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A Problem Faced by Both Retirees and Dogs, and a Common Solution

We can help our domesticated canines satisfy their natural urges to chew and problem-solve by giving them toys that make them work for their food.
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For most of the tens of thousands of years that canines have existed, they've been hunters and scavengers. Wolves and feral dogs may still work for their food, but most of the canines in the world today are domesticated and usually get their meals for free. For animals that evolved to use their minds and muscles to feed themselves, this kind of luxury lifestyle can lead to boredom. And boredom can lead to the destruction of your favorite slippers, barking that makes the neighbors revolt, and dogs that are living lives that are less happy than they could be. And unhappiness can lead to heightened cortisol levels, obesity, and other life-threatening problems.

Really, this isn't such a different issue than one that many humans face, particularly ones who are out of work. Today, I listened to a new Marketplace podcast about how people who retire later tend to live longer; what's more, retirement postponement is also thought to lead to better mental health. They quote economist Josef Zweimuller saying: "Among blue-collar workers, we see that workers who retire earlier have a higher mortality rates and these effects are pretty large." Retirement researcher Mo Wang says: "Working actually gives you a way to structure life, and that's very important. Usually, people travel right after they retire. But then after one or two years, they sit at home watching TV."

Eventually these people are carted into nursing homes. And what to they do there? Mental work that serves no outward purpose: Think jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Wheel of Fortune. Readers, these are the happiest people in the world! Okay, probably not. Maybe if they're still allowed to smoke.

Usually, right after people get a puppy, or even after they first take in an older dog, there's lots of interaction and stimulation. Everything is new for everyone. You're out discovering dog parks and pet stores. Maybe you're taking classes. Your dog is probably alone pretty rarely. Exploring his new environment is a fulltime job. But then, he gets more settled in. The couch no longer smells quite so exciting. If you have a puppy, he's getting bigger, which can mean adolescent energy, and a new set of teeth that need a workout. Next thing you know, he's chewing on crossword puzzles. Desperate for a job, he appoints himself neighborhood watchdog and barks his heads off at people in the hallway. He chews parts of his bodies raw. In short: The dog becomes unhappy, anxious, destructive, annoying, bored and paranoid. And he certainly isn't allowed to smoke.

We can help our domesticated canines satisfy their natural urges to chew and problem-solve by giving them toys that make them work for their food.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of these kinds of toys available to dog owners. They're generally called "work-to-eat toys," "puzzle toys," or "enrichment" toys." I've found that putting all or most of a dog's daily rations into these goodies can be the solution to many behavior problems, from separation anxiety to unwanted chewing and beyond.

Here are some of my favorites.

The granddaddy of all work-to-eat toys, the Kong is a chew toy made of nearly indestructible rubber. It was originally based on a part of a Volkswagen bus' suspension device that the creator's German Shepherd found particularly irresistible. Kongs can be stuffed with a wide variety of yummies. Kong sells especially shaped treats and different things you can squeeze inside, but you can stuff it with whatever your dog's weakness might be: cream cheese, Cheez Whiz, wet dog food, peanut butter, liverwurst, frozen blueberries, hamburger meat. Yummers.

There used to be a great product that operated on a timer and dispensed Kongs at intervals, so you could stuff four of them and then leave for the day and your dog would get them doled out at neat intervals. The product was discontinued a few years ago, but you can occasionally find a used one on Ebay, and they're well worth the $100 or so that they usually sell for. Search the 'Bay for Dogopolis KongTime Automatic Dog Toy Dispenser.

This genius little device is weighted on the bottom, so it wobbles all around like those inflatable "bop bags" we had as kids. It comes in a few different sizes. The yellow part at the top screws off, allowing you to put kibble inside, or any kind of small and fairly hard treats. If you feed your dog kibble, you can put his entire meal in this thing. It makes mealtime last 10 times as long, which is a good thing for reasons both behavioral and healthful. My dog eats about four of his meals from it each week. A tiny sliding door over the outside hole and a movable flap covering the internal one makes it possible to basically set it to different levels. Kong makes a similar toy, the Wobbler, which is just as good except that there are no doors or flaps, so levels can't be changed.

Here, Amos demonstrates how to use it. I had the outer door flap mostly closed here, so you'll see there isn't much food coming out at a time. Eventually, he did get it all.

The Tricky Treat Ball is similar to the Bob-A-Lot. There's a single hole in which you put in kibble or treats and they fall out as the dog pushes it. Much enjoyment will ensue. Your dog will continue to play with the ball after all the treats are gone -- he'll be holding out hope that maybe there's still one lodged in there somewhere. He'll also keep playing with it because, like so many humans, dogs like balls.

Here, the human puts dry food (kibble, treats, Cheerios, whatever) in the toy, which unscrews at the bottom. The food comes out of a narrow hole at the top, which has a rope sticking into it. As the dog pulls on the rope, some food gets dragged out. Your pup will great fun swinging this around and tugging at it. It comes in several sizes to accommodate different size dog mouths. I find that the rope usually doesn't last too long, but Premier does sell replacements -- and sticking an old knotted sock halfway in pretty much does the same job. (I only recommend this toy if you have carpeting or really tolerant downstairs neighbors -- it can bang around a lot.)

Stuff dry food into the sides of the barbell-shaped Waggle and the bits will fall out intermittently as your dog holds the middle part in his mouth and shakes it. Well, that's supposed to be how it works, at least -- my dog prefers to just kind of roll it around with his paws until the treats come out. That works too. There are rubber teeth on the sides that can be snipped out in order to reduce the level of difficulty. Premier also makes the Chuckle, which is similar but a little sturdier and has a squeaker inside.

The Dog Casino is a one of the many toys by Nina Ottosson, a genius Swedish pet toy inventor of interactive puzzle toys, which come in a variety of levels of difficulty and in both plastic and wood. This one is the first that my dog Amos tried out, and he loves it. I started out by taking out all the bone-shaped light blue pegs until Amos learned to pull open the drawers with his paw. When he got that, I put some of the pegs in -- they act as locks. So then the dog has to pull out the peg before the drawer can open.

Here he is with just one drawer left to unlock:

Many of Ottoson's line of toys require that you work with your dog a little bit to help them figure them out. It's really fun to watch them solve the little mystery of each game, and to figure out how to help them get it. With Amos, I first rewarded him for just touching the handles with his paw or nose. When I withheld a few rewards, he started to get antsy and his pawing increased until he managed to get it open just a bit. And that led to the big reward inside the drawer. The magic of learnin'! To help him figure out to life up the pegs, I smeared peanut butter under them. Now that he's a pro at this one, I often put his entire dinner in it -- wet food or dry. But I only put them in some of the drawers. That's why this is called The Casino. Amos would indeed fit in at the old age home. He just needs to learn doggie Mah Jong.

For more by Anna Jane Grossman, click here.

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Flickr photo by OakleyOriginals