There’s no debating the power of play in a dog’s life. Beyond building the canine-human bond, it serves as a way to mentally and physically stimulate the dog. (In other words, it tires them out!)
What can you do when you can’t be around to entertain your canine pal all day? How can you provide the physical and mental benefits of play when you’re not there?
That’s the magic of puzzle toys.
Puzzle toy is a general term for a device that can hold food or treats. The idea is to provide a physical and mental challenge. The dog has to work for the reward.
These types of toys come in many different varieties, including:
- Hollow bones
- Rubber toys that can be filled with soft goodies (like baby food or peanut butter) and frozen
- Hard plastic toys that contain mazes or compartments for hard treats or kibble
- Treat-dispensing pull-apart toys. These are soft toys that look like pods and are made of triangular petals, fastened together with Velcro. The dog must push the petals apart to reach the food.
No matter which type you choose, the common denominator is that it takes effort and engagement to win the prize.
Puzzle toys come in handy when a dog needs to be alone or confined. Some of the top reasons my students cite are:
Most often, my students want to include puzzle toys when they need their puppy or dog to be entertained when they’re busy or away at work.
Pro Tip: For busy times, I tell my students to pre-stuff and pre-freeze a few “nanny toys”—those that take a long time to work out—so they’re prepared for unexpected guests or events where dogs are not allowed.
When injury or illness means a dog can’t exercise, puzzle toys can be a lifesaver. My dog was neutered recently, and while his body was wanting to rest, his brain definitely didn’t! Crate rest, I knew, was going to be dull for him. So, I had 14 puzzle toys pre-filled and ready to keep him occupied.
Pro Tip: If your dog will be in a crate, make sure you pick a toy that fits. One of my favorites is a wobble toy that I can fill with my dog’s food, allowing me to leverage mealtimes as another way to keep his brain busy.
Sometimes, puzzle toys can be helpful when you need to get a dog to move away from you. As someone who has competed in both obedience and agility, I learned the value of puzzle toys as a training aid for these sports. One advanced obedience exercise, for example, is called a “go out.” The goal of the exercise is for the handler to send the dog out in a straight line to a designated point, 50 feet away.
You must reward your dog for a great response to a command, but if the reward is in your pocket, why would the dog leave you?
So, you place the reward where you want the dog to go. But if the food is just set out there, some dogs figure out that they can reward themselves, even when they haven’t been given permission to do so.
Over the years, trainers came up with simple devices to solve this problem. When I started decades ago, my favorite device was a film canister, which I’d hide near the target location. After I sent my dog away and sat her, I’d walk out to the canister, remove the lid, and give her the treat.
Many agility trainers today use a soft toy called a Lotus Ball. This not only safely hides food with its Velcro “petals,” it also doubles as a toy that your dog can chase and fetch!
Pro Tip: These types of toys are for training only and are not to be left alone with your dog. They’re not meant for chewing, but more as a vessel to hold the treat until you release it to your dog.
If you think a puzzle toy might be a good fit for your dog, do your research. Make sure the durability of the product matches your dog’s jaw power and that the size of the toy is appropriate for the dog’s size.
Kathy Santo trains dogs for home and competition at her New Jersey school. She is the author of Kathy Santo’s Dog Sense and has handled multiple obedience trial champions. Check out her new digital dog-training course at dogtrainingtribe.com.