Orvis Interactive Food Puzzle for Dogs

Q. My dog isn’t very bright — how do I get him to use food puzzles? Should I try one designed for puppies?

A. I am so happy to see this question because it means people are catching on to the benefits of food puzzles. I have been preaching their worth for years, and I am delighted to hear pet owners asking how to use them. I catch people by surprise when I tell them to throw away their pets’ food bowls and use food puzzles instead. My own pets eat that way, because it keeps their minds and bodies busy and healthy.

Your dog is probably smarter than you give him credit for. Even if your goal is to ultimately take advantage of the weight loss benefits of a food puzzle, chances are he isn’t interested in a food puzzle because he doesn’t think it’s worth it. If you up the ante with better treats in the beginning, I bet he’ll figure out the puzzle in a hurry.

The first step is to entice your dog with something yummy. When you’re choosing foods to go inside the puzzle, think “soft” and “chewy,” and certainly think “smelly.” You’ll find a lot of choices these days from pet supply retailers. I also like “meat sticks” made for toddlers, cut into bits, or the classic training treat: cooked hot dogs! If you have a dehydrator, you can even make your own pet treats, drying bits of liver or chicken strips. Some dogs will also work for Cheerios or even veggie bits. Find out what your dog likes the very best and save it for the food puzzles. Of course, you want to be careful not to let your pooch overindulge — too much of any food outside of your dog’s usual diet may cause gastrointestinal upset.

Next, find a puzzle that lets your dog succeed. Many puzzles have ways to set them for teaching your dog, such as using larger openings to let the food come out more easily. You can also help by leaving the treat covers off harder puzzles initially and by showing your dog how they work. While it’s true that some dogs pick things up more quickly than others — my “grandPug” Bruce is one such dog — even slower pups will catch on eventually. Just give them time. You can also try really easy puzzles, such as merely spreading kibble in the grass for your dog to find using his nose.

Let’s face it: Pets today are “born retired,” and that’s not the best way to spend a life. Pets who use food puzzles engage their hunting heritage, and that’s good for them on many levels. Slower eating, more thinking, more activity — it all leads to a healthier pet, in my view.