Use Food to Engage Your Dog

Dogs don’t care about dollars or diamonds or if you have a hefty bank account or a vacation home in the Bahamas. No matter the age, size, breed or activity level, dogs are laser focused on the coveted canine currency: f-o-o-d.

Use this meaty knowledge to your advantage. Engage your dog strategically with tasty treats and yummy meals to boost his brainpower, elevate his emotional mood and hone his physical shape. Oh, and make him view you as the top dog in his life.

“It’s true. A dog’s emotions are tied to food,” says Cara Armour, a certified professional dog trainer and president of Active Paws based in Waltham, Massachusetts. “What is good for the body can be good for the mind.”

Dogster reached out to leading professional dog trainers to discover specific ways to use food to engage your dog so he can enjoy a fuller life with you. Consider these tactics:

Engage Your Dog

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Reduce anxiety by practicing mealtime flexibility.

It may seem like your dog sports an invisible watch — especially near mealtime. However, serving meals the minute you get up and, say, 5 p.m. sharp every day can actually cause distress and anxiety in your dog if you run late serving his meal. Maureen Patin, head trainer and co-founder of What A Great Dog training center in Frisco and Richardson, Texas, recommends not being a clock watcher.

“Resist feeding your dog the minute you wake up because you may motivate your dog to wake you up earlier,” Maureen says. “Wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get up so your dog does not associate you getting out of bed with instant feeding. As for dinner, feed your dog within a range of one to two hours. Mixing up mealtime will reduce the anxiety in your dog.”

Feed your dogs in separate rooms.

Or use visual blocking barriers like putting each food bowl on the floor on opposite sides of the kitchen island to keep your dogs from seeing one another as they eat.

“This will prevent what is known as ‘stink eye’ — one dog stopping and staring at the other dog in a defensive or offensive manner,” Maureen says. “Mealtime should feel safe. If a dog feels stressed and the need to eat quickly, the food will not be digested well. Visual blocking or feeding dogs in separate, closed rooms can reduce stress and even food-triggered fights.”

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Unleash your dog’s inner hunter.

One of your dog’s prized hunting tools is at the end of his muzzle — his nose.

“Nose work highlights one of a dog’s top senses and engages his brain,” Cara says.
She recommends cutting up small pieces of cheese. With your dog watching, “hide” a piece of cheese in an easy-to-find spot and tell your dog to “find it.” Your dog smells the cheese, finds it and eats it quickly.

“Gradually increase the distance and location so your dog may have to push away something to get a treat,” Cara adds. “Dogs like to problem solve, especially when there is a food reward.”

Related: Why Dogs Love Nose Work

Engage Your Dog

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Brighten rainy days with engaging indoor food games.

Purchase or get crafty and create a snuffle mat to hide treats in for your dog to sniff out. A snuffle mat is made of fleece strips tied on to a rubber mat with holes in it to provide perfect hiding spots for the treasured treats.

Related: 5 Rainy Day Ideas to Keep Dogs Active Indoors

Or, go low-tech and turn an empty paper towel roll into a homemade treat puzzle, Cara says.

“Dogs like to work for their food, so my husband and I save paper towels to make into food puzzles for our Boxers,” she says. “It is fun watching them figure out how to find the treats.”

Test your dog’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t skills.

Professional dog trainer Teoti Anderson is a fan of the cup game. With your dog watching, place a treat in one of three plastic drinking cups lined up. Shuffle them.

Then call your dog over and have him try to sniff out the cup harboring the hidden treat.

“Make it easy for your dog to find so he doesn’t become frustrated,” adds Teoti, past president of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Photo: RyanJLane | Getty Image

Engage your dog with a “sniffari” walk.

Many dogs get bored on walks done at the same time, for the same duration and at the same location. They can get anxious if they sense your impatience to quickly potty so you can return home. On occasion, take him to a new place and give him time to sniff and even choose which direction to safely take. Dole out treats at random intervals to reinforce your dog’s sniffing adventures.

“A sniff walk is a positive enrichment for a dog,” Maureen says. “Sniffing is so important for dogs of all ages to experience their world. You may find yourself feeling less stressed as well when you focus on the present moment of spending time with your dog.”

Become your dog’s personal chef.

For special occasions, such as birthdays, adoption anniversaries or winning an agility ribbon, don your apron and treat your dog to a homemade meal or treats.

Let him hang out with you in the kitchen as you prepare this canine feast. Select recipes containing dog-safe people foods and, if necessary, check with your veterinarian first. A favorite treat for my dogs, Kona, Bujeau and Emma is Marvelous Mutt Meatballs from my book, Real Food for Dogs.

Become more popular than squirrels.

Some dogs can go bonkers when they spot a squirrel just out of leash reach or get overly excited at the sight of a leashed dog coming his way. Scolding or hard staring at your dog when he lunges or barks can increase stress in your dog.
Maureen’s solution? Make yourself more appealing by rapid firing small treats to your dog to get him to shift his focus on you.

“Of course, doing body blocking and maintaining safe distance from another dog helps, but your goal is to get your dog to associate the sight of another dog — or a squirrel — with you handing out treats,” she explains. “Eventually, your dog will be trained that when he sees a strange dog, he will immediately look up to you and convey, ‘Hey, isn’t this the time to get treats?’”

Go high-tech with a treat-dispensing machine.

To keep your home-alone dog engaged while you are at work, set up a treat-
dispensing camera that enables you to keep an eye on your dog and remotely release treats for his enjoyment. Among the best sellers are Petcube Bites 2 Dog Camera, the Furbo Dog Camera and Petzi Treat Cam.

Engage Your Dog

Photo: damedeeso | Getty Image

Engage your dog with low-calorie treats.

Dogs love treat time, but doling out too many treats can cause your dog to pack on the pounds and sport more waddle than wiggle.

“Obesity is the No. 1 health threat pets face, and the most important pet-health decision owners make each day is what and how much they feed,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

So, how do you still keep the thrill of being a treat dispenser while keeping your dog at a healthy weight? Select healthy treats high in nutrition and low in calories.

That means paying attention to the ingredients on the label and the percentage of fat content.

Veterinary nutritionists recommend fat content to be within 5% to 20%. Fat, at a safe amount, helps provide your dog with energy, boost the flavor of some foods and maintain a healthy, shiny coat.

Boost your dog’s self-confidence with alone time.

Especially during COVID-19, with people and their dogs quarantined in place, the need for quiet alone time is invaluable for your dog.

“Allow your dog some me-alone time with treat puzzles or safe chews in a separate closed room away from the noise and distractions of the family,” says Mikkel Becker, lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. “You are teaching your dog to develop positive independence at a mealtime or treat time. It teaches them that they do not need constant love and attention from you to feel safe and OK.”


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