Orly loves her Kong. The bouncy red toy signals food of course. She’s gotten adept at emptying them far more quickly than I can fill them. When she was about 3 months old, she figured out that if she backed the Kong into a corner, it would stay still for her to dig deep into it and extract every last bit of food. She doesn’t even need to hold it in place with her paws!
I can still slow her down if I pack the food in tightly. If I simply mix her kibble with peanut butter or yogurt, she empties the Kong in under a minute.
But if I soften the kibble with warm water and then really stuff it in there, I can keep her busy for several minutes! When that gets to be too easy, I will escalate further: Freezing the softened-kibble-stuffed Kong.
We’ve branched out beyond Kongs, too. She has a big orange treat ball that slowly gives up bits of dry kibble as she rolls it around. (Cali loves that one too.) She’s got the longtime champ, Squirrel Dude, a purple Kong knockoff that is much harder to empty. We’ve got some newer toys, too: The West Paw Toppl is well loved by both Cali and Orly. I have offered them that one with frozen yogurt, though that can get messy and is a better option during outdoor-snacking weather.
The food toys slow down her eating and also tire her out a bit (nothing really tires her out these days) and keep her entertained. I use them for her puppy lunches, often in hopes of keeping her busy while I have work meetings. It rarely works; she finishes emptying her toys long before the meetings end.
I enjoy watching her figure out new ways to empty her treat toys, showing creativity and intelligence as she solves the problem of extracting food from a moving object.
In addition to her swim therapy, Cali has had a few acupuncture treatments. These, along with her new pain meds, are intended to help Cali deal with her painful muscles and readjust her gait.
Fortunately, Cali is not bothered by needles. I’m not sure she even notices when she gets a shot at the vet’s; she’s too focused on the treats.
That must be the case at acupuncture, too. The first time we went, Cali got a Toppl toy filled with … I am not sure what, but Cali loved it. I’m not sure she noticed the acupuncture; she was deeply engrossed in licking clean this wonderful new treat toy.
The Toppl is a cup-shaped toy made by West Paw, a Montana company that makes indestructible dog toys. I have since gotten her her own Toppl, which I fill with Greek yogurt and freeze. She gets that after each swim therapy session, since we all know how hungry one gets after swimming.
But I digress.
Acupuncture. Cali gets needled in her back. Both times, one muscle twitched strongly several times when the needles went in. This is apparently a sign that the muscle is releasing tension.
The second time we went, the Toppl toys had all been emptied by some hungry Labs (I wonder if they also swim), so Cali had to make do with regular treats. She was a little more restless and at one point, she stood up and gave a big shake.
Once a muscle relaxes, the needles become loose and can just fall out. So … well. Needles went flying! Fortunately, they have bright red tops, so we quickly found them all.
The combination of swimming, acupuncture, and meds seems to be working. Cali has been energetic and playful to the point of constantly asking me to go outside with her and throw the ball. She even brings it back (sometimes)! And we’re taking longer walks in the neighborhood and along the river, too.
Koala faces daily ethical dilemmas, as do many dogs. She’s a highly educated dog who loves to show off her smarts. She also tends to follow rules. But something about the puppy lunch routine is her ethical undoing.
The routine is predictable: Deni gets the girls their puppy lunch each day. Koala brings the treat balls upstairs; Deni fills them; and everyone heads downstairs for PL, as we’ve begun calling it (as if they girls don’t understand …). After PL, Koala puts both treat balls into their little box, and she gets an a cookie as payment for her work.
A daily dilemma
For a while, Koala did daily battle with her inner bad dog.
She’d quickly finish emptying her treat ball.
But Cali works more slowly. Koala couldn’t stand it. Cali had a treat ball and she didn’t! She began plotting. Each day, she’d try to steal Cali’s. She had to do it without attracting Deni’s attention, of course.
Cali got crafty. She took to batting her treat ball around a very small, sheltered spot. She was on a dog bed, up against a wall, and hemmed in by furniture, so there was only one open access point.
Deni ultimately caught on. She began giving Cali her treat ball inside the office (where Cali continued using the sheltered space) — and banned Koala from the office until Cali finished.
Well. Koala hated that. She’d whine outside the door in frustration.
Cali gets revenge
Cali, however, quickly figured out how to exploit the situation. It takes her longer and longer to slooowwwly empty her treat ball. She then tucks it under a paw, snuggles it gently, and takes a brief nap. All while Koala rages whiningly outside the door.
When Cali has tired of toying with Koala, she gently nudges Deni to let her know that she’s done. Koala then puts the balls away and gets a treat.
Deni has discovered that, even if she’s not there, Koala won’t go into the office to steal Cali’s treat ball. Koala is generally very good about following rules, even rules she hates.
But she will find Deni and badger her until Deni goes downstairs, takes the ball, and lets Koala put the balls away.
I don’t understand …
A related example: Let’s say the girls have finished their treat toys, and Deni is nowhere to be found. So I ask Koala to put the balls away. She knows perfectly well what to do; she does it every day. She puts other things away, too, like toys in the toy box.
Yet, it never fails: She flings the ball down outside of the box. Over and over. And demands a cookie each time. When I don’t give her one, instead repeating, “Please put the ball away, in the box, Koala,” she huffs, puffs, scowls, flings it harder, insists that she has no idea what I want her to do.
I figured out a way to cut this tantrum short. Today, each time she flung the ball anywhere except the box, I calmly handed a cookie to Cali, a willing sidekick in this exercise. I then asked Koala (again) to put the ball away.
Two Cali cookies later, amid disbelieving looks (and many more huff and puffs) from Koala, the ball was in the box. Koala finally got her cookie.
When a good dog behaves badly
Koala is generally a very good dog. So, why does she do bad things when she clearly knows what she’s supposed to do? Who knows? Why does anyone? Maybe it’s just a game the girls play. Or just sisters tormenting each other. When Koala heads back to Florida, she may miss this daily battle. Cali will; she doesn’t even get PL when Deni isn’t here. She does get her snuffle mat, though.
For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.
I was wrong.
Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.
Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.
But I digress.
Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.
Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.
Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.
Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.
Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.
It’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.
Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)
When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.
Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…
Trainers are great at telling dog owners that their dogs’ “bad” behavior is due to boredom. The trainers might not always be as clear about what those dog owners should do about it.
Many people who have dogs also have jobs. Jobs that actually require them to show up someplace other than their home and work on things other than entertaining the dog. Unreasonable, right? So says Cali.
Fortunately for all of these dogs, a multibillion-dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of convincing us humans to fork over lots of money to purchase toys to entertain our dogs. Toys aren’t the only way to offer mental stimulation to a bored stay-at-home dog. Here are some ideas:
Long daily walks — This one is good for both of you! Let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. This could mean the walk takes a long time without covering much ground, but allowing for a smell walk every day — or dedicating part of an exercise walk to smell — will offer your dog more mental stimulation and make the walk much more fun.
Doggy daycare or hiking groups — Once or twice a week is enough for many dogs. Being with other dogs offers stimulation. Walking and sniffing in new places also does. Several hours of that can tire even the most indefatigable adolescent.
A class — You do have to be present for this one, but a rigorous class can provide mental and physical challenges that burn off some of that excess energy. Look for agility, Rally, nose work, basic manners, even prep for social therapy dog certification. Again, being around other dogs, even if they don’t really interact, is stimulating, as is learning new things. And you can practice for a few minutes each evening, giving you great bonding time with your dog and, you guessed it, challenging him and tiring him out. (Sense a theme here?)
Play games based on what you learned in that class — after doing nose work classes with both Jana and Cali, I played hide and seek games where I hid their “bait box,” the scent we used in class, and let them search. It takes only about 10 minutes to do 3-4 searches, and the dogs loved it.
Home-schooling — A trainer friend recommends books by Kyra Sundance for simple instructions on teaching your dog fun and easy tricks. It’s great for your relationship (unless you lose your patience …). Offer lots of treats, keep it fun, and keep sessions to about 5 minutes.
Treat toys — Last but certainly not least, treat toys are a staple. There’s a huge variety on the market. Some are interactive, which means you have to actually play with the dog … but many can be left with the dog when you go to work. Kongs are the most familiar, and there are literally thousands of “recipes” for stuffing Kongs if you Google it. Try several types and see what your dog likes. Experiment to find stuffings that the dog likes enough that she’ll keep working at the toy until it’s empty, but that she can’t lick clean in 5 minutes or less. Each dog is different: Jana could clean a Kong in seconds flat, but Cali loses interest when it’s still half full.
A caveat: If you see that the dog is able to easily damage the toy, throw the toy away. You want durable toys that your dog loves but won’t destroy. Leave two or three with the dog when you head out to work in the morning. Hide them to make it even more challenging. If your dog loves treat toys, buy a bunch and rotate them. Keep it interesting. One friend who had two black Labs kept a large bin in her freezer filled with stuffed Kongs and other toys so she always had a supply ready. Inspect them every so often and toss the ones that are cracking, have chunks bitten out, or otherwise seem unsafe.
Safe chew toys — Identify safe chew toys and let the dog have access to these all the time. Consumables like rawhide are not safe and the dog should not have those when you are not around to supervise. I use antlers, but I know that there are many opinions on what is safe, ethical, etc. so you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.
Offering mental stimulation pays off; even if you do the stimulating activities in the evening after work, the dog will be less bored overall. This should result in less destructive behavior. If your dog is young, particularly those 6 months to about 2 or 3 years old, there is no amount of stimulation or exercise that will truly tire him out. But the more acceptable options you offer, the less time the dog will spend destroying your home, shoes, and clothing. (Also: Young, untrustworthy dogs should not have the run of the house when you are not there. But that is a whole separate discussion.)
Puppy lunch is Deni and Koala’s name for the midday treat ball break that Koala has trained Deni to give her. The time keeps moving up; it would be more aptly named Puppy brunch, since Koala starts asking for it around 10 am, but that is a different story. Deni and I call it PL, as if Koala, and now Cali, won’t know what we’re talking about. Right.
But I digress.
Koala gets about a quarter-cup of kibble in her large orange treat ball. Cali now gets a smaller amount of kibble in a smaller yellow treat ball. Before anyone howls about unfairness, keep in mind that most dogs stop getting puppy lunch at about 4 months of age. Koala is over 4 years old and Cali is 6. Neither needs puppy lunch, but Koala has everyone convinced that she must eat multiple small meals a day to survive.
Also, Cali doesn’t seem to care. When I gave her a larger treat ball, she lost interest in it well before it was empty. Her lack of fanatical, desperate obsession with food is the least golden-ey thing about her.
They get PL in the downstairs TV / dog play area.
I’ve written in the past about how good Koala is at avoiding obstacles and keeping her treat ball from rolling under things. This large open area is easy for her. She rolls and chases the ball the full length and width of the room, vacuuming up the kibble as it falls out.
Cali has a different strategy. She takes her ball to the dog bed that is in a corner. It’s got walls on two sides and the sofa on the third. She stands in the open end, and gently bats her ball around the small, contained space. It can’t roll under the sofa because the dog bed blocks the bottom opening. This gives her a very easy way to keep track of the ball, get all of the kibble, and stay out of Koala’s zooming, looping path.
This simple strategy shows Cali’s characteristic calm, almost offhand, intelligence. She figures things out and makes the world work for her, in a quiet, unassuming way. She’s fine letting Koala’s exuberance claim the spotlight, and she doesn’t seem to mind that Koala’s treat ball fun lasts a bit longer.
It’s similar when the girls are picking up their toys (which does not happen often enough). Koala leaps and runs and bounces around, flinging toys toward the basket. One occasionally lands inside; others land nearby. She’ll toss the same toy at the basket 3 or 4 times, growing increasingly agitated — at the lack of praise and cookies from Deni. Cali, meanwhile, slowly gets a toy and thrusts it into my hand. (She and I have not worked much on putting things into the basket, for which I take full responsibility.)
Cali’s not always quiet and calm; she’s true to her golden heritage when visitors come or we meet a human, any human, walking down the street. She’s as wriggly and excited to meet a new friend as to greet an old friend. But I really do enjoy her thoughtful approach to problem solving.