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Your dog learns to think, use his sense of smell, and then figures out how to solve the puzzle. When he solves the puzzle, he gains a reward – usually a treat or a toy – but also your praise and petting.
Several companies have now created commercially available puzzle games for dogs and their owners to play. There are many different types of food dispensing toys and puzzle games, but all are based on the idea that dogs and owners have a better relationship when they spend time together doing something fun.
Kong Toys Are Dog Staples
The Kong toys were one of the first puzzle toys marketed for dogs that really captured the dog owning public’s interest. Joe Markham, of Colorado, the founder of the Kong Company, had a trained police dog named Fritz. Fritz’ favorite toys were sticks and rocks and, because of this, his teeth were becoming damaged. Quite by accident, Markham discovered that Fritz liked playing with the hard rubber parts off of Markham’s Volkswagon. After several years of research, Kong dog toys were introduced in 1976.
The original Kong looks like a hollow rubber snowman. It can be filled with kibble or other dog treats and the dog has to manipulate the toy so the treats come out.
For longer lasting fun, the treats can be put it in the toy and then the end sealed with soft cheese, peanut butter, or banana and then frozen. A frozen Kong toy can keep your dog occupied while in his crate or when you’re busy around the house.
More recently, Kong introduced their Genius line of toys. These have different shapes than the original Kong toy, and can be linked (snapped) together. They too hold treats. These dog toys are a little more challenging; especially when two or more are linked together.
The Kong toys are sturdy, well-designed, and are fun food dispensing toys. They are not indestructible though, and, if you have a power-chewer, your dog should be supervised so he doesn’t chew off a chunk of the rubber. Kong toys are found in most pet supply stores or online.
The Nina Ottosson Puzzles
Nina Ottosson, of Sweden, worried that her dogs weren’t getting enough attention when her children were infants and toddlers; especially during Sweden’s long winters. Through trial and error, she designed a line of puzzles – brain games – designed to challenge dogs.
Some of the games require the dog to flip over bone-shaped covers, or to push a sliding game piece, or pull out a small drawer. You can provide help as the dog learns the game, but, with practice, most dogs figure out what’s needed. A treat is the prize, along with your praise. The puzzles are made in a variety of difficulties so that any dog can play. Plus, as the dog masters the easy puzzles, he can progress to more difficult ones.
An easy one for most dogs to begin with is the Dog Tornado. Four layers of a large dog bone are attached in the center and each layer spins. Treats are hidden in the three lower layers and the dog has to spin each layer to get the treats.
Some of the games can be found made of plastic and others are wood. The plastic is easier to clean, but the wooden games are heavier and more stable for rougher dogs. Many pet supply stores now carry the Nine Ottosson puzzles or you can find them online.
The Kygen Toys
Kygen offers a wide selection of dog toys that are different and make the play experience more fun. My English Shepherd puppy, Bones, love the Lion bottle buddy toy. A yellow cloth lion toy has a red mane and inside has a plastic water bottle. The toy is sturdy and Bones loves to crunch the toy to make noise.
Because the toy is such a favorite, I’ve used it to teach Bones retrieving skills and commands such as “get it,” “bring it back,” “drop it,” and “give.”
Kygen also makes some food dispensing toy puzzles that are similar to the Nina Ottosson toys, yet unique in their own right. One that’s been a hit in the puppy classes I teach is the Kibble Drop Puzzle. Kibble or hard dog treats are placed in the toy where gravity can pull them down into the four legs of the toy. To get the treats, the dog has to flip up a cover at the base of each leg. Flipping something up is not a natural action, so the dog has to think, try different motions, and then, when a treat appears, remember what he just did to make the treat appear.
Kygen toys can be found in pet supply stores and online.
And There’s More!
Many companies are now making puzzle toys, food dispensing toys, and other games that are fun for dogs and their owners. When choosing a toy or game, make sure it’s going to be safe for your dog to play with. There should be no sharp edges and it should be sturdy.
Most puzzles are designed with owner participation in mind. Don’t give one of these to your dog and leave for work. Not only will it probably be chewed to shreds, but your dog could hurt himself. However, many food-dispensing toys can be left with the dog. Try it with your supervision first to make sure your dog isn’t going to chew it to bits.