Orly Conquers the Kong

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.

3 month old Orly and 9 year old Cali, both golden retrievers, empty their Toppl food toysWe’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.


Koala Struggles with Ethics

Golden Retriever Cali gently bats and noses her treat ball to get the kibble out.

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

Black Lab Koala nudges her orange treat toy to empty and eat the kibble that’s inside

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.

The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

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.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’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…


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?


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.