Preventing Food-Toy “Fails” – Whole Dog Journal

There is an ever-widening number of food-filled puzzles, food-dispensing toys, and “slow feeding” dishes for canine available on the market. Many trainers (and this publication) ceaselessly encourage homeowners to make use of these instruments to have interaction doggie brains and to assist canine occupy their time, particularly when house alone. However, not all food-dispensing toys are appropriate for all canine! Some, the truth is, may frustrate and annoy your canine – or ratchet up his nervousness. So let’s take a better take a look at these instruments, with a purpose to allow you to discover some that your canine will unequivocally take pleasure in. 

Be ready, nevertheless: I’m going to debate some widespread issues with meals toys by the lens of habits science; it’s going to get mildly technical. But should you don’t wish to waste your cash on toys that collect mud or get thrown out since you didn’t understand that your canine wanted your assist to discover ways to work together with them efficiently, or as a result of the toys had options that made them irritating or scary to your canine, learn on!


The most typical drawback with meals toys is that the canine doesn’t have the talents to get the meals and the proprietor doesn’t perceive how you can educate him. 

Many meals toys include no directions for introducing them to the naïve canine. For occasion, toys which have a cavity that may be stuffed with meals, resembling Kongs, are assumed by most shoppers to be straightforward and enjoyable for canine to make use of. The advertising supplies cause them to imagine this, exhibiting canine chewing, licking, and batting round full toys to dislodge the meals and even enjoying with empty ones. However, if the toy is initially introduced at its most tough degree, which is commonly what’s proven in promoting and demo movies, many canine can’t achieve success. 

The “recipes” discovered for these toys on the web are sometimes elaborate and difficult, with fillings solidified by melted cheese or freezing. Special biscuits might be bought for some toys that may’t be shaken or rolled out and require the canine to crush the entire toy or saturate the meals by licking earlier than getting something out. 

When an proprietor presents a problem like this to a brand new pet, and even an inexperienced, well-fed, or timid grownup canine, the animal will usually sniff on the toy, maybe poke it with its nostril or lick it for some time, then hand over. Then the proprietor could say, “Well, my dog doesn’t like food toys,” and additionally hand over. 

Let’s take a look at what behaviors a canine must succeed at utilizing one in all these toys. They may embody licking, chewing, pushing with the nostril, choosing up, carrying, dropping, shaking, batting with the paws, or securing the toy with the paws whereas performing among the different behaviors. These are regular canine behaviors, however that doesn’t imply that each canine will know how you can use them in a given state of affairs. With some tougher toys, they have to be carried out in a sure order. 

As when coaching any habits, homeowners want to start out canine at a degree at which they will simply succeed and expertise extraordinarily engaging penalties. The canine ought to have the option clearly to see, hear, and/or scent the meals and get a few of it straight away. Cavity toys might be stuffed loosely with small, high-value treats, in order that any motion by the canine is prone to instantly produce one thing the canine loves. The opening might be smeared with peanut butter or meat puree to encourage licking. 

The problem can then be elevated slowly because the canine refines the bodily abilities to extract the meals.


There might be issues on this space as effectively, when the consequence of the habits is both not reinforcing or, worse, scary. 

A canine who’s used to getting kibble at no cost in a bowl will not be motivated to dig barely wetted and frozen kibble out of a toy. He could have the suitable behavioral abilities, however the consequence doesn’t advantage the hassle. This drawback is comparatively straightforward to stop or repair: add some higher-value morsels and begin off simpler, as described above. 

One drawback that isn’t so simply remedied is when an disagreeable consequence comes as an alternative of, or together with, the meals. A tough plastic toy could bang in opposition to a wall, startling a sound-sensitive canine. (Fortunately, there are a number of treat-delivery balls which can be made of soppy plastic.) 

A toy with electronics could beep or ding or transfer in an sudden means. If one in all these stimuli precedes the supply of the meals, it’s the most rapid consequence of the canine’s habits. If it occurs commonly, it might come to function a conditioned reinforcer, predicting the arrival of meals (like a clicker does). Or, worst case, it might scare the canine a lot that he doesn’t discover the meals definitely worth the threat. 

Dogs who’re delicate to noises could not get better from this. Some could try to get the meals with out a lot movement, and their actions will grow to be cautious and inhibited. Some will refuse the toy altogether.

One of my canine turned extraordinarily fearful of the noise that the Manners Minder (a.okay.a. the Treat & Train), a remote-controlled deal with dispenser, makes when it jams. She initially cherished this machine and utilizing it really added worth to any deal with that was inside. But whereas more often than not the consequence of her good habits was a deal with (optimistic reinforcement), typically it was a horrible grinding noise that may trigger her to again away wide-eyed after which refuse to return (optimistic punishment). I’ve stopped utilizing this machine along with her till I can take the time to counter-condition her response to that noise. 

Take care in choosing toys for delicate canine, and experiment with them earlier than giving them to the canine. 


Here’s the technical half. Remember that the smallest items of habits we will analyze are antecedents (stimuli, occasions, or elements of the animal’s historical past that set the stage for a habits), behaviors (something animals do that may be measured), and penalties (stimuli or occasions that instantly observe a habits and affect its future power). 

Behaviors and penalties are sometimes straightforward to look at, however antecedents might be extra refined. One kind of antecedent is a cue: a stimulus or situation that communicates to the animal that sure behaviors will probably be bolstered (or punished). Some toys by accident current cues that aren’t in step with how they’re designed for use. 

The Manners Minder (additionally bought below the title Treat & Train) was among the many first remote-controlled treat-dispensing gadgets available on the market. It allows a handler to ship treats to a canine at a location that’s as much as 100 toes away – good for sure coaching functions. However, some canine are afraid of the gadgets.

For most meals toys, the cue that food-seeking behaviors will probably be bolstered is the presentation of a loaded toy. As the canine interacts with a kibble toy, the sound of the kibble contained in the toy turns into a cue as effectively. Or somewhat a collection of them: The sound of a number of kibble rattling contained in the toy correlates with kibble being delivered extra ceaselessly; it predicts a excessive charge of reinforcement. 

As the toy empties, the sound modifications, predicting a thinner reinforcement schedule. The same course of happens with the odor of the meals within the toy. When the toy is empty, no kibble is audible and we will assume the kibble odor is tremendously diminished. These are cues that inform the canine that reinforcement just isn’t out there. The canine learns to cease meals searching for. 

But we get issues with toys that give complicated indicators about when or whether or not the meals is offered.

One such toy, the Foobler, is a tough plastic ball that ejects treats when rolled. It comprises six rotating meals compartments and a timer. One compartment at a time is able to launch meals, after which when the timer goes off, the following compartment rotates into place. The proprietor can set the timer to manage how ceaselessly the compartments rotate; the interval might be as brief as 15 minutes and so long as 90. Before the compartments rotate, a bell rings to indicate that pushing the toy will now repay. 

However, when a compartment empties, the sound of rattling kibble remains to be current, although meals won’t be out there till after the following bell. The canine can nonetheless scent the meals within the toy. With each different meals toy an skilled canine has performed with, these are cues to proceed pushing. There is not any cue to let the canine know that the meals is now unavailable and that ball pushing won’t be bolstered. And as a result of the pushing has been bolstered on an intermittent schedule – which means typically it took one push to eject meals, typically a number of – each with different toys and with this one, the canine will most likely persist for a while. 

What’s extra, when the canine lastly perceives that the beforehand bolstered habits is not working, he could begin to undergo extinction. Extinction might be an disagreeable course of, and its widespread unintended effects embody frustration and a rise within the variability of habits. The former we attempt to keep away from when coaching; the latter is one thing we will plan for and use when shaping habits – however that could be a process that requires cautious adjustment of standards and statement of the canine, and shouldn’t be left as much as a plastic toy. 

The Foobler

Among different causes, it may very well be harmful to the toy. I launched three canine to the Foobler. My smallest canine switched to gnawing on it when the energetic meals compartment emptied, and even she was capable of do harm. (Another canine determined instantly that probably the most environment friendly habits was to chew the toy aside to get all of the meals directly. Although she’s solely medium-size herself, she might have dismembered the toy had I not been there to take away it.) These are pure responses from canine who’ve discovered by reinforcement of many different behaviors that their aim with a meals toy is to do no matter it takes to get all of the meals out. 

So you’ll must supervise your canine carefully to stop behaviors which can be damaging to the Foobler, which makes it lower than supreme for one in all its meant functions: spreading food-toy engagement out over the course of a workday for canine left house alone. 

You’ll additionally wish to educate your canine how you can use it. A coaching plan would come with instructing the canine that the bell means meals is offered, and – a extra complicated process – that when the meals stops popping out of the toy, he ought to wait, for as much as 15 minutes, till the bell rings once more. Although there is no such thing as a “training mode” for the toy, you may flip it on and off manually to quickly shorten the intervals between the opening of compartments and construct the affiliation of the bell with meals supply. 

Such a plan might tackle attainable frustration with the toy’s reinforcement schedule, however couldn’t be relied upon to stop a devoted chewer from taking issues into his personal mouth throughout your absence. We would do effectively to supply a distinct toy to canine who’ve the power and inclination to chew onerous plastic.

Pet Tutor

The Pet Tutor is a food- or treat-dispensing instrument utilized by many trainers. A canister holds a provide of treats, which might be distributed by way of a distant management for delivering treats to a canine at a distance from the handler, or by way of a timer. The product’s advertising supplies counsel that the timed-delivery of meals generally is a useful distraction for canine who are suffering from separation nervousness or isolation misery. And it’d – for some canine. Other canine could expertise the instrument in a lot the identical method because the Foobler: irritating as a result of they will nonetheless see and scent the meals contained in the product. 

Generally, when used to dispense meals to a canine who’s house alone, the Pet Tutor is both positioned on prime of a crated canine’s wire crate or on the door of a plastic crate (so it dispenses into the crate), or up on a counter (so the distributed meals falls onto the ground). 

The product is designed to withstand the explorations of a canine who will get ahold of it by some means, however it gained’t maintain as much as all-day safe-cracking efforts or consideration from a extremely robust chewer. But even when a canine can’t get at it, they will nonetheless scent that it’s stuffed with meals. For some canine, that’s not a giant deal; for an anxious, food-obsessed canine, this seemingly wouldn’t be a great tool on this utility.


We have to be cautious shoppers after we choose toys for our canine. We want to supply toys which can be protected and enjoyable for every particular person canine, and at occasions, we additionally may have to coach the canine to make use of them. We want to observe for worry or undue frustration. For the canine’s security, we have to carefully observe his interactions with a toy earlier than leaving him alone with it. 

And lastly, we could must take time to show even an skilled canine a couple of toy with a rule construction completely different from the one to which they’re accustomed. 

Portions of this text have been first printed in BARKS from the Guild, Pet Professional Guild’s official publication (10/2014).

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