Ensuring that our SideKicks get the appropriate amount of physical exercise is extremely important; it's something we all know about having a pet: get exercise, flex those muscles, keep the joints active, etc. It's good for their overall health and well-being. But, did you know that mental exercise is just as important? I remind all my clients - and nearly every person I come into contact with - that the brain is a muscle, too, that needs exercise like all the other muscles in your SideKick's body!
I could go on for quite awhile about the purpose(s) of mental exercise and the benefits; and I could spend even longer talking about different ways of getting your SideKick daily mental exercise. But, the purpose of this month's blog post is zeroing in on one option for mental exercise: food toys.
Food toys are just one example of a fairly easy way to get daily mental exercise: there's so much variety in shape and sizes and difficulty level; and food toys are kind of like the slow-cooker of mental exercise - just set it and forget it.* There's not much you usually have to do to prepare them and they don't take a lot of effort on your part. But, how are you supposed to get started with food toys when there are so many options out there?
Well, let's get down to the nitty-gritty, then!
Since adopting our pupper almost 3 years ago, I've spent a lot of time trolling the internet and pet supply stores for a variety of different food toys to experiment with and use with her. I don't think she's been an unwilling guinea pig for us. That said, I usually think of a food toy as being in one of three different categories:
1) Stuffed food toys:
As the category name implies, these toys can be stuffed with a variety of different foods for your SideKick to lick out or dig into (check out this post for ideas!). Use these toys as something fun and mentally enriching for your SideKick to do in their kennel, as a quiet evening activity, or something to keep your SideKick a little occupied when guests are over!
You can literally stuff these toys with almost anything you can think of (of course, avoiding food that is dangerous for dogs or that your SideKick is allergic to or does not like). Examples of what we've stuffed our pupper's toys with lately include leftover ham, cottage cheese, plain Greek yogurt, peanut butter, boiled chicken, sweet potatoes (cubed or mashed), canned pumpkin, carrots, broccoli, berries. A quick Google search for stuffing recipes will yield a plethora of ideas that you and your SideKick will enjoy testing and experimenting with!
Below are a few of the favorites in our household:
Pro Tip: Make up a few stuffed toys ahead of time and freeze them for your SideKick; they'll be ready when you need them and the frozen stuffing will up the difficulty level just a bit, lasting just a little longer for your SideKick!
2) Treat-dispensing toys:
Treat-dispensing toys, in my opinion, serve as an "in-between" type toy - they're not usually something you'd stuff, but you can't quite fit your SideKick's whole meal in them either. These toys are great for giving your SideKick a small problem-solving activity off to the side while you're enjoying dinner, while you're doing some chores around the house, or while entertaining guests.
Treat-dispensing toys are usually filled with - you guessed it - treats! If you're ambitious or thrifty, you can find a wide variety of homemade dog treat recipes on the internet; these have the benefits of being made with only ingredients you and your SideKick like and you can easily customize the size of the treats to fit the toy(s) you're using! If you're not keen on DIY treats, no worries! There are full aisles of treats available for you to choose from at any pet store; additionally, some brands even have special treats that correspond with their treat-dispensing toys.
Below are a just a few options for you and your SideKick:
Pro Tip: Most treat-dispensing toys can be great "starter" meal-dispensing toys for your SideKick; they're usually easy enough that your SideKick can get a good feel for what this whole food-dispensing toy concept, but they're small enough and hold just enough food that they won't get bored before finishing their snack.
3) Meal-dispensing toys:
Meal-dispensing toys, as I alluded to, are a step up from treat-dispensing toys - they're slightly more difficult, usually larger in size, and, by extension, they take your SideKick a little longer to either figure out or get all of the food out of it. These toys can be used to feed your SideKick some or all of their daily meals!
As the category name implies, these toys are most often used with your SideKick's regular food - whatever brand and type of kibble you use for their daily meals; but most meal-dispensing toys have decent-sized openings that would allow them to be used easily with most kibbles or even treats.
Below are some excellent examples of meal-dispensing toys:
Pro Tip: Aside from whether or not your SideKick will like a meal-dispensing toy, there are other things you might consider to help you choose a toy. Each of the above meal-dispensing toys are "approved" for our household because they fit three requirements: 1) they're easy to open and fill; 2) they're easy to clean (twist open and wash by hand or they are dishwasher safe); and 3) they can fit an entire meal in them.
Get out there and try some new, fun, and exciting food toys with your SideKick!
Note: SideKick Dog Training is in no way affiliated with any of the brands or dog toys mentioned in this article; I do not receive and have not received any compensation or gifts for mentioning or advocating for the brands or products. (But, I won't say No if someone wants to give me free stuff...)
*Be sure, before leaving your SideKick alone with toys of any type, that you're sure no pieces can break off or be chewed off. You SideKick should always be supervised with any toys that may present a choking hazard.