Does Your Dog Play with His Food?

Most people have heard the admonition “Stop playing with your food!” at some point during their childhood.


It is rare to hear the dog version of this rebuke, however, especially if you live with Golden Retrievers (or Labs……). When the food is only in the bowl for 30 seconds, there is little time for playing with it.


However, there is a version of playing with one’s food that may be acceptable for dogs. A group of researchers at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine recently studied this (1).

The Study:  The scientists were interested in measuring the effects of using food-delivery toys as a primary feeding method, compared with the traditional bowl-feeding approach. They recruited a group of 26 client-owned, adult dogs, all living in homes with their owners. For periods of two weeks, the dogs were fed either from a food bowl (control) or using a food-dispensing toy (Busy Buddy toys, produced by Radio Systems Corporation). Because the food-delivery toys dispensed dry kibble, only dogs that were fed dry, extruded dog foods were included in the study. The sequence of the feeding method was alternated (i.e. half of the dogs received bowl-feeding first and then switched, while the other half received toy-feeding first and then switched). Total daily activity was recorded throughout each period using a Vetrax activity monitor, attached to the dog’s collar.

Results: Twenty-four dogs completed the study and successfully learned to use a food-dispensing toy for meal delivery. When fed using the toy, the dogs significantly increased both the amount of time that they were active per day (average values; 101.6 minutes when fed with a toy vs. 90.4 minutes when fed from a bowl), and the amount of time that they spent walking each day  (average values; 94.4 minutes when fed with a toy vs. 75.1 minutes when fed with a bowl). Increasing age was associated with lower overall activity and less increase in walking minutes. Although the dogs in the study were not overweight, the authors concluded: “Feeding toys may be helpful during weight loss programs to achieve the goal of increasing daily exercise duration in dogs that need to lose weight”.

Take Away for Dog Folks: These data tell us that feeding a dog with a kibble-dispensing toy can lead to an increase in total daily activity of 10 minutes and an increase in total walking time of around 20 minutes. The authors present these numbers as percentages (12 % and 26 % respectively), which serves to enhance their perceived magnitude. However, walking around the house for an additional 20 minutes per day needs to be considered in context. These dogs were not out for a lovely walk in the neighborhood or playing fetch with their owner in the park during these added minutes of movement. Rather they were spending this time following a food toy around the kitchen or utility room floor. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It is just important, in my view, to consider the entire experience of the dog, rather than simply report it as an increase in time spent being active and to then conclude that this approach is desirable for increasing activity in dogs who are overweight.

Hmmm… is beginning to appear that I may have an opinion about these data…… 


I admit I am conflicted about this study and the conclusions that the authors make.

On one hand, I think food-delivery toys are a handy enrichment tool. They can have great utility when used as a “safety cue” for home-alone training and for teaching dogs to remain on a mat or to be comfortable in a crate. For dogs who are fed dry kibble, I can accept that they can provide an enjoyable alternative to bowl feeding. Though not measured in this study, the mental stimulation of simply working at a toy to extract tasty treats is also considered to be an benefit by many trainers (including myself). 

But here is the source of my discomfort.

As with any training tool, even those that carry the venerated label “enrichment toy”, my concern is that these devices substitute for other forms of social interaction and exercise. According to the authors of the paper, “…food-dispensing toys may be of specific value for increasing walking – a desirable activity in dogs undergoing treatment for obesity”. In my view, recommendations of this type could lead an owner to rationalize that their dog, via the use of a food-delivery toy, is receiving adequate levels of exercise – even enough to help him to lose weight (!). Subsequently, increasing dog walks or trips to the park, adding a new training activity, or going swimming may no longer be considered necessary. In addition to providing excellent physical exercise and mental stimulation, these activities are also highly social in nature. Unlike food-delivery toys (and remember, I do like these toys….in moderation), walking, training, playing and just hangin’ out with our dogs are all activities that we share, that increase our bond and the love that we have for our dogs, and which are mutually beneficial and enjoyable.

I have one additional concern. This may seem like a minor point, but I think we need to consider the many different forms of food that are fed to dogs. Because most of these toys dispense only dry kibble or semi-soft treats, they by design limit the type of food that an owner can choose to feed. Personally, like many others, I am no longer a “kibble only” feeder. Today, many dog owners feed no dry foods at all. In these cases, the use of food-delivery toys, except when used for training purposes, is pretty much off of the table.


For my own dogs, the small increase in activity and walking minutes per day, coupled with the restrictions on the type of food that can be fed, make feeding this way a non-starter. Frankly, I would rather go walking with my dogs or spend a bit more time training with them than rely upon an odd-moving toy that spits out bits of kibble to increase their activity.  While I completely agree that these toys have use as enrichment devices, they should be add-ons rather than replacements for, other, social (and in my opinion, much more valuable) interactions with our dogs.

Does your dog play with his food? If so, that’s great! Just make sure that he is also playing with you!

Happy Training, All.


Cited Study: Su Dk, Murphy M, Hand A, Zhu X, Witzel-Rollins A. Impact of feeding method on overall activity of indoor, client-owned dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice 2019; DO! 10.1111/jsap.13003.

Interested in Learning More about Canine Nutrition? Take a Look at the Science Dog Courses!


Wish to read more about dog training and behavior? See “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“!

22 thoughts on “Does Your Dog Play with His Food?

  1. Pingback: A New Scoop for Citizen Scientists | The Science Dog

  2. Pingback: Enrichment Activities | The Science Dog

  3. I agree that involving your dog in an interactive game is the best thing for both parties. It’s not just about the food / treats. After all, if you didn’t want to spend time with your dog, why did you get him in the first place?

    I think that puzzles / feeding toys can be a benefit for specific situations. You also need to define “playing with their food”. As an SPCA foster parent, I have researched and tried many food delivery systems to slow down the pups who inhale their food. I don’t consider these devices “toys” since I have cared for dogs that will routinely eat so quickly that they upchuck their meal minutes after consumption. Many of them are so food desperate that hand feeding them a treat can be a dangerous thing to do until you get their food obsession under control.

    Sometimes you need to leave a pup and provide a distraction to alleviate separation anxiety or to just keep him from eating the house in your absence. My own Border Collie was a combination of these as a puppy. I used both stuffed Kongs combined with Hide-n-Seek to occupy him when I had to leave the house. Now this is his favourite game when I have to leave for an appointment. I have another household member hide the Kongs while I take him for a potty break. He gets SO excited that he cannot focus on the break – he wants to Search! I believe that this Search has become a game because I don’t always feed kibble and his Kongs are frequently stuffed with any combination of freeze-dried food, sardines, cheese, biscuit bits, peanut butter…

    For Shelter dogs, these food-dispensing toys are a godsend. Volunteers are not always available to interact with them and staff have daily tasks that prevent them from spending all day with the animals. A decent food-dispensing toy (or 2) helps Shelter pups pass the time and distracts them from their anxiety over being in the shelter. The shelter is often an emotionally exhausting and anxiety producing place. Think about it like living in a condo with thin walls and you get to hear your neighbors yell and scream at each other all day / night. You might find that distressing no matter how laid back a personality you are. If a dog can get distracted and relaxed by “playing” with is food in this situation, I am all for it!


  4. I took the headline literally. My puppy used to play with his food–eat some food, tip the dish over, push the food around, eat some food, bite the dish, eat some food, etc. etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In some homes (like mine), these feeders simply aren’t feasible. I have two dogs. I have one who would likely (I’ve never tested this, so I won’t say she definitely would) finish her amount of food and then go on her way. My puppy mill survivor, however, would likely finish hers, fight her sister (with whom she typically gets along quite well–unless food is involved) for additional food and eat it–in her case, it wouldn’t help with obesity, it would lead to it (not to mention dog fights and vet bills–while no dog fight is a “pretty sight”, a fight between two giant breeds–a Great Dane and an Irish Wolfhound in our case, is especially frightening and difficult and even dangerous to break up). Yes, we feed our dogs in separate locations (always). I’ve often wondered if these food dispensing toys can be used in many multiple dog homes. I think they’re great when used safely and appropriately–but allowing them to substitute for walks, play sessions, training, etc. isn’t appropriate use; using them in homes where they lead to dog fights isn’t safe use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point, Jan. In the study, the researchers only accepted dogs in single-dog families, for exactly this reason. It would certainly be more challenging to feed using a food-dispensing toy with multiple dogs (and if not carefully supervised, could cause more problems than benefits, certainly!). Linda


  6. I’m a canine massage and rehab practitioner. A lot of the dogs I see are overweight and others who are on cage rest or restricted exercise benefit from using food dispensing toys for different reasons – enrichment. They should never be considered a single solution to a problem and that is where retailers of the items should be putting them into context. Any professional working with dogs should be offering a holistic program to help dogs and owners. I feel the same way about dog foods that are ‘prescribed’ for health problems like weight loss and dental care. The solution is not a single dog food that will be fed for life. Our poor dogs suffer the consequences when this happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points, DoggyMom. I agree that these toys can be of benefit, but also worry that they can be overused. My concern with the study was more with the conclusions that were made. Since the researchers did not measure caloric expenditure in the dogs and because non of the dogs lost weight (nor were they overweight to begin with), stating that using a food-delivery toy for weight loss programs with dogs was simply not supported by the study design or data. (And completely agree with your final two lines). Thanks for posting! Linda


  7. Totally agree that food toys are additions to an already enriched life, not activity replacements! Just wanted to add that Slo Bowls and Kongs are great options for wet food. And for some dogs I think they can even facilitate the “eat in peace” process. One of my dogs inhales an entire meal in 15 seconds when fed from a bowl, and is more relaxed after eating from a Slo Bowl or Kong. The other takes 10 minutes to eat off a plate, so she only gets a Slo Bowl every now and then for treats.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. For the vast majority of dogs I prefer to let them eat and enjoy their food from the bowl. But I love to give dogs special food treat toys for entertainment and when I need to get my yard work done so I don’t have to stop and throw the toy every 30-seconds. (They could never entertain themselves with the IPad)

    Rather than use kibble I prefer to use a freeze dried meat or freeze dried raw food to keep the carbs down.

    I have 12 on my list and a few are crossovers depending on how used. The only Busy Buddy toy I like to use is the Twist-n-Treat.

    I basically put them in one of two categories.
    • bump/drop/nudge (8)
    • stationary/placement food stuffed or frozen toys (5)

    For placement type toys I like to use raw, light cooked, or freeze dried foods that are frozen with water. Great for summer time to keep the dogs entertained and hydrated on hot days.

    One consideration with the bump/drop/nudge food toys is that they can be emptied rather quickly which is fine for the less persistent dogs. But for the more committed I often crumble up and place an unbleached coffee filter in these type toys to slow the delivery down.

    This reminded me of the amount of calories a dog expends to cover 1 km.
    “a 30-kg dog expends about 30 kcal to cover 1 km on a flat surface, regardless of how fast it walks or runs”

    So I calculated a 30 kg dog (66 lbs) walking at 3.5 mph would cover about 6/10 of a mile and burn 30 calories. So by that measure it would take close to 4 months (116.6 days) to burn 3500 calories (1 lb).

    For me toys and food stuffed toys are just one part of giving dogs an abundant life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for posting, Glen, and for the detailed information (love your calorie program – I recommend it frequently!). Great that you put the caloric expenditure issue into clear perspective. The researchers did not publish the distance that was associated with the added 20 minutes per day. However, a relatively slow walking pace (for people and dogs) is about 20 minutes per mile, so if the dogs were walking an extra mile per day, per your calculations that would be ~ 50 kcals more per day – not very much! Like you, we also use stuffed toys with our own dogs and with clients’ dogs in exactly the same way – as a cue for “quiet/chew time” and for teaching dogs to enjoy staying on a mat. Like your categories also as it is important to make this distinction, I think. Thanks, as always, for your helpful input! Linda


  9. Personally I feel that the main problem with
    food dispensing toys, snuffle mats, etc, is that the treat is ‘KIBBLE’ (aka dried pelletised
    ‘stuff)’? 😦
    On top of that, having lost a heart dog to a poison bait, and having friends whose dogs have been baited (and killed) the last thing that I want to encourage is ‘scrounging for food’. A good wet food in a bowl is an excellent feeding choice. Raw spongy bones are far more rewarding than food puzzles.
    My dog are only supposed to eat either from the bowl (which we have given them) or from our hands. This is because I love them and want them to be safe and healthy.
    And finally I do think that ‘enrichment’ should be social enrichment WITH the dog’s person. Walks, games, trick training.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My 5 year old Canaan Dog always “plays when eating.” Her kibble is placed in 3 large Kong toys. Each holds about 1/3 cup. She paws at the Kong and then grabs it and takes it outside via her doggie door. She then throws the Kong either on the patio or on the grass. Kibble goes flying and she goes “hunting.” If weather is bad she drops the Kong indoors and then searches for the kibble.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My Lab (10-year-old female and constant companion) became instantly and horribly addicted to Nina Ottoson’s “Pyramid of Treats,” which gave her a kibble every time she bumped it with her nose. She would come to me from morning to night with desperation in her eyes, using the signal that used to mean “I have to poop right now!”
    She still plays the other Ottoson puzzles, but only in the hour before a meal. And even with those I have my doubts–and agree that doing things together is a better activity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Nicole – Thanks so much for posting this. I agree that these puzzles can be addictive and can have negative consequences. (See “Manners Minder and Me”, a post about the remote food delivery devices). So glad you recognized this for what it was in your girl – and were able to restore sanity to your home and relationship! Linda


  12. Here is my main concern: I’m not sure dogs should be spending their time trying to figure out how to get to their main food/nutrient source. Unless we agree that it mimics “hunting behavior” (puh-lease…), I believe at least half of their main food source should be eaten in comfort, little to no distractions, no fear of losing said food and just for the pure enjoyment of eating! Training exercises, a walk in the park with lots of treats or just “playing” with your dog goes a longer way than sitting down and watching them chase kibble around the kitchen IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Renelle – LOVE this comment – thank you!! Such a great point – we control so very much (everything really) in our dogs lives. Allowing them to eat in peace and enjoy their meal with no distractions or fear of losing their food is so, so true. Thank you for stating this so beautifully!


    • I’d say it depends on the dog as well. (Not whether they need exercise and training – they all do of course – but whether they enjoy food toys or not.) My parents’ dog wants nothing to do with Kongs; she’d rather just wait for someone to come and get the food out for her. My dog seems to like them; when I make a frozen one for her and give it to her, she prances around with it like she’s just been given a special bone, and then settles down and chews it. Sometimes she will roll on her back and chew it like that for awhile because she’s a dork. XD Definitely agree that at least half of the dog’s food should be served in a bowl for them to just eat. I also think there’s no point trying to get a dog to eat out of a food toy if they don’t want to. If they don’t want to than just leave them be.
      Also: I have a message for people who get dogs and then refuse to put the time into proper exercise, training, and quality time:

      Liked by 1 person

Have a comment? Feel welcome to participate!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s