WANT A HAPPIER DOG? Make them work for their supper!

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food training

We all have ways we like to entertain ourselves; some of us watch TV, some of us read a book, while some of us might even play a game on our phones.  It’s a given that you need a certain amount of enjoyable stimulation to stay happy and healthy.  In fact, you may have noticed, on days that you don’t get the right amount of enjoyable mental and physical stimulation, you might feel a little more edgy, fidgety or even moody.

Your dog isn’t all that different in this regard.  While it’s nice that you take your dog for a walk every day, which allows them to get some mild entertainment and exercise, there are a few other things that may help your dog be happier and more balanced (and therefore more enjoyable to be around … don’t tell your dog I added that part).


The first thing you can add is a little more physical exercise.  That is, go for a longer or more stimulating walk.  Take a new route or find a trail in the woods instead of those boring old sidewalks!  You can also, play fetch, a little controlled tug, or have your dog run beside you while you ride a bike. I did a little impromptu experiment with exercise a few years back with some pretty impressive behavioral results.  You can read more about that here if you’re so inclined.

The second thing you can do is introduce your dog to some beginner’s “nose work”.  A lot of your dog’s brain is devoted to scent discrimination and seeking that which is smelly.  As such, using their sense of smell expends a lot of mental energy.  If you’re not familiar with how to do this, you can check out my article on introducing your dog to scent finding here.


However, the easiest thing you can do right away is to designate a portion of your dog’s food to be supplied via a toy that requires your dog to work for it.  There are a lot of toys out there that offer this sort of stimulation, but I’ll show you the one that seems to work for my shepherd.  I went through a few different toys looking for one that had three main qualities:

  • Durability (Koa is 97 pounds with a huge jaw and he’s pretty hard on toys)
  • Adjustable food dispensing
  • Required him to do enough work to be entertained (this toy usually keeps him busy for 10 to 20 minutes)

The first criteria is obvious I guess?  I didn’t want to pay good money for something he’d destroy in a few weeks. (By the way,this particular toy retails for under $20 and he’s had the same one for five years).   Secondly, the adjustability is important because if your dog isn’t used to food dispensing toys, you need to make the task easier so your dog can learn the game.  This toy is basically two pieces that screw together allowing you to adjust the gap where the pieces of food fall out.  Thirdly, some toys don’t present enough of a challenge in getting the food out and others sometimes present a much harder challenge than most dogs are willing to put up with for a few pieces of food.  The adjustability of this toy solves that.

Here are a few tips to having your dog enjoy a toy like this:

1) Give your dog this toy in an area where they can push it around easily and be sure that they won’t lose it under too many pieces of furniture (as you can see in this little video clip, the toy can migrate around the floor a lot).

2) Supervise your dog’s first 5-10 sessions to observe how they play with it. Eventually, you can leave them in the next room or in a play area with the toy.

3) Start this game easy and then incrementally increase the challenge.  After your dog is enthusiastic about this toy, you can work in some “down” and “sit stays” and “leave it” commands during a play session.


Here’s a little video clip of my shepherd Koa playing with his twist and treat.

Good luck with your experiments with this and if you find a dog toy that you really like for your dog leave it in the comments.

All the best,


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About Sean

I’ve been training people and dogs in Seattle for the last decade and a half. My main focus when working with clients every week in one-on-one, private lessons is to help people learn to get their dogs to a functional level so that they can actually enjoy spending time every day with their dog instead of stressing about their dog’s behavior issues.

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