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