Toy tip: going beyond classic Kong for frozen food toys

This morning I did my weekly ritual for the second time since Grace arrived in family: filled a dozen toys and froze them.

While it is common advice to new puppy owners to use Kongs and especially frozen ones, in the first two weeks I was too much in a haze to be that organised but since we switched (back) to Ziwipeak wet food and Orijen puppy dry food (more on that in another post!), I decided to try a different strategy for preserving my mental health.

dog toys annotatedBefore Grace, I had a couple of the classic Kongs, but since they are way too easily emptied by Nell for kibble and treats, I used them very infrequently. Now, they have multiplied and I have large, medium and small ones for different purposes. The toys in the front (below) are Kong Quests which I’ve found to be excellent for entertaining Nell for long periods of time with treats and peanut butter. Recently, I’ve realised they work just as well or even better than the classic ones for feeding meals so I’ve ordered a couple more – the Frog, which we used to have, and extras of Dumbbell and Flower because they are very versatile.

If you’re considering any of these, here is a short summary of each one:

  • Kong Classics – L holds 60ml of food (1/4 cup), M 40ml, and S 20ml which is not very much at all, so for a full meal for a medium sized dog I need two Kongs
  • Kong Quest Foragers Quad
    • Holds 60ml+ wet food, requires a lot of licking to get the food out
    • More difficult to clean if you use raw
    • Also works well with “squishy” treats that you can push in, but are hard for a dog to get out – or with small swabs of peanut butter as you don’t need to use much to keep the dog’s attention
  • Kong Quest Foragers Flower
    • Best used with either wet food or spreads – treats fall out easily unless they are soft and dog needs to lick to get them out
    • Holds an incredible 120ml of food which is twice of a Classic Kong’s capacity
    • Lots of little cavities keep a dog busy licking for a long time – also for a puppy or a smaller dog, they can easily lick each cavity with their shorter tongues unlike a bigger Kong
  • Kong Quest Foragers Dumbbell
    • This is one of my favourites because it’s fairly easy to fill, and has different types of cavities – the ends are easy, and the holes in the middle are usually licked last because they are quite hard
    • Also holds and incredible 120ml of wet food
    • This also works well with different types of treats – the ends need a bigger, crunchy treat and smaller ones go in the middle
    • Downside is that with the current heavy dishwasher rotation the rubber at the ends is bending a little so they no longer hold treats (wet food is still fine)
  • Kong Quest Critters Frog (not in pic)
    • We used to have two of these but they are currently in the “out of rotation” box in the shed – however, they are so good I wanted to mention them in conjunction with the other Quest toys
    • Capacity TBC for the large version
    • This one is great for both wet food, peanut butter and treats that can be squashed in – Nell loved the first one so much it lost a leg! Again, lots of little cavities to thoroughly work through, which keeps a dog busy for a long time
  • Kong Quest Wishbone 
    • This one also holds a huge amount of food – this time I filled only one side (60ml) so that it isn’t as messy when it thaws on the floor
    • I also really like to use this with big, crunchy treats like fish cubes or anything else that crumbles because it means Nell has to chew the toy to crush the treats, and then eat the crumbs – although it makes a fair bit of mess, she loves it enough for me to use it
  • Kong Quest Star Pod (not in pic)
    • Another good one in the Quest series – and like the other ones, it has lots of little cavities
    • Downsides are that the edges are essentially holes, so wet food is a little tricky and so are treats – I have tended to use this with just little swipes of peanut butter or other spread inside the rings which encourages Nell to investigate each pod carefully
  • Kong Puppy Goodie Bone
    • Surprisingly, the two ends of the bone hold 20ml of food which is the same as a small Kong Classic!
    • Not as captivating to Grace as I had hoped but maybe she will take an interest later – I have used this with treats previously and now wet food to be used as a quick treat to entertain her when a delivery arrives unexpectedly or I need to otherwise briefly distract her
  • K9 Connectables
    • I previously used these as a full set and connected them in different combinations but they are too easy for Nell so I haven’t used them for a long time
    • Now, they work perfectly well as small Kongs that hold about 20-40ml of food each, and of course they also work with peanut butter or other spreads
    • As Grace grows up, I will use this in it’s original way and connect them, but at this point she doesn’t have the strength to pull them apart (although I’ve just realised that by connecting them I can make the second toy harder – one to try next week!)
  • Beeztees Fish Mint
    • This one holds only a pinch of wet food or small treats, but the small cavities keep a dog’s interest for a long time because it’s so difficult
    • Another toy I use to briefly distract one of them as it is also quick to fill and keep with you when you go to a restaurant or other public places
  • Rogz teeth ball
    • This one holds around 60ml of food
    • It’s really good because the hole at the top is so small, it takes a dog a lot of licking and especially sucking to get the food out – it’s such a simple toy, yet it holds the attention of a busy doggy for 20-30min
    • It also works really well with small treats
    • Cheap, widely available and versatile, so I definitely recommend trying this one alongside your Kongs!

Filling all of these took me 30min this morning, and will buy me 10x as much peace, quiet and sanity in the next week.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also do a post on toys that work with different types of treats, because that’s what I have found to be a missing piece of the puzzle when dog owners are recommended these toys – matching them with the right shape and size of treat makes all the difference in how well the toy performs.

The things we do for our dogs

Last night, we made a sandbox. Both dogs, especially Nell, have a deep love of digging – pun intended, because the first thing she did when we moved here in November was to dig huge craters in the garden. So, in the interests of keeping our new garden (once it is ready) safe from the little diggers, we decided that a shady, tiled corner of the garden had just enough space for a small sandbox – and it would also fit perfectly in my plan to create a sensory garden for the dogs because it’s their garden just as much as ours.

20190418_202555Grace enthusiastically joined in on the building process and immediately understood the point – we still have some persuading to do with Nell, but we’re sure she’ll soon discover the joys of the box too!



How my heart dog has changed my life

img_20190410_075023_688Some months ago I read about the term ‘heart dog’ – the dog who “comes along once in a lifetime and grabs your heart so tightly he changes the way you live life”  and who is “forever a part of our emotional existence — a part of what made us who we are”.

Even thinking about that makes me cry, because it makes me think of the inevitable day when my heart dog is no longer with us. Every joyful day I get to spend with her brings that other day closer. For sure, she is often annoying, frustrating, and a general pest, but for the most part she lights up my life like nothing else and she has genuinely changed my life in lots of ways and taught me many important lessons.

The way our life is now has been largely shaped by what is best for Nell:

  • Firstly, when we moved out of the UK, dog friendliness of the country and city were a crucial criteria which rules out many options.
  • Although you don’t really need a car in Amsterdam, we wanted to get one so that we can travel with Nell and especially go to the beach which she loves
  • When we were buying a house, being close to a big park and the beach were crucial factors
  • Floors were redone, just because of garden and wet paws, and many sofas were discounted because they would not survive zoomies
  • And, of course, we needed a garden because we wanted Nell to have a lovely place to relax in for the second half of her life – this is literally her home for the rest of her life and we wanted it to be just right

You might think that is a bit excessive for a dog, and maybe it is. But her life is much shorter than ours, and although we may have many dogs in our lives, she only has this one life with us, so we see it as our responsibility to make it as amazing as we can.

As lifelong couch potatoes, we probably would not have chosen this lifestyle if it wasn’t for Nell – but now that we have, it’s a life we absolutely love and I am grateful for being able to spend a lot of time in nature. Turns out it is what makes me feel happy and peaceful, and I probably wouldn’t have discovered it without her.


All for the love of a dog 

She has also changed how we spend our holidays.

In the past 5 years, she has travelled with us in 12 countries and handles travel like the pro she is. 18 months ago on our honeymoon we decided we no longer wanted to do long trips without Nell – we simply missed her too much, and we kept worrying about how she was. So, from then on, we have travelled together and that means driving – even if the drive is 1500km each way to Finland.

Nell travel collage

From John O’Groats at the northernmost point of Scotland, to Lisbon in the south – and both the westernmost point of Europe in Portugal, and in the east all the way to Finland and Poland.

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The roadtrip where I fell in love – with Nell and her human

She has also taught me many invaluable life lessons. When I met and fell in love with Nell, she was 2.5 years old and a bit of a nightmare albeit irresistibly adorable.

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Important lesson: dogs and PARK are more important than phones.

I was in a busy stage of life, never stopping for a breather. The demand for my startup was growing and alongside that, the demands for my time and attention. Spending time with Nell at the beach in Scotland, watching her enjoy herself to the fullest helped me learn to stop thinking for a moment and just be with her – because if I wasn’t present, she made sure I did. In some of the dark times of the past five years, just focusing on being with her have helped me through.


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Persistent pest face

Understanding her nature and character have also helped me understand my ADHD – like me, Nell is smart but easily distractable yet intensely hyperfocused on things she cares about (ball, beach, swimming and food). You can’t make her do things she finds boring – like tricks – but she will give her everything to tasks she finds meaningful – like nosework training. She is very persistent and can’t stop thinking about something once she’s got it in her head. On the other hand, all of this is what makes her special and unique. Accepting her for who she is, all of who she is, has helped me forgive myself for some of my own traits I felt ashamed of for a long time.

Ever since we got Grace, I wonder how she feels about not being the only dog anymore. I wish I could tell her that we got a second dog largely because of her – it’s not because she isn’t enough, it is because she means so much to us.

We got a puppy and go through all the work it involves because…

… we want her to have a friend to accompany her on explorations in the forest – places we can’t share with her

…we want her to have someone who she can enjoy the beach with someone just like she does

…we want to have someone to hold us up when the day comes we have to say goodbye to her.

That is how much she means to us – as much as we love Grace, there will never be another dog who makes such a big impact on our lives and leave such big, furry bear paw prints in our hearts.

1 dog +1 puppy = more than 2 dogs!


img_20190418_093247_288I knew raising a puppy would be hard.

I knew we would need to work hard to nurture the relationship between the two dogs.

And I knew all of this would be doubly hard because of the breeds we’ve chosen.

Yet, I hadn’t quite realised just how much work the combination of all those things would be. I’m really grateful that I have the time while on my sabbatical to focus on the dogs, and that I have the luxury of being unhurried in everyday life. If I had needed to go back to work full time after, say, two weeks off to welcome the puppy in our house, I would be a nervous wreck because it is already a part time job to look after these two dogs because we need to consider both dogs’ needs and their interaction.

The baseline is that our existing dog, Nell, is very active and needs a lot of mental stimulation, as well as being a keen resource guarder. Add a bouncy puppy to the mix, and I have a lot of preventive policing to do by removing toys from the floor and watching their body language when they move around from the corner of my eye.

From that same corner I try to keep track of what Grace is up to because practically every minute she has a different thing in her mouth – cables, cardboard boxes, kitchen roll that was on the low coffee table, wood chip or ivy leaves from the garden… and of course her own poop. She also likes to jump of the back of the sofa (sometimes straight into the pavement in the garden!) which is not good for her bones, so it’s my job to try to protect her from her fearless young brain.

If I don’t pay attention, Nell will try to sneak into Grace’s playpen to steal one of the toys – that is, when she isn’t requesting the garden door to be opened for her for the 11th time that day. We could, of course, just not open the door for her but dogs don’t have the internet, books or TV – i.e. anything to entertain them. So if my philosophy is to give her a rich, fulfilling life, I can make that small effort to give her access when she wants it – just a sniff is as important a reason to want to go outside than a toilet need. Thank goodness for spring and warmer weather so I can just leave the door open!

Now, if all that wasn’t enough, my biggest job of all is to make sure the dogs sleep. Of course, I take them out for their exercise and balance Nell’s needs with Grace’s age limitations but by far the hardest thing for two FOMO spaniels is to get them to settle, relax and sleep. As long as I’m moving around the house and doing things, I will usually have two faces following me around – even if they are lying down, their eyes will be open to make sure I don’t have any fun without their knowledge…

Puppies obviously need a lot of sleep to grow their body and mind, but sleep deprivation is challenging for even adult dogs. Psychological research on humans has shown that when we are sleep deprived, we are more irritable, prone to mood swings and perceiving things to be a threat when they are not – all of which are detrimental to nurturing a positive relationship between Nell and Grace.

img_20190418_140657_885Getting them to sleep enough is a more important job right now than making sure they have a lot of exercise. As busy doggies they keep their minds busy just in the garden by themselves and with our daily nosework games, but they need some help in finding their “off switch”. So what do I do? I sit down either on the sofa or at my desk, and wait for them to settle and start snoring. I don’t move even to go to the toilet to make sure they definitely fall into deep REM sleep because that is when their body repairs and regrows itself, and their minds process emotions and events of the day. Dogs also reach REM sleep less than humans (10% vs 25%) which is why they need to sleep so much more than we do. 

So, here I am – blogging about dogs sleeping while they sleep. And I’m definitely going to let these sleeping puppers lie as long as possible before heading out for a walk 🙂



Puppy meets the Lady of the House

My biggest fear about getting a puppy, or second dog in general, was that they would not get along with Nell who is mostly the sweetest dog you’ll meet – except when it comes to whatever she considers her possessions.

And even more unfortunately, Nell’s definition of “her” possessions is the widest possible you could imagine – it has previously included sofa cushions, hoodie sleeves hanging off a chair, and even the other dog’s humans if they happen to have been friendly to Nell. A perceived, potential loss of any possession can turn Nell into Cujo in a split second – despite our hard work over the years as this is something she didn’t learn as a puppy. Nell is also very attached to me and we anticipated this would also cause problems.


“Who is she, why is she here and WHEN is she going AWAY?!”

I decided to disregard the advice in one of the puppy books I read (Pippa Mattinson’s excellent The Happy Puppy Handbook) about taking the existing dog with you to pick up the puppy because we were travelling all the way to Warsaw to get Grace. The reason was that car is a safe space for Nell, and in the past we have noticed that travelling has made our bond even stronger – possibly because in a new environment, she feels more of a need to rely on us – and I hoped that spending that time in the car together it would go some way to help Nell adjust to the puppy’s presence. We had planned to make the long drive home in one go to avoid spending the first night with the puppy in a hotel, but the autobahn literally threw a spanner in that plan with a flat tyre 3h from home in the middle of the night, and so the dogs spent their first night together in neutral settings.



“What do you mean I can’t go in there and get those toys? They’re in my house so they’re MINE.”

At home we created a safe space for the puppy to play in – contrary to the advice in most puppy books, in our house it was the puppy who needed a break from the older dog wanting to steal all her toys! Little by little, Nell has learned to respect that the playpen is Grace’s space although if the opportunity arises, she will probably sneak in to scavenge for any treats that might be left over.



Morning cuddles in bed for EVERYONE

We have tried to make sure that Nell gets all the attention and love she wants, when she wants it so that she doesn’t feel like she is missing out. She has taken some time to get used to the puppy but 12 days in it feels like we are making great progress. In the first 2-3 days we had some worrying situations where Nell’s corrections weren’t yet calibrated to dealing with a puppy, but even though some of the boundaries and rules are still being negotiated, she seems less threatened by Grace’s presence and has learned to communicate her views more appropriately.


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We have observed a gradual rapprochement of sleeping positions on the sofa – from just being on the same side, to feeling comfortable sleeping belly up, and finally bums touching this morning! Nell had curled up next to me for her post-breakfast nap, and did not move when Grace snuggled up next to her.


We have also witnessed some remarkable progress in Nell’s self-restraint when it comes to valuable possessions. Just yesterday she was able to just watch Grace eat a chew barely a metre from her – but I will admit this wasn’t entirely spontaneous as I had a few stern words with Nell to advise her that the right place to be was in her own bed.

I have no doubt that we still have a long way to go, but I have much more hope now that they will one day be good friends – just like these two adorable cocker brothers.



Fresh start


I’ve wanted to start this blog for over a year, but life got in the way. Two weeks ago we welcomed a new family member, Grace, and I thought now is a good time to start documenting our experiences of keeping two dogs busy.

Two weeks in, I have realised how much work I have done with Nell over the past 4 years, and how much I have learned about dog minds through her. And yet, with a puppy I am starting from scratch because I need to teach her everything about the world. A lot of my expectations of what is easy for an adult dog are being challenged and I need to take a step back to figure out how exactly do I nurture Grace to be the dog I want to share the next 15 years of my life with.

I met Nell when she was 2.5 years and, quite frankly, a bit of a nightmare. My husband had done a good job with the puppy training basics and she was a confident and stable dog, but she had bad manners in public and didn’t know how to control herself, which resulted in a lot of tension. That tension, in turn, made everything worse because Nell could sense it and the trust between her and my husband was fragile.

When I started to share my daily life with Nell in a small London flat, she got on all of our nerves so I decided to wonder what is WRONG with this dog. After researching working cocker spaniels, I understood that a lot of things that annoyed us about Nell were things that she was genetically wired to do: she was intense outside because of her hunting drive, destructive because she was bored, and followed us around in the house because she has been bred to be the hunter’s close companion and tune into their emotions, gestures and facial expressions.

Most importantly, I understood that she needed a JOB.
As one website put it, the clue is in the name: if you don’t give a working cocker a job, they will become self-employed and it won’t be work that you want them to do.

That’s how I started my journey of learning about canine mental enrichment, and learning about how to give this active dog of ours the life that made her happy. Over the past 4 years I have bought over 50 activity toys and learned a lot about the different ways to entertain a busy doggy mind.

Every dog is different, so finding the right thing is likely to mean trial and error and in this blog I want to share some of our experiences so that others can benefit from them. What works or us may not work for you, or the other way around so please feel free to comment.


Elina, Nell & Grace


Grace, 16 weeks


Nell, 7 years