Enriching Meal Times

Canine enrichment is a trendy area at the moment, but what is it? It is simply adding actions or items to a dog's environment to benefit its physical and psychological health. In other words, it is putting things in place that can enhance their quality of life on a day-to-day basis.

In this article, we will focus on feeding enrichment, consider why this is good for our dogs and look at some ideas as to how we can make it part of their daily lives.

We know that free-ranging dogs would spend their days scavenging, foraging and gathering food. Indeed survival in these conditions would require a great deal of physical exercise and problem-solving ability. This, of course, is in direct contrast to the life of a pet dog. As humans, we enjoy our food and look forward to meal times. Yet for dogs, however much we try to find the most nutritious food to meet all their needs, if we simply put their food in a bowl to be eaten in 30 seconds, there is probably very little enjoyment for them. Dogs don't have much control of their day-to-day lives in a busy household, so we can add something more meaningful and rewarding by appealing to their innate tendencies of scavenging and foraging. 

Enrichment feeding can: 

  • Slow down feeding times.
  • Create a sense of achievement when food is found
  • Encourage natural foraging behaviour
  • Be useful for training, for example, crate training
  • Burn more calories
  • Prevent boredom; help with separation anxiety and possibly destructive behaviour.
  • Stimulate and assist in brain growth
  • Build confidence in the bond with their human.

So how can we make meal times more fun?

Instead of placing the food in a feeding bowl, try scatter feeding. This is easier with dry food and is excellent for making the meal last longer. Scatter the food in as many areas as possible for the dog to find, indoors or outdoors (great indoors for a rainy day!).

Try hiding some of your dog’s food. Make it easy at first by letting the dog see you do it to build confidence, and then progress to more difficult hiding places where the dog is not in the room as you hide the food. You could also hide foods/treats in a ball pit, a box of toys, upturned flower pots etc. Caution - Do not do this with any raw food.

For older dogs – there is evidence that enrichment can help delay the progression of dementia. Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction can still have enrichment in their lives but try not to include anything that requires complex problem-solving. Indeed, food toys designed for puppies are perfect for older dogs too. There are also specially designed Kongs for older dogs.

Enrichment should be challenging but not frustrating, so start easy and gradually increase the difficulty. Help your dog be successful and build from there.

Try getting rid of the food bowl for one meal to start with – the goal is to increase the amount of time it takes them to eat their food and therefore encourage mental and physical activity.

There is no right or wrong way to use enrichment feeding, but it is recommended to use their daily food allowance rather than giving lots of extra treats in addition.

Have several types and prepare them ahead to make it easier to keep to the enrichment feeding plan.

Overall, have fun! Our canine companions are super-intelligent animals, and providing a variety of ways of feeding can provide crucial mental stimulation for them and be a real boost to their daily lives.