Dogs are hunters and scavengers and naturally need to seek and search. Foraging is working to obtain food; this is often in our dog’s DNA. Many dogs forage and scavenge for food constantly, “e.g., counter surfing, scouring walks, or food.” Even my dogs have been known to steal some food off the counter! My dogs are middle-aged now and prefer eating out of a bowl with intermittent foraging games between meals. Many dogs prefer to work or have a meal. Foraging and scavenging are fundamental needs for many dogs and can be used to enrich their lives.
Introducing foraging into our dog’s enrichment plan allows our dogs to tap into their natural biology while stimulating them mentally and can help them decompress—some of the first-ever enrichment used in zoos involved monkeys. The zoo used a machine that when visitors would put change in the machine, food would be catapulted to the monkeys to find. At some point, the machine broke, and zoo employees noticed the monkeys examining the machine, trying to fix it. When the machine was fixed, they showed a high level of excitement around this game. These are some of the early games that led scientists to study enrichment or captive exotic animals, ultimately helping to enrich their lives.
The seeking and the game is the reward! Science has shown time and time again that food is a reward; this is why we use food in training.
I often hear from clients that their dogs aren’t food motivated or won’t take treats. This is a common misconception; all living beings depend on food for survival. These statements indicate that something bigger is going on, maybe an underlying health issue, too many distractions, the pay isn’t worth the job (raise the value of the treats), the job is too tricky, anxiety and fear.
Often, unwanted behaviors (e.g., counter-surfing, digging, destroying, jumping on humans, mouthing, and so much more) disappear after we find ways to meet our dog’s needs. I will often toss our dog Billy’s food in the grass in the backyard and let her forage for it, or put Bowie’s snacks in a paper towel roll, pinch the sides and allow him to bang it around or his treats. I know my dogs pretty well, which means I know Bowie doesn’t want to work for his dinner, so I use daily snacks or these games. On the other hand, Billy loves to work hard for food; she doesn’t become frustrated around working or having a meal. You can also purchase interactive games, snuffle mats and wobble toys where your dog can bang them around, and the food flies out!
When using foraging for enrichment, we often want to look at each animal individually, making sure that our enrichment is rewarding to them. I’ve seen dogs become frustrated with kongs; it can be hard to figure out. We want them to be able to get food out to start with, and consistently, the longer they go not being able to get the food out, the more frustrated they become. How many of us have experienced a game that we’re terrible at and are ready to throw the entire thing at our opponent? I hate the game of pool because I’m terrible at it! On the other hand, how fun is a game of cards when you and your opponents are neck and neck, both winning? Right? We want a mixture of wins and losses! Not too easy and not too hard.
The key is to observe your animals, help them, and make sure they’re winning and occasionally losing but consistently. You may choose an enrichment activity for your dogs. Bowie loves the snuffle mat, and my dog Billy loves to play games and puzzles. I have to sit and help him and cheer him on. Billy goes to town.
If a dog has a learning history using punishment and treats, “reward the good and punish the bad,” the dog can connect to discipline and food. This will poison the reward, and dogs will avoid taking treats in the presence of humans. This also teaches them that they are unpredictable and may result in punishment when foraging.
There is much to say on this subject. Reach out if you have any questions!
Underdogs Long Beach uses force-free dog training methods to build relationships between dogs and owners.
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