In the wild, dogs and other members of the canine family don't lounge around all day, eat one or two meals all at once from one source, and then use a huge burst of energy as they go out for one daily walk.
While our pet dogs are no wilder than we are, at least we get to go to the supermarket to fetch our food. We can go in and out of the house whenever we like, and we get to choose when we'll be active and when we won't.
We cannot allow our dogs to hunt their own food, or to come and go from our property as they please. Well, some 'owners' do, but the majority, who are responsible pet owners, won't because it's illegal in the UK for dogs to be out on their own under normal circumstances.
So, how do we make life a little more interesting for our pets? We take them back to nature and let them forage, under controlled conditions, within the boundaries of our homes. Hunting with dogs is illegal, so we can't take them out to catch their own dinner; but dogs are scavengers as well as hunters - it's why stray dogs survive. Let them find their own food; this will be rewarding for most dogs as it lets them use their natural instincts, cuts down on problems caused by gulping their food too quickly, and keeps them mentally and physically stimulated. And anything that keeps them out of the rubbish bin when your back's turned can't be bad!
These tips might make our lives with our dogs more involved and time consuming, but what's the point of a pet if it just sits in the corner until you feel you want some exercise?
Don't just put the food in a bowl once or twice a day and let him help himself. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Get out to your local pet store, or browse the internet. You're searching for 'interactive dog toys'.
Interactive toys provide mental stimulation and exercise for your dog. The idea is that you put food inside the toy, and your dog spends all day trying to get it out - this really only works with dry dog food, but if you feed your dog wet food (from a can) you can use this method with dog biscuits or other treats. Remember to cut down the amount of food you give the dog as a main meal.
The most usual kind of toy is a hollow ball with a small hole, or holes, in it. The dog pushes it around with his nose and the food falls out bit by bit. Some dogs don't seem interested at first, but if you put something really tasty that they don't normally have in it, they should get the idea. Try some pieces of chicken, liver, or hot dog sausages. Let them have a good sniff at the hole so they realise there's food in it. Roll it around a bit so they see the food dropping out and leave it with them for a while. Try this when they are hungry, otherwise they will have no motivation to get the food. If you really can't entice your dog to try it, try a different toy; there are plenty out there. Dog rescue centres may be interested in your cast off toys, or you could pass it onto another dog owner to try.
The balls also come as 'cubes', which still do 'roll' around the floor when the dog plays with it.
The better toys come with holes which are adjustable. When you first give it to your dog, leave it wide open so it's easy to get the food out. As your dogs gets used to it, make the hole smaller so that the dog has to work harder.
These are the multi-function king of interaction. They come in weird shapes and sizes, and can be stuffed full of your dog's dinner. Add some peanut butter to make it more enticing and your dog can chomp on these for hours. Some even have recipes written for them to help you out.
They are multi-functional because you can also use them to throw for your dog - as they aren't usually round they will bounce in unpredictable directions, making your dog work harder. They can also be used as chew toys for dogs that just have to chew.
No Products Required
If you don't feel like going shopping, or you've tried the above tips and they don't suit you or your pet, or you just want a few more ways to keep the dog busy, there are other things you can do. The most tiring thing dogs can do is go for a long run, right? Wrong. What tires a dog out most is using its nose, especially for long periods. So, how can we use this?
Hide and Seek
Hide your dog's food in small piles around the house. Again, this only works for dry food, but with some imagination this can be used by owners who feed wet food. Start by putting a small pile of food in front of your dog and tell him to 'find it' (or other command). Don't make the food pile too big at this stage as it will fill your dog too quickly and defeat the object.
When it's been eaten, move away a few steps, put down another pile, and use the command again. Move further away each time, and when the dog has got the idea, turn your back and put some down so he hasn't got a proper view. Once he really knows what he's doing, let him see you put the food behind some furniture and again give him the command to find it. As the dog improves you can leave him in one room and put the food down in another, out of sight. Start again with the middle of the room, and gradually hide it better so that he really has to sniff it out. Try putting two piles down, reasonably close together at first so he gets the idea that there will be more than one.
After some training you'll be able to just hide a few piles around the house and let him feed himself. Make sure that you clear any uneaten food at the end of the day so you can keep an eye on how much is being eaten. Also, in hot weather any fat in the dry food may turn rancid, so you don't want your dog finding it some time later.
Feed the dog by chucking it (the food, not the dog) out into the garden. Start in the summer when there is plenty of light; no dog wants to be outside learning this when it's cold and raining. Try in the (reasonably early) morning with a small amount of food - this is doubly beneficial in hot weather as it's not a good idea to walk them in the heat of the day, so this will help to tire him out while you wait for the cooler evening to walk him. This is one you can use wet dog food for, but do make sure he eats it all, or that any left over is cleared away.
To start with you'll probably need to sit outside with the dog. Take a portion of his food out to the garden and let them have a nibble to see what you've got. Drop a few bits onto the floor in front of him with the 'find it' command. It may take him some time to get the idea, so be patient. As he begins to eat what you've dropped, scatter some a little way away so he can see. As he eats, scatter some more around, at first letting him see where it's landing. If it's on grass he will still have to sniff about to find it (unless you scalp your lawn regularly). As he gains confidence you can throw it around a bit more so he has to really have a good sniff around to find it. After a few days of this you may be able to just chuck the whole load into the garden and let him spend as much or as little time as he likes finding it through the day.
When winter comes you might need to switch to hide and seek if the weather is really bad, but it's still possible to put the food outside, especially if you can put it outside when it's dark. Being dark, the dog will have to rely even more on his nose to find his food, making him more tired (convenient if you really can't face going out in the cold to walk him).
Things to Remember
Make sure that fresh water is available at all times.
Remember that these tips are instead of giving your dog food in a bowl, not as well as. A porky pet is not a happy one.
Your dog may still look for his food bowl at his regular feeding time, so may need some food held back and scattered on the floor at the normal feeding time.
If you have to give medicine with food, ask the vet how much food is needed, so that you can still put some food in the bowl, or offer the medicine with a lump of cheese during the day.
Don't throw the food bowl away, as there may be times your dog is not up to searching for his food.
All these tips can be done even if you have more than one dog, although you may need to adjust how you do them. It may be that you won't be able to leave food around the house all day, so perhaps have one dog with you and the other foraging about the house or left with a ball in another room. You will need to be sure that they are both getting the right amount of food. Watch that the quicker one doesn't start on the slower dog's food if they are left together - you might have to make sure that the dogs eat up straight away and do one at a time, rather than leaving them to eat as and when they like so that you can be sure who is eating what, and they don't fight over the food.
You can give food at other times, for instance during training sessions, as this will also help to keep the dog interested in his meals.
These tips aren't intended to encourage you to ignore the dog once he's taught. They also aren't intended to encourage you to leave your dog on its own all day as he will be able to amuse himself, but it can help those times the dog has to be left home alone.