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When Food Toys “Fail”

Eileen Anderson discusses the pros and cons of food puzzle toys and their significance from a behavioral perspective

Photo by Marge Rogers CPDT-KA

ow many of us have heard about foodtoy failures from our friends and clients? “I tried the Kong with my puppy, but she didn’t like it,” or, “My dog is not smart enough for those puzzle toys!" There is an ever-increasing variety of food toys for dogs and other animals on the market. There are toys of differing complexity. There are toys that demand problem solving and toys that necessitate complex motor skills. Dog owners are fortunate to have more and more choices to enrich their dogs’ lives. Yet many of these toys are gathering dust, have been passed off at garage sales or have even been thrown out because the owners did not realize that dogs need to learn how to interact with them successfully—or because the toys had features that made them frustrating or scary to the dog. In this article, I will discuss some common problems with food toys through the lens of applied behavior analysis. Remember that the smallest unit of behavior we can analyze is an antecedent (a stimulus or event that sets the stage for a behavior), a behavior (anything an animal does that can be measured) and a consequence (a stimulus or event that immediately follows a behavior and influences its future strength).

Behaviors: Building Skills

The most common problem with food toys is that the

dog lacks the skills to get to the food and the owner does not understand how to teach him. Many food toys come with no instructions for the naive dog. For instance, toys that have a cavity that can be filled with food, Of the plethora of dog toys on the market, none such as Kongs, of them are indestructible are assumed by most consumers to be easy and fun for dogs to use. The marketing materials lead them to believe this, showing dogs chewing, licking and batting around full toys to dislodge the food and even playing with empty ones. However, if the toy is initially presented at its most difficult level, which is often what is shown in advertising, demo videos and discussion groups, many dogs cannot be successful. The “recipes” found for these toys on the internet are often elaborate and challenging, with fillings solidified by freezing or melted cheese. Special biscuits can be purchased for some toys that can’t be shaken or rolled out and require the dog to crush the whole toy or saturate the food by licking before it will get to eat anything. When an owner presents a challenge like this to a new puppy or even an inexperienced, well-fed or timid adult dog, the animal will often sniff at the toy, perhaps poke it with its nose or lick it for a while, then give up. Then the pet owner may say, “Well, my dog doesn’t like food toys,” and also give up. Let’s look at what behaviors a dog needs to succeed at using one of these toys. They might include licking,

BARKS from the Guild/October 2014

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BARKS from the Guild Autumn 2014  

Published quarterly and managed by Susan Nilson, "BARKS from the Guild" presents a collection of valuable business and technical articles as...

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