Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Types of Puzzle Toys for Dogs

Puzzle toys are a great way to entertain dogs and make them work for their food. Brisbane has spent his entire life eating out of puzzle toys instead of a bowl. He does have a food bowl now, but we only use it for things that are impractical for putting into food toys, like fish oil, and things that Briz doesn't feel are worth working for, like green beans. Puzzle toys aren't just for dogs, either. Zookeepers have been using food puzzles for years to provide enrichment for captive animals, and everyone from otters to giraffes enjoy turning meals into games. Animals in the wild spend most of their waking hours eating, foraging, or otherwise finding food. When we throw an entire meal down for them to gobble immediately, we leave them with nothing else to do with their time.

Photo by Erin Koski
In addition to providing entertainment and the opportunity to problem solve and work for their food, puzzle toys slow down the pace and help reduce the issues that come with eating too quickly. It's tough to inhale an entire cup of kibble when it's dropping onto the floor one piece at a time. There are dozens of different puzzle toys, but they can all generally be classified into a handful of categories. Each toy or type of toy teaches a new skill. Brisbane is a pro at many different puzzles and types of puzzles, while Ulysses is just beginning to learn how puzzles work. Because I love collecting and organizing data, here is my classification of puzzle toys:

Photo by Erin Koski
These are toys that can roll across the floor, and are intended to be filled with kibble or other small treats. A roller has one or more holes, when the toy is rolled the kibble falls out of the holes. A roller puzzle can be round, like the Planet Dog Orbee Ball and the Starmark Treat Dispensing Chew Ball, it can also be cylindrical, like the TreatStik. Generally the size of the treat-dispensing hole is what makes a roller more or less challenging for the dog, and difficulty can only be altered by putting larger or smaller pieces of food inside. I consider rollers to be the easiest puzzle toys to use, and a good way to introduce the concept to new dogs since they only need to nudge the toy to start it moving and get the food dropping. Ulysses has recently figured out how basic roller toys work, and can now reliably empty them. Some rollers have inner workings that make them more complex and difficult to solve, and some have adjustable openings to change the rate of reward.

Photo by Erin Koski
These are toys that work on the same principle as rollers, with one or more holes that randomly drop kibble, but clatterers don't roll. The Buster Cube and the Kong Satellite are both clattering puzzle toys, as is the Grriggles Treat Jack. and the Starmark Treat Dispensing Jack. I generally consider these toys to be slightly more difficult to solve than rolling puzzles because they require more effort. A rolling toy can be sent across the room with one nudge, dispensing several rewards along the way. A clattering toy lands and stops moving immediately. Hard plastic clatterers are extremely noisy on hard floors, and this can frighten some dogs.

Photo by Erin Koski

A bobber toy is weighted to keep it upright, and has a hole somewhere in the side or top to dispense treats. In order to get the food out, a bobber toy must be tipped over in a certain direction. Bobbers can be a little spooky for sensitive dogs because they move on their own after they have been tipped. Unlike rollers which roll comfortably away from the dog, bobbers often tip right back at them. Most dogs need to be introduced to the bobbing toy concept by watching another dog or a person tip the toy to make the food come out. The weighted bottoms of these toys can be noisy on hard floors, and may scratch hardwood.  The Kong Wobbler is a very simple bobber toy, the Starmark Bob-a-Lot and the Busy Buddy Magic Mushroom are more complicated bobbers with an adjustable difficulty levels.

Photo by Erin Koski
Stuffable toys might be the oldest type of dog puzzles, we've had the Kong since the 1970's. I don't generally do puzzle toy ratings on these because they pretty much all work the same way, and most work better with soft stuffings like peanut butter than with kibble dinners. All stuffable toys are flexible and chewable. Some toys hold edible chews, like the Kong Marathon and Starmark Everlasting Treat toys. The SafeMade Biggie Bone, Bionic Urban Stick, and Kong Quest toys are all stuffable puzzles. The Busy Buddy Squirrel Dude can be used as a stuffable toy and as a roller puzzle.

Photo by Erin Koski
Board Games
Board game puzzle toys are not meant to entertain unattended dogs. These puzzle toys sit flat on the floor, have moving parts for the dog to manipulate, and are intended to be used under close supervision. They don't generally include a gameboard and dice, but they are definitely intended for dog-and-human play rather than simply dog entertainment. Kyjen makes a wide variety of board games, including our Star Spinner, Yin Yang Yum, and Treat Triad. Other companies, like Kensington Kennel Club, make board games out of wood. Each game requires a specific set of skills to solve, and the difficulty can vary from super-easy to super-difficult. The Star Spinner only requires the dog to understand how to spin parts of the toy, other board games require lifting of flaps, removal of cups or pegs, sliding parts, and assorted other fine manipulations. Ideally, a board game puzzle is solved by the dog with the handler sitting right beside them, watching, encouraging, and helping them play. When the food has all been uncovered and eaten, the puzzle toy is picked up and put away for next time.

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