There is a growing variety of food-filled puzzles, food distribution toys, and slow-feeding dogs in the market. Many trainers (and this publication) often encourage owners to use these tools to keep canine brains engaged and help dogs get on with their time, especially when they are home alone. However, not all feeds are suitable for all dogs! Some could even frustrate and annoy your dog – or increase their fear. Let’s take a closer look at these tools to help you find some that your dog will clearly enjoy.
Be prepared, however: I’m going to discuss some common food toy problems through the lens of behavioral science. it gets technical easily. But if you don’t want to waste your money on toys that get dusty or thrown away because you haven’t realized your dog needs your help to learn how to use them successfully, or because the toy has properties that they make frustrating or scary for your dog, read on!
BUILD TOY PLAYABILITIES
The most common problem with food toys is that the dog lacks the skills to receive the food and the owner does not understand how to teach it.
Many food toys do not contain instructions to introduce them to the naive dog. For example, it is believed by most consumers that toys with a cavity that can be filled with food, such as a toy. B. Kongs, is easy and fun for dogs. The marketing materials make them believe so and show dogs chewing, licking, and beating around on full toys to crowd out the food and even play with empty ones. However, if the toy is presented at the most difficult level at first, which is often shown in promotional and demo videos, many dogs may not be successful.
The “recipes” found on the Internet for these toys are often time-consuming and challenging. The fillings are solidified by melted cheese or freezing. Special cookies can be purchased for some toys that cannot be shaken or rolled out. The dog must crush all of the toys or lick the food to saturate it before taking anything out.
When an owner presents such a challenge to a new puppy, or even an inexperienced, well-fed, or shy adult dog, the animal will often sniff the toy, maybe nudge it, or then lick it for a while. Then the owner can say, “Well, my dog doesn’t like food toys.” Likewise Give up.
Let’s look at what behaviors a dog needs in order to use any of these toys successfully. They may include licking, chewing, nose pinching, picking up, carrying, dropping, shaking, pawing, or securing the toy with your paws while performing some of the other behaviors. These are normal dog behaviors, but that doesn’t mean every dog knows how to use them in a particular situation. Some more difficult toys require doing them in a specific order.
As with training a behavior, owners must start dogs at a level where they can easily succeed and have extremely attractive consequences. The dogs should be able to clearly see, hear and / or smell the food and get some of it right away. Cavity toys can be loosely filled with small, high-quality treats, so every move the dog makes is likely to instantly spawn something the dog loves. The opening can be smeared with peanut butter or meat puree to encourage licking.
The difficulty can then slowly increase as the dog refines the physical skills required to extract the food.
DOES THE TOY PUNISH YOUR DOG?
In this area too, problems can arise if the consequence of the behavior is either not exacerbated or, worse, frightening.
A dog who is used to getting free nibbles in a bowl may not be motivated to dig lightly wetted and frozen nibbles out of a toy. He may have the appropriate behavioral skills, but the consistency doesn’t deserve the effort. This problem is relatively easy to prevent or fix: add a few higher quality bites and start out more easily, as described above.
One problem that cannot be easily fixed is when an unpleasant consequence occurs instead of or with food. A hard plastic toy can hit a wall and scare a sound-sensitive dog. (Fortunately, there are some soft plastic treat balls.)
A toy with electronics can beep, ring, or move in unexpected ways. If one of these stimuli precedes the delivery of the food, it is the most immediate consequence of the dog’s behavior. When it happens regularly, it can act as a conditioned amplifier and predict the arrival of food (like a clicker does). Or, in the worst case, it can scare the dog so much that it doesn’t think the food is worth the risk.
Dogs that are sensitive to noise may not be able to recover from it. Some may try to get the food on without so much exercise and their movements become cautious and restrained. Some will reject the toy altogether.
One of my dogs was very scared of the sound that the Manners Minder (a.k.a. the Treat & Train), a remote controlled treat dispenser, makes when it jams. She initially loved this device and using this device added value to every treat that was in it. But while the consequence of her nice behavior was a pleasure most of the time (positive reinforcement), it was at times a terrible crunch that caused her to pull back, wide-eyed, and then refuse to come back (positive punishment). I have stopped using this device on her until I can take the time to counter her reaction to this noise.
Be careful when choosing toys for sensitive dogs and experiment with them before giving them to the dog.
Here is the technical part. Remember that the smallest units of behavior that we can analyze are harbingers (stimuli, events, or pieces of animal history that form the basis of behavior), behaviors (anything animals do that can be measured), and consequences (stimuli or events that can be measured) Immediately follow a behavior and influence its future strength.
Behaviors and consequences are often easy to observe, but the story behind it can be more subtle. Some type of history is an indication: a stimulus or condition that tells the animal that certain behaviors are being reinforced (or punished). Some toys inadvertently have indications that are inconsistent with their use.
For most food toys, the indication that foraging behavior is enhanced is the presentation of a loaded toy. While the dog is interacting with a nibble toy, the sound of the nibble in the toy also becomes a cue. Or rather, a number of them: the sound of many nibbles in toys correlates with the fact that nibbles are delivered more frequently; it predicts a high amplification rate.
As the toy empties, the sound changes and predicts a thinner reinforcement schedule. A similar process occurs when the food smells in the toy. When the toy is empty, no nibbles can be heard and we can assume that the nibble smell is greatly reduced. These are cues that tell the dog that reinforcement is not available. The dog learns to stop foraging for food.
But we get problems with toys that give confusing signals about when or if food is available.
One such toy, the foobler, is a hard plastic ball that throws out treats as it rolls. It contains six rotating food compartments and a timer. One compartment at a time is able to release food. When the timer expires, the next tray rotates into position. The owner can set the timer to control how often the trays rotate. The interval can be as little as 15 minutes and 90 minutes. Before the trays spin, a bell will ring to indicate that squeezing the toy is now paying off.
However, when a compartment empties, a rattle can still be heard even though the food is not available until after the next bell. The dog can still smell the food in the toy. For any other food toy that an experienced dog has played with, these are cues to keep pushing. There is no indication that the dog knows that the food is now unavailable and that the pushing of the ball is not increasing. And because pushing has been intensified on an intermittent schedule – meaning it sometimes took a push to throw out food, sometimes some – with both other toys and this one, the dog is likely to persist for some time.
If the dog finally realizes that the previously reinforced behavior is no longer working, it may also be endangered. Extinction can be an unpleasant process, and its most common side effects are frustration and an increase in behavior variability. We try to avoid the former during training; The latter we can plan and use as we shape the behavior – but this is a procedure that requires careful adjustment of criteria and observation of the dog, and should not be left to a plastic toy.
Among other things, it could be dangerous for the toy. I introduced three dogs to the Foobler. My smallest dog gnawed on it as the active feeder emptied, and even it could cause harm. (Another dog immediately decided that the most efficient behavior was to chew the toy apart to get all of the food at once. Though she is only medium sized herself, she could have cut up the toy if I hadn’t been there to These are natural responses from dogs who, through reinforcement of many different behaviors, have learned that their goal with a food toy is to do everything possible to get all of the food out.
You must therefore monitor your dog closely to avoid behaviors that will harm the foobler. This makes it less than ideal for one of its intended purposes: spreading the dog feeder engagement over a day’s work for abandoned dogs.
You’ll also want to teach your dog how to use it. A training plan would include teaching the dog that the bell means food is available and, a more complex task, that he should wait up to 15 minutes for the bell to ring again when the food stops coming out of the toy. Although there is no “training mode” for the toy, you can toggle it on and off manually to temporarily shorten the intervals between opening the compartments and connecting the bell to the grocery delivery.
Such a plan could remove any possible frustrations with the toy’s reinforcement plan, but it would not serve as a basis for a dedicated chewer not to put things in their mouths during your absence. We would do well to provide other toys for dogs with the ability and inclination to chew hard plastic.
The Pet Tutor is a food or treat dispensing tool used by many trainers. A canister contains a supply of treats that can be dispensed from the handler or via a timer via a remote control for dispensing treats to a dog at a distance. The product’s marketing materials suggest that timed delivery of food can be a helpful distraction for dogs suffering from separation anxiety or isolation problems. And it could – for some dogs. Other dogs may experience the tool in the same way as the Foobler: frustrating because they can still see and smell the food in the product.
When the Pet Tutor is used to distribute food to a dog who is home alone, it is placed on either a crate dog’s wire crate, or on the door of a plastic crate (so that it is distributed in the crate), or on a crate (This is how the served food falls on the floor).
The product is designed to withstand the exploration of a dog who somehow gets a grip on it, but it won’t stand up to all-day efforts to safely crack or the attention of a really strong crouch. But even if a dog can’t get it, he can still smell that it is full of food. For some dogs, this isn’t a big deal. For an anxious dog obsessed with food, this probably wouldn’t be a useful tool in this application.
TOYS REQUIRE SKILLS, TRAINING, SUPERVISION
We must be careful when choosing toys for our dogs. We need to provide toys that are safe and fun for each individual dog, and sometimes we need to train the dog to use them. We need to watch out for fear or undue frustration. For the dog’s safety, we must carefully monitor its interactions with a toy before leaving it alone.
Finally, we may need to take the time to teach even an experienced dog a toy with a different rule structure than what he is used to.
Parts of this article were first published in BARKS from the guild, Official publication of the Pet Professional Guild (10/2014).