A roundup of food enrichment ideas

I’ve found myself talking about food enrichment to friends a lot recently, so I thought I’d write up some of the things that I regularly do to keep our busy doggies chilled out and entertained. First up, some toys and then I’ll walk through what I do with them…

We have a lot of food toys – many of them acquired when Grace arrived because my need to keep dogs busy and engaging in calming activities increased exponentially. Food toys, especially when frozen, are great for helping dogs to relax and calm down, because licking is an activity that lowers dogs’ arousal levels and basically makes them feel good.

One size does not fit all

We have fillable dog toys in different sizes, because the bigger ones are for a full meal, and the smaller ones are more snack size which I use either after a high energy walk, or to keep the dogs busy when we have guests (for example).

The fillable toy selection

Most people think of Kongs but there are many other options of different sizes and shapes. In reality, Sumo and Kong are very similar, but they are different shapes which means the dog needs to figure out how to hold them – a small detail for us with fingers, a much bigger one if you have paws! It’s not necessary to have that kind of variation – I happened to end up with this range of brands and accidentally noticed that Grace had a learning curve with different shapes.

We also have K9 Connectables which are a similar size to the Sumo S toys – they weren’t originally bought for this purpose, but they are too easy for Nell with kibble or treats and Grace’s jaws are not strong enough to pull them apart, so I make use of them like this instead.

We also have the Zogoflex Toppl – a great toy but much more expensive. Typically, the L costs 25-28e and the S is around 20e, whereas Sumo Play M is c. 11e and S is 8e – the L+S combination would buy 4-5 Sumos, which matters when you want to prep these into your freezer with multiple dogs… All of these are very sturdy toys that should last even moderately heavy chewers – we’ve had these for a long time and they barely have a scratch on them.

In addition to fillable toys, we also have slow feeders and various licki-mat like props. Out of the slow feeders, the star one is harder – we use it with Nell and really push in the raw food between the smaller cracks. The swirly one is mostly for Grace, and it’s a bit easier.

We have 1 proper Lickimat which is great but reasonably expensive when you have 2 dogs and want to freeze several in advance. A little while ago I realised that the novelty ice cube molds we had accumulated from various sources could be repurposed instead of being thrown in the bin – and I haven’t looked back. IKEA silicone molds cost 75 cents whereas Lickimats cost 5-8e… makes a difference with 2 dogs! One difference though: a Lickimat can be used with a very small amount of food, whereas filling the IKEA one will use up about 60ml of food (12 teaspoons) which is the same amount as a Classic Kong so you may accidentally feed your dog more than you intend…

Kong Flower, Frog and Quad

We also have a couple of more difficult toys: Kong Flower, Quad and Frog (you can find links and more details in this post). These I usually reserve for Nell, because she’s much more experienced in frozen toys than Grace and they take a long time without having to use a lot of food which helps to limit calories.

Now, what about filling them?

Yum.

As we have some guests coming, I thought I’d restock our freezer to help keep our ladies calm in exciting times. Nell is a hyper greeter and sadly we don’t have enough opportunities to get dog-savvy guests help me train it very efficiently, so I’m opting for management to keep both guests and hosts sane. This isn’t a fancy, premeditated recipe – I just looked into our freezer and pulled out some homemade treats I made months ago (they’re not fully dry so need to stay frozen) and broccoli/cauliflower/carrot mix, added hot water to defrost and put them through the blender. The mix was very watery, so I added a handful of crumbs from a treat box and 3 tablespoons of yoghurt which did the trick.

I put a couple of pieces of the small breed kibble I use in training/scatter games at the bottom, and spooned the blender mix on top. There’s no need to add kibble – I was just in the mood to have fun with it!

Some people will put a lot of effort to make their Lickimats, food toys and ice cube molds look pretty but the reality is dogs don’t really care… so I don’t care either. Apologies if they’re unappetizing!

Once I finished the molds, I still had lots of the mix left so I decided to fill some small food toys too and I made a batch of Sumos for Nell and K9 Connectables for Grace – the difference is that the latter are a little bit easier to lick because the aperture is wider.

Nell gains weight easily, so I decided to add some low calorie fillers to these – carrot sticks, dehydrated sprats, blackberries and a bit of banana. The Sumos have a hole at the bottom, so I put some kibble in first to block it, spoon some of the mix, blackberry and when it seems full, I push in a carrot stick and the fish at the end. It’s worth experimenting with this – see what your dog likes! Grace refuses frozen Kongs with carrot sticks because she doesn’t seem to understand how to get them out whereas Nell isn’t bothered in the slightest – don’t be discouraged if your dog rejects one of your “creations”; instead, observe and experiment to figure out what they like.

The results

…are not pretty – they never are! Every food enrichment picture you see online only ever shows beautifully decorated toys wiped clean – I can assure you that’s for the picture only… If you look at the Frog, you’ll get an idea of how difficult it is to fill it with fingers so imagine what it’s like for a dog to get the food out with their tongue. The mess doesn’t really matter because these are frozen and the dog will lick off the residue before it has a chance to end up on your floors.

As a last step, I put the toys in ziplock bags which keep the mess inside and the freezer clean – one bag for each dog, and lickimats/molds in separate bags. The quality inspector was very disappointed they were wrapped up in plastic and not available for immediate consumption…

Now they’re firming up in the freezer and ready for tomorrow’s guests – and for the next 10 days!

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