Puzzle Games for Dogs

You probably already know how important physical exercise is to a dog's health, longevity, emotional well-being and behavior. But mental exercise is just as important, especially when it comes to helping your pet age gracefully. A 2005 study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, showed that an antioxidant-rich diet and mental stimulation worked more effectively in combination than by themselves in a group of aging beagles (ages 7-11) who were tasked with solving increasingly complex problems over the two-year study.

And a 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, explored the importance of developing mental wellness programs for animals in zoos and shelters. Besides explaining that a lack of mental challenges can lead to negative behaviors, it also stressed that bored house pets might sleep more than they should or engage in self-harm like excessive licking or biting. The study suggests that one way to provide mental stimulation is to make pets "work" for their food rather than offer it to them freely.

To a dog, "working" for dinner equals play time. There are lots of ways to use food and treats to challenge your pet's brain, from very simple DIY options to dog games you can buy at the pet store. Here are five fun strategies to try with your pet:

Plan an "Egg" Hunt
Just like you would hide small plastic eggs filled with candy for children to find, you can hide small piles of dog food around your house or yard for your pet to discover. In the wild, dogs had to forage and hunt for their food. If they didn't find something to eat on the first try, they kept searching until they were successful. (Just remember where you placed each pile so you can point them out to your pooch and avoid attracting rodents or insects.)

Make a Frozen Dinner
A common enrichment activity at zoos is to freeze chunks of food in blocks of ice for animals for to lick out. You can do the same thing for your dog, even using chicken broth instead of water to make it extra enticing. You'll probably want to have him enjoy his frozen treat outside because it will likely become a melty mess before he's finished with it.

Have a Ball
The popular treat ball the Kong is a great choice for challenging your pet to lick out soft treats like peanut butter. But if you want to turn meal time into play time, there are other feeder balls that will actually hold and slowly dispense kibble in an interactive way. For example, the Tug-a-Jug combines a bottle, a ball and a rope to intermittently block and release pieces of food as the dog plays. The Buster Food Cube dispenses food as it rolls but includes an adjustable central cylinder that allows you modify the difficulty level for your pet. And the Waggle, which is shaped like a small dumbbell, allows dogs to work treats out of a small hole on either end.

You can even make your own "feeder ball" using recyclables or other things you might find around the house. You can cut an X into an old tennis ball and stuff kibble inside for your dog to work out. You can do the same with an empty 2-liter bottle, milk jug, paper egg carton or yogurt tub. Just plan to supervise your pet to make sure they don't ingest any bits of plastic while they're working the food out.

Create an Obstacle
None of the above feeder ball options is appropriate for strong chewers that might bite through the plastic and accidently swallow or choke on small pieces. For these dogs, consider slow-feed dog bowls like the Dogit Go Slow or the Brake-Fast, which use built-in plastic obstacles to force your pet to eat more slowly and take smaller bites. For an even more striking option, you should consider the Northmate Green Interactive Dog Feeder or the Buster Interactive Food Maze, which both use small crevices to make fishing bits of kibble out extra challenging.

Provide a Puzzle
The most challenging and mentally stimulating options are dog puzzle games that require your pet to complete one or more steps to free a treat or small pile of food. On the simple and inexpensive end are toys like the Seek-a-Treat Shuffle Bone Dog Puzzle, which is made from wood and features six sliding disks the dog has to move to find the food. At the other end of the spectrum are games like the Dog Casino by Swedish designer Nina Ottoson, which requires the animal to pull out small drawers around the sides of the game board to find the treats hidden inside. The game can be made more difficult by plugging some of the holes on top of the board to lock specific drawers.

You can create your own dog puzzle using a muffin tin and tennis balls. Simply hide a treat or small pile of kibble in one or more of the openings in the tin and then cover all of them with tennis balls. The dog will have to knock the balls off the tin to find the food. This game might be easier if played on a carpeted or other non-smooth surface so the muffin tin doesn't slip around as much.
Whichever option you decide to explore, your dog will appreciate the time you spend playing with him. You might be pleasantly surprised how much less enticing your new pair of shoes looks to an animal that isn't bored.

ASPCA Professional, "Enrichment for Shelter Dogs," www.aspcapro.org, accessed on August 16, 2013.
Gizmodo, "The 6 Best Toys to Keep Your Dog Really Busy," www.gizmodo.com, accessed on August 16, 2013.
Milgram, N.W., Head, E., Zicker, S.C., Ikeda-Douglas, C.J., Murphey, H., Muggenburg, B., Siwak, C., Tapp, D., Cotman, C.W. "Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study.Neurobiology of Aging, 2005, 26: 77-90.
McMillan, Franklin D. "Development of a Mental Wellness Program for Animals." JAVMA, Vol 220, No. 7, April 1, 2002.