We humans tend to be chronically over-stimulated—we crave down time. It’s understandably difficult for us to empathize with our dogs, who have the opposite problem. One of the most pervasive and serious welfare issues for dogs is under-stimulation. Dog brains evolved to handle the juggling act of 1) hunting and scavenging for a living and 2) dealing with the social complexities of running into other dogs while hunting and scavenging. A lot of domestic life, safe and secure as it is, flies in the face of this genetic legacy; most dogs have little opportunity to exercise their hunting and scavenging propensities or are punished if they try. They also endure lives of relative solitude from both their human families and from the company of other dogs.
You can bump up your dog’s mental—and by extension, physical—health with some easy interventions. One is to increase the amount of novel sights, sounds and smells he is exposed to every day. Another is to up his quota of free dog interaction, with the proviso that he and the other parties involved have adequate social skills.
A third way is work-to-eat. The work-to-eat strategy encompasses training and problem solving. The value of training here is process, not product. This means that, even if the kinks are out of your dog and he’s obedient enough for you, enroll him in something anyway: tricks classes, advanced obedience, clicker classes or take up a sport such as Agility, Musical Freestyle or Flyball. Remember, it doesn’t matter if he’s not gifted at your chosen activity—it matters that he’s getting out, having a good time and solving some problems.
One of the greatest innovations in the work-to-eat problem-solving category is the Kong toy. Into these robust red (or black, if he’s a Power Chewer) rubber hollow toys can go all manner of dog food and goodies. A nicely stuffed Kong can keep a dog occupied for half an hour or more doing what dogs do so well: solving a problem to get some food. In fact, you can give him all of his food this way, especially if he is a particularly “busy” dog. Here are the basics and a few of the finer points of the art of Kong stuffing.
Many people’s Kong stuffing efforts consist of inserting a few dog cookies. This is scratching the surface of the creative food acquisition challenges you can cook up for your dog. To bump your Kong stuffing prowess up to the next level, follow these suggestions.
Stuff meat and mashed potatoes in and freeze, or plug the small hole with peanut butter and fill the cavity with broth, then freeze. (Note: this can be messy—best to give it to your dog outside!). Freeze unsweetened applesauce with banana or carrot bits for low-calorie options.
Pack the ingredients as tightly as possible. The last item in should be a dried apple or piece of ravioli, presenting a smooth “finish” under the main hole.
For cashews, substitute crumbled rice cake; for freeze-dried liver, substitute baked tofu; for peanut butter, substitute fat-free cream cheese.
Super-Pro Kong with Veggies
This recipe is super-pro in the sense that it’s pretty advanced, as well as in the sense of being very high protein, and so may not be suitable for dogs on ultra-low protein diets.
Toss together ½ cup ground baby greens, ½ can water-packed sardines, ¼ cup Caesar croutons and 1 teaspoon Caesar salad dressing. Stuff tightly and finish with a small piece of Parmesan cheese. Optional: pine nuts and a hard-boiled egg.
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