Food based enrichment is the most popular approach to enrichment for most animals in captivity; it’s probably the easiest and most obvious way to add entertainment to a pet’s life.
Although I’m not a big fan of food bowl feeding, and I do believe that reducing their use generally does good things for pets and their people, we are not going to get religious about this stuff during this program.
You do what works for you and your pet – you are here, adding enrichment to your dog’s life and we are delighted to have you.
Food Based Enrichment
Animals come with installed motor patterns that relate to feeding behaviour. All dogs have inbuilt predatory behaviours that are also found in wild canids including tracking, stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, dissecting & chewing, caching and consuming.
Food bowl feeding limits a lot of this, so providing enrichment is important; feeding is more than just eating, after all.
Sometimes food based enrichment may not be beneficial
For some dogs, feeding their regular food in challenging ways may contribute to problems, rather than solve them.
A dog who shows intense feeding behaviour may become overwhelmed by distress when trying to access such a valuable and finite resource from a tricky puzzle or food dispensing toy.
Indeed many ‘treat dispensers’ rely on generating a level of frustration for the dog to access the food, especially toys that need to be moved around.
Dogs who show escalated resource guarding behaviours, toward people or other dogs, may not benefit from food puzzles; because food becomes harder to access, it becomes higher in value which may contribute to an increase in intensity of resource guarding behaviour.
Care should be taken using food-toys to manage a dog’s behaviour.
Food toys are often suggested for dogs who show distress related behaviour at separation from their family, for example. While this may certainly form part of a program to help, it shouldn’t be considered a solution in and of itself. The dog will engage with the toy, and then become distressed, if they are able to eat from the toy at all.
The presence or preparation of the toy may even become a trigger for distress as it predicts being left alone.
Engaging with high value food may mask the dog’s experience in lots of scenarios, and while distraction and management can be helpful, if learning new skills can be done, it should be done. Management and distraction, especially with food, may only be of short term use.
And extra challenges, in general, are not needed by dogs who have just moved to a new home, into kennels or changed environments. The changes around them provide sufficient challenge without making anything else too difficult.
Letting them find their feet and reveal their preferences will allow their humans to provide appropriate enrichment that will help them settle as the acute
Using food for #100daysofenrichment
No matter what diet or type of food you feed your pet, food can be used as part of our enrichment program.
It is preferable that you use your pet’s daily ration, or part there of, to help control calorie intake and makes sure that your pet is eating a balanced diet.
If your dog falls into any of the categories talked about above and may find working for their food too frustrating or distressing, feed them some food in an easy way and then present some food in a puzzle. That will reduce a ravenous approach, reducing stress and making it easier for the dog to learn behaviours that help them solve the puzzle.
Higher value foods will generally be higher in fat, protein and calories – that’s what makes them yummier. A small amount of higher value foods may be required to build motivation and help pets learn behaviours they need for challenges.
Boosting the value of regular food:
If you are watching your pet’s weight closely, your pet has dietary restrictions or your would prefer to stick to their regular food, there are things you can do to boost the value of regular food:
- a Training Mix can be adapted to suit the individual’s needs
- warming food, to just about body temperature, can help increase motivation to eat it
- putting kibble under the grill/broiler briefly can bring out the oils, making it tastier, and make it crunchier, adding sensory variety
- getting the pet working for food can increase its value as it becomes harder to get…#100daysofenrichment will help!
- making sure the challenge is appropriate to prevent frustration and giving up
- playing with the animal first can raise arousal just a little, increasing their motivation to eat
While kibble is often an easy to use, versatile food type for many enrichment applications, all food types can be adapted too.
Using kibble and dry feeds:
- use as is
- soak it, soften and swell it
- mash it into a paste
- grill it
- suspend, mix or freeze it in water, low-sodium stock, or other flavouring
Meats and meat mixes, fresh foods (e.g. raw type diets, home prepared diets):
- cut into smaller pieces
- boiled or baked
- mashed into pastes
- frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats to make small, individual treats
Wet feeds (e.g. canned foods)
- feed in smaller, individual portions from a spoon or spatula
- lining enrichment devices
- frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats to make small, individual treats
If we are to add other foods to our pets’ diets, we must make sure they are safe and that the individual can tolerate them.
Decker has a very varied diet, consisting of a limited number of proteins, and in an average day he will have kibble, raw and cooked foods as part of his normal diet. He can tolerate a wide range of foods and this is likely associated with some genetic predispositions as well as careful introduction to a range of food as a youngster.
But again, this relies on you knowing your pet.
If you are adding foods, you need to take care, as additions can increase calorie intake and change the nutritional balance of the pet’s diet. This is particularly important with young, growing animals, those with dietary or environmental sensitivities, pets with specific dietary needs and so on.
As such, additions may not be possible and, at the very least, if you are adding stuff, you will need to adjust the pet’s diet to compensate.
Examples of foods that might be useful for #100daysofenrichment:
- spreadables for lining and freezing like pate, cream cheese, soft cheeses, yoghurt, peanut butter, wet/canned foods, baby foods (watch out for added onion powder).
Use very small amounts, really as tantalisers, as these will generally be quite high calorie.
Make sure to use peanut butter that is just peanuts, rather than with lots of sugars and sweeteners, some of which can be dangerous to dogs, e.g. xylitol.
Pates are usually LOVED by dogs but must be used in small amounts as most will contain onion and garlic powders. There are some brands that do without and in general, fish pates tend not to have these additions.
You can also try kibble-mashes, cooked and mashed vegetables like carrot, sweet potato or mashed fruits like apples (remove the seeds) or bananas.
- good quality kibbles, commercial wet foods, some prepared raw diets like nuggets
- various meats, offals and similar – to reduce calorie content choose leaner cuts and boil then skim the fat to prepare
- tinned fish – probably the best addition as they provide a more well rounded nutritional profile (for the most part), and especially when added to a kibble diet, are usually cheap and can be an effective flavour enhancer in even small amounts
- edible chews – commercial or “natural” dried chews and treats
- commercial treats and biscuits
- fruits and vegetables – take care and make sure they’re safe for dogs.
Small pieces of carrot, apple (seeds removed), small amounts of mashed banana, cooked broccoli, frozen peas, water melon, blue berriers and raspberries are often favourites, safe and well-tolerated by the majority of dogs
- cereals such as rice, pasta and so on are unlikely to be a high value or adequately nutritional addition, unless as part of a balanced diet, breakfast cereals like Cheerios, porridge
Throughout #100daysofenrichment we will be adding in lots of enrichment activities that are not primarily food based.
You might add in food rewards, for example, but we have lots of activities that involve other categories of enrichment.
We loosely base our approach on the Shape of Enrichment categories: social, cognitive, habitat, sensory and food.
Each week I have tried to cover as many of these as possible and also develop enrichment devices and strategies that incorporate as many as possible, in one, to get more enrichment bang for your buck!
Most people, when thinking of enrichment, think food based and Kong toys, and while these are some of our favourites, there are gaps, especially for lots of pet dogs. Food based enrichment and food dispensing toys alone will not plug those gaps and a more rounded enrichment experience is needed.
Within the enrichment literature, as limited as that is for dogs, active (enrichment interacts with the animal) and socially based enrichment strategies seem to be the most beneficial and welfare friendly. As such, providing dogs with outlets for social contact is important and for pet dogs, or dogs destined to be pets, that must mean social contact and interaction with humans.
So, what does that mean for dogs who are home alone while their owners work and commute all day? What about dogs in ‘rescue’ and kennel accommodation?
Different categories of enrichment are super important for these dogs, and all dogs too, while also maximising the time humans can hang out with them; we want to make sure it’s quality time, and not just quantity.
Over the #100days we will not be discussing social interaction among dogs, or other animals, for various reasons, but interaction with their humans will be central, in combination with many other categories of enrichment. As well-rounded an approach as possible is most beneficial.