)
  • Special diet = Perhaps the owner brought in special food or bowl, or the dog is on a allergic or prescription diet.  In some cases this food can still be put into a puzzle.
  • Anesthetic case = In general, dogs scheduled for anesthesia should have no food for 12 hours before the procedure, and no water from 2 hours before.
  • Eliminates in kennel = dogs who eliminate in the kennel regularly cannot be fed from FPs because of the potential contamination. These dogs are either urine marking (stressed, un-neutered, untrained, or all three), or cannot control their bowels.  Attempt to feed them either once a day, or earlier in the evening, and let them out to eliminate late before leaving.  If kennel elimination persists, notify a DVM to examine for illness or parasites.  Note that forcing a dog to eliminate in its own living space damages the owner's efforts at house training.

Exactly how do we use the food puzzle?

First thing in the am, fill a number of puzzles (e.g. Kongs), and walk through the kennel giving one to any BARKING dogs that are approved for puzzles.  (first priority is to calm them).  Then either begin to clean kennels and rotate dogs into the toilet area for elimination, or continue to feed the remaining pets.

  • If the dog finishes the puzzle and removes all the food - remove that one and either fill it from a local source of kibble, or give a new puzzle.  If the dog goes through it fast, give a frozen Kong instead since those take longer to obtain the food..
  • In general, start with a Kong size suited to the dog - small, medium, or large.
  •  If the dog ignores the puzzle and barks – implement the In-patient Barking Protocol to determine the cause of the barking, and the appropriate solution.  Consider a Kong with peanut butter.
  • If the dog spreads the food from the puzzle, but does not eat it, remove the food and puzzle.  Loose food is unsanitary, and may invite rodents into the kennel.
  • If the dog does well, likes the puzzles, continue to give puzzles throughout the day, stopping 2 hours before the evening toilet access.
  • Be sure each dog has an accurate weight at entry.  Most dogs lose weight in the kennel due to stress, and hyperactivity.  If the dog loses, or gains weight, then notify the tech dept leader or attending DVM.


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