Snuffleupagus

I always loved Mr. Snuffleupagus. Maybe that’s why I immediately found the idea of a snuffle mat appealing; I like the name. Too lazy to make one, I’d sort of been looking to get one for Cali, but hadn’t actually done anything.

Then, at my friend Tom’s house, I saw one for the first time. I knew that Cali would love it. The idea is that you bury kibble or treats in the mass of fleece strips, and the dog uses her nose to sniff and snuffle — and find the treats.

Cali loves food (she’s a golden, after all) and she loves using her nose. Perfect.

Tom told me that he got it from a fellow trainer who lives nearby. That’s “nearby” in Montana terms, which may not mean what you think it does.

In any case, Deni and I decided to take a nice drive one Sunday afternoon. We met trainer Joni Muir, who makes these mats during long Montana winters. We chose two colorful mats and were on our way.

Unsurprisingly, the highly food-focused girls needed little guidance. Their noses work just fine, thank you.

I took Cali’s upstairs. While I’m working, she often hangs out with me. When we need a break, I take a few minutes to hide treats in the fleece forest. I keep telling her not to watch while I hide them, but she doesn’t listen.

She then spends about 10 minutes finding them. She first does a survey of the entire mat and nabs the obvious ones. I’m using Charlee Bear treats, and they are always tucked out of sight. So the obvious ones are not obvious to me.

She then does a methodical up-and-down sniff of the entire mat, in rows. Then a second survey in columns. She is very thorough. Only once have I found a single overlooked (oversmelled?) Charlee Bear.

Koala joined us upstairs a few times while Deni was away, and I set them both up with their mats. Cali was a little pushy and got started a few seconds ahead of Koala, the instant I put the first mat on the floor. Even so, I think they had a photo finish, both scenting and scarfing their treats in a few minutes.

I suspect that, the more we use the mats, the more they will smell like food and the harder the girls will have to work to suss out the hidden treats. But their noses are so much more sensitive than mine that I can only speculate. Freshly hidden treat could smell completely different from day- or days-old treat residue. Only the dogs know!

 

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

There should not be any free lunches. No free breakfasts or dinners either, not for high-energy puppies whose humans work and who therefore have excess energy to burn. Note that “puppy,” as used here, can apply to a dog of any dog of high energy and limited exercise opportunities.

My friends have a new puppy. Another friend is getting one next weekend. What possesses people to get puppies in Montana, just as winter is settling in, I will never understand. These puppies will have lots of energy. The weather will be cold and gray. When my friends get home from work, darkness will have fallen. It will still be there when they leave the next morning.

That means the puppy needs to play inside. Fetch games with soft toys are great, and teaching her to play “tug” might be a good idea. But it’s not enough. That’s where the “no free food” idea is key.

Many, many treat toy options are out there. These all operate on a simple principle: Humans put food inside the toy; puppies and dogs work to get it out, burning energy and developing their problem-solving skills in the process. They chew, lick, paw, chase … and don’t chew shoes or pillows, shred their beds or the furniture, or paw and dismember the furniture. They expend their energy in a desirable manner. Everyone wins.

The trick is figuring out which toys your dog will like. Jana was easy. Was there food in it? She liked it. The only problem was, she could also empty and spit-polish any treat toy in about 3 seconds flat.

Cali is less willing to work for her meals. She’ll leave a partially emptied Kong and wander off to do something more interesting. More interesting than food?! For a golden? Weird, right? She’s more engaged by the toys that randomly dispense kibble as the dog rolls and bats them around. Koala gets her lunch in one of those every day.

When a longtime friend had two young Labradors, she also kept her freezer filled with Kongs stuffed with kibble and peanut butter. Jana liked those, as well as kibble softened with broth and frozen. Freezing it slows the dog down. (A little. If she’s not Jana.) Want more creative — and more challenging — fillings? Google “Kong recipes.” It’s a thing. Really.

If you have a high-energy dog or a young puppy, pick out a few treat toys at your nearest pet store (or online) and try them out. Spending 15 minutes once every several days prepping the toys is an investment that will really pay off. Feed each meal (or part of each meal) in the toy, and encourage the dog to work for it. Feed from a bowl only after the dog has emptied the toy and only if you can’t reasonable feed him all he needs in treat toys. You’ll soon notice a calmer, better-behaved dog. Which naturally leads to a calmer, happier you.

 

Squirrel Dude, the Undefeated Champion

A young Kong addict

I’ve sunk quite a bit of money into toys for Jana over the years, starting with stuffed Kongs when she was a tiny puppy. It took her only a few days to master the art of completely emptying a stuffed Kong. Soon, she had it down to mere seconds, even when I had the Kong filled with softened kibble, mixed with peanut butter and frozen (most puppies love these, and tossing in a Kong make crate training so much more fun for the puppy).

Thus, when little Jana was only a few months old, my quest began for the perfect treat toy. “Perfect” being defined as “will keep her busy for more than 10 minutes.”

I have tried everything. She has a collection of treat toys large enough to open a museum, or at least a doggy day care. Sucker that I am, I will shell out retail if I see a new toy that looks promising. Online deals are another money pit. We’ve got the Dog Puzzler, the Buster Cube, and the Twist N Treat. We’ve tried the Tricky Treat Ball, Orbee ball and TreatStik. We’ve got complete sets of Kong Genius and Busy Buddy Linkables, rubber toys of various interlocking shapes. And no, the Thinking Dog Blog does not receive any free products to try out.

Enough treat toys to stock a doggy day care

Jana is now 9 years old. She has, at long last, met her match: Squirrel Dude.

Squirrel Dude is a large purple squirrel made of hard rubber. He is hollow inside (much like Jana) so I stuff him with treats (much like Jana). Her job is to get the treats out.

Simple, no?

No.

She has been known to work at emptying Squirrel Dude for a couple of hours … and still bring him back to me with a biscuit piece or two rattling around in his belly. The introduction was made by a good friend and superior dog mommy (thanks, Emmalee!). It is a match made in heaven.

Squirrel Dude’s secret is a set of prongs or fingers that hold the treats in. That, and he’s quite fat,  so it is not easy for her to squash him enough to break the biscuits into small pieces that will fall out through the (smallish) hole.

Squirrel Dude wins the day

In many rounds of competition, Squirrel Dude has defeated Jana every time. Yet losing to this formidable purple rival has not diminished her affection for him at all. In fact, she is cradling him now, cookie bits still trapped in his belly, as she lies, exhausted, next to me.

Squirrel Dude’s closest competitor is the Busy Buddy Linkables, whose many possible configurations sometimes keep her busy for up to an hour. And the Orbee ball was an early success. Watching her figure it out — finally by rolling onto her back, squashing the ball with her jaws to break the biscuit, and manipulating the ball with her paws so the hole was lined up with her mouth and the pieces of cookie dropped right into her mouth — taught me a lot about her intelligence and problem solving ability. But she now has the whole operation down to about 3 min., and it only takes that long if I use a really thick, hard-to-crush biscuit.

What’s interesting is that Wylie is not at all interested in any of these toys. He likes the TreatStik and the Tricky Treat ball. Basically, as Deni says, he wants something he can just push around with his nose and have the treats fall out. Just goes to show that not all toys work for all dogs.

Jana, who is extraordinarily food motivated, will work much harder than Wylie to extract food from a toy. She enjoyed a TreatStik, too — only rather than push it around, she attempted to enlarge the hole the treats were falling out of. I finally took it away when she reverse-engineered it by figuring out how to unscrew the top.

I do offer her the other toys occasionally, if she needs a quick snack or if Squirrel Dude needs a day off. But, really, how can I resist a hunky purple guy who keeps my girl safely entertained for hours, challenges her mentally and wears her out?

A tired dog is a good dog, after all. And if the sweet little smile on her face is any indication, a happy dog as well.