Category Archives: Mental Enrichment

7 Things to Do With a Kong

We’ve talked before about how useful Kong toys can be to provide mental exercise, as well as some ideas on how to stuff them. Here are more ideas on how to get the most out of your dog’s Kong toys!

Photo by OakleyOriginals on flickr

  • Freeze it: Any wet or sticky food can be frozen into a Kong toy to provide a longer-lasting “Kongsicle.” Keep several prepared Kongs in the door of your freezer so you always have one ready at a moment’s notice for unexpected visitors or any other time when you might appreciate a puppy pacifier.
  • Microwave it: Mix some cheese in with some dry treats or kibble and microwave long enough to melt the cheese. Let the Kong cool before giving it to your pooch. This creates a very gooey treat that takes dogs a long time to extract.
  • Hang it from a tree: thread a rope through your dog’s Kong, and tie a knot in the rope on the small end of the Kong. Position the Kong toy with the large hole facing upwards, and fill it with your dog’s food. Throw the other end of the rope over a tree branch and hoist the Kong just high enough that your dog can easily reach it, but will need to jump up and bat at it to knock food out.
  • Scavenger hunt: stuff your dog’s meal into one or more Kongs and hide them throughout the house or yard.
  • Use it for grooming: A Kong filled with peanut butter or low fat cream cheese can give your dog something pleasant to focus on while you’re brushing him, trimming his nails, or attending to any other grooming tasks that he finds onerous.
  • Crate training: make your dog’s crate into a “magic Kong place” and you’ll create a dog who loves his crate for life!
  • Ice bucket Kongs: fill a bucket up with water or broth and one or more stuffed Kong toys, then freeze it overnight. In the morning, dump the giant ice cube into a kiddie pool or put the entire bucket in your dog’s crate. As the ice melts, your dog will discover the delicious Kong surprises inside.
These are just a few ideas of fun things to do with Kongs. Have another great idea? Please share it below!

Stuffing Kongs Quickly

Kongs and other puzzle toys are great enrichment tools. They provide oh-so-necessary mental exercise and are a simple way to improve your dog’s life. Here’s how I make Kong-prep easy for myself so that my dogs always have fresh frozen Kongs ready at a moment’s notice.

1. Gather all of the clean toys you’d like to stuff. You’ll need multiple puzzle toys for this. Ask your local pet business if you can receive a quantity discount for ordering a number of toys at once to support small business! If that’s not feasible in your area, there are also great deals available online. I prefer Kong toys, as they’ve historically been the most durable and easiest to clean/stuff (also pictured: Premier’s Linkables and Twist ‘n Treat toys).

2. Assemble your ingredients. I like to stuff both moist and dry food in my dogs’ Kongs. Place the moist ingredients in a ziploc baggie and cut the bottom corner off to make a homemade pastry bag in order to save on time. This time around I used a mixture of canned dog food, canned pumpkin, and baby food. Dry ingredients included kibble, a few dog treats that were left in the bottoms of packages, baby carrots which were old and a little bendy, and cheddar cheese that was one day past its expiration date and needed to be used up.

3. Place toys in a glass with the large hole facing up and begin filling them. The glass will hold the toy in place while you stuff it. Alternate wet and dry layers until the toy is full, finishing with a wet layer. Place the Kong toy in your freezer (small quantities can be placed in the freezer door, or larger quantities can be kept in a bin in the main compartment of the freezer).

4. Pull out a frozen Kong toy whenever you need one! Unexpected visitors, grooming time, and crate confinement are all times when my dogs may receive Kongs. Make sure to consider the amount of food your dog received from his Kong when you feed him so that he stays slim.

Do you have any tips to make Kong-stuffing go more quickly? Please share them here!

Playing With Your Dog: An Illustrated Guide

Thanks to the supremely talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for suggesting this project. I had a blast collaborating with her! (Click on the image below to enlarge…)

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“Until your dog is perfect for you, never feed him from a bowl. Hand feed all of his meals, and stuff anything that’s left in chew toys.”

– Dr. Ian Dunbar

Kong Stuffing 101

Last week we introduced the Kong toy as a great tool to provide mental exercise. Food- and treat-stuffed Kongs are excellent enrichment! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Photo by Nora Kuby

Photo by Nora Kuby

Dogs who are fed kibble can have the kibble stuffed into a Kong toy which is hung from a tree branch or other sturdy object (have the bigger hole in the Kong facing upward), so that the dog must leap into the air and knock at the Kong to release his meal.

Alternatively, kibble can be mixed with just a spoonful of canned food, yogurt, cottage cheese, or other healthy “wet” food and spooned into the Kong, then the entire Kong can be placed in the freezer. The dog must then work extra hard to remove her frozen meal when the Kong is delivered. Multiple Kong toys can be stuffed with the dog’s meal portions and hidden throughout the house, so that the dog must spend his day hunting down and “dissecting” his Kong-kills.

Dogs who like to destroy or chew things can have their energy harnessed into a positive outlet by sealing Kong toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes, although you will have a shredded mess to clean up later on (and such dogs may be better served by crate training to prevent destruction). A machine that dispenses four Kongs randomly during a period of four or eight hours was available for sale for a short period of time, and may still be found for sale by a diligent buyer.

Crated dogs especially need the mental enrichment provided by a Kong toy during their confinement. My dogs run into their crates in the morning and wait impatiently for me to leave, because they know their Kong goodies will not be delivered until I’m ready to head out for the day. Frozen Kongs make my dogs extra eager for me to go and make the crates into a positive place to spend the day. Dogs who are not yet entirely comfortable with the idea of a crate can be encouraged to spend time in an open crate by tying a stuffed Kong toy at the back of the crate (make sure to supervise your dog while doing this, but do not try to lock him or her in: your goal is to create positive associations with the kennel, not trick your dog into getting trapped).

Dogs who are fed raw, home cooked, or canned diets can get even more enjoyment out of getting their food from a Kong. This is because these diets usually contain much more moisture, which makes them ideal for freezing.

Melted cheese can be another great addition to a kong toy. A Kong can be filled with a small amount of cheese along with some kibble or other dry tidbits, placed in a microwave-safe cup, and heated in the microwave until the cheese melts. Allow plenty of time to cool before giving it to your dog, or place directly in the freezer for an especially tough-to-remove treat.

Many dogs are reluctant to work at a Kong toy at first, especially if the toys are packed in such a way that food is difficult to remove. For these dogs, try layering the Kong toy to make it especially rewarding to work on. Simply alternate layers of wet food with layers of dry tidbits, then serve to the dog directly (without freezing). After just a small amount of licking to swallow the wet layer of food, the dog will reach a dry layer. This will make a bunch of treats suddenly fall out of the Kong. Jackpot! Usually this dry layer jackpot is enough to renew the dog’s interest in the Kong, and he will soon begin licking and slurping at the next layer. After just a few moments, another dry layer will appear, and so on.

When using “wet” or moist food in the Kong toy, there are lots of options, so be creative. For dogs who are not used to rich foods, use common sense in introducing new foods and start with small amounts to be sure your dog tolerates it. Some ideas to try include canned food (both dog and cat food), meat flavoured baby food, rice, potatoes, cream cheese (use low fat varieties for most dogs), cheese whiz, peanut butter, Braunschweiger (this is very rich so a little goes a long way), leftover cooked veggies (gooey veggies such as cooked spinach or squash are especially great), tuna, raw ground meat such as hamburger or ground pork, cooked ground meat, canned fish such as salmon or Jack Mackeral, gravy, beef or chicken broth, oatmeal, yogurt, and cottage cheese.

Dry tidbits are even easier to experiment with. Try various types of dog or cat kibble and treats, small pieces of pepperoni or lunch meat, strings of string cheese, cheerios or other breakfast cereal, bread crumbs, croutons, beef sticks, or healthy leftovers from your meals.

For dogs who have become really talented at “destuffing” a Kong toy, use a dry dog biscuit that is slightly bigger around than the large opening of your dog’s Kong toy. Bend the toy by squeezing it so that the hole lengthens in one direction, allowing you to slip the biscuit into the Kong. Once you stop squeezing the sides of the toy, the biscuit will be “stuck” inside the Kong and will not fall out easily. At this point the only way for your dog to get the biscuit loose will be to either break the biscuit into smaller pieces (which can be done by biting down hard on the Kong or by throwing the toy about the room), or by licking at the treat until it becomes soggy and crumbles apart. Be prepared to help your dog remove the tightly lodged biscuit using a pair of pliers if it proves too difficult and is driving your dog nuts!

Do you have a favorite Kong stuffing trick or recipe? Share it in the comments below!

A Case for Kongs

If every dog in the world could be given one toy, I think the Kong would be the way to go. A Kong toy is shaped somewhat like a rounded rubber pyramid with a hollow center. Kongs have three chewing “levels” – red for beginners, black for tough chewers, and blue Kongs, which are the toughest level and are available only through veterinarians because they are radio opaque (which means they will show up on an x-ray if the dog swallows them). There are also special, softer Kongs made for puppies or senior dogs. These Kong toys have a marbled appearance, with white mixed into the pink, blue, or purple color.

Kong toys are extremely durable, which means they can go from the microwave to the freezer to the dishwasher and back again without breaking down. They stand up well to almost every dog, provided you choose the right size and hardness level for your dog’s tenacity of chewing. Kong toys bounce erratically when thrown and provide a great chew toy.

The thing that puts a Kong toy head and tails above the competition, though, is their hollow center. Kong toys can be stuffed with an amazing variety of food items. This is a great source for mental exercise! For dogs who are left home alone all day, consider throwing out your dog’s food bowl and feeding solely from Kong toys.

There are certainly other brands of toys that resemble Kongs available, but the Kong is the “original” toy and is the one that seems to work best for most dogs. There is one Kong knock-off on the market which may be of interest to some people though, and that is the “Squirrel Dude” toy manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. This tough purple toy (yes, it resembles a squirrel) improves on the Kong design by adding four small rubber prongs which line the inside of the toy’s hole. These prongs make it much harder to get food back out of a Squirrel Dude toy once you’ve stuffed it in. A Squirrel Dude toy is not for a beginner to puzzle stuffing, but can provide a nice challenge to dogs for whom a Kong toy no longer gives any challenge. The Squirrel Dude toys can be further customized by lopping off one or more of the rubber prongs with a sharp pair of scissors, so that you can adjust the toy’s level of difficulty.

To clean your dog’s Kongs out, use the cleaning brushes that can be used for baby bottles, or just scrub around inside the opening with your fingers. Kongs are dishwasher safe, but be warned that tightly lodged food can easily sneak through an entire dishwashing cycle. Make sure your dog’s Kongs are cleaned regularly to prevent food from spoiling.

Next week we’ll discuss Kong stuffing options, as well as other games to play with these toys.

Do you use Kong toys for your dog? Please share your favorite Kong stuffing recipes, games, or other tips and tricks in the comments below!

Mental Exercise

As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.

So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.

It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.

The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.

A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.

Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.

In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?