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Feeding Enrichment for Pets 

Feeding Enrichment: A Sanity Saver for Pets

Do you know how hard it is to conduct a phone interview when you have a Beagle barking in your face? I do. I know it really well.

As a freelance writer, I used to spend much of my days conducting phone interviews. But my pup, Emma, had other plans for me.

Emma took me on a multi-year journey to discover how to teach her how to live politely in our human world and also to help her overcome fears and anxieties. She was a caged breeder in a puppy mill before we adopted her in 2014, and she came to us plagued with physical and emotional challenges.

Desperate to find a solution, I became a student in the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where I learned about a cure-all for many behavior problems: “enrichment.”

Natural Prey Drive: Why Feeding Enrichment Rocks

Animals in the wild spend their days sniffing, stalking, chasing, tugging, shaking, and dissecting their prey (aka their “meals”). Life is one exciting adventure after another. To survive, they also have to do things such as flee and hide so they won’t become someone else’s meal. So, their days are chock-full of activities.

Compare that with how most of us feed our dogs and cats: Drop some food in a dish, and watch it disappear in seconds. “That was nice,” I imagine Emma used to think after each breakfast and dinner. “Now whatcha got for me?”

While a nice plate of food is a welcome sight to people, it’s not ideal for pups and kitties. Without enough opportunities to expend energy from their natural prey drive, our furry kids can become bored and stressed out, causing unwanted behaviors — such as barking at me when I talk on the phone — to pop out.

Standard Fare at Zoos: Why Do Enrichment

The USDA regulates “environmental enrichment” for many animals, emphasizing factors such as adequate space, exercise, and interaction with fellow animals. In addition, in order for accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), facilities must meet basic standards that include providing “nutritionally complete diets that bring out the natural feeding response and behavior.”

It’s actually considered negligence nowadays to use quick feeding methods for animals confined in zoos and parks. Instead, all those lions and tigers and bears are fed with food toys, puzzles, and games. According to Wild Welfare, feeding enrichment supports animals’ mental health — and animals with good mental health are more engaged with their surroundings, more likely to explore, more peaceful and at ease, and less fearful or aggressive. Increasingly, this concept of providing prey-drive enrichment opportunities for our companion animals is making its way into our homes as well.

Make Pet Food Fun: How Feeding Enrichment Changed My Dog’s Life

When I learned about enrichment, I figured things couldn’t get worse than they already were, so I gave it a try. I stopped feeding Emma out of a dish and switched to scattering food in the yard for her to sniff out. This pleased her Beagle nose immensely. Instead of handing her a stuffed KONG toy a few times a week, I stuffed Emma’s wet food into KONGs and hid them around the house for her to find. I also did much more obedience training, using some of her daily calories as reinforcement.

That was a couple of years ago, and I honestly cannot remember the last time Emma barked when I got on the phone. She’s Emma 2.0 now. I still give her a bit of food in a dish twice a day, but only because I need to sprinkle medicine on it. Otherwise, 100 percent of her food would come in the form of enrichment games and toys given to her throughout the day. Her little face lights up every time I scatter her food or send her off to find a KONG.

You can’t imagine how much more enjoyable life can become for everyone in the family, when your dogs and cats are given the opportunity to be… well… dogs and cats. I’d ask Emma to share her thoughts on the subject with you, but she’s contentedly snoozing next to me while I work. You’re welcome, Ems.

Feeding Enrichment Ideas

Always start easy so that your pup or kitty can figure out how to play the game. Then make it incrementally harder.

  • Scatter food in the yard or on a snuffle mat for your dog or cat to sniff out.
  • Stuff food (wet, dry, or both) into toys such as KONGs or a Monster Mouth.
  • For cats and very tiny dogs, you can stuff food inside the cardboard tube of a paper towel roll.
  • Teach your pup to do a sit-stay and then hide a food toy for him to seek out.
  • Do positive-reinforcement training with your dog (or your cat!), and break out the high-value treats for the reward.
  • Bring food along with you when you go on walks and give your dog a treat if he looks up at you or trots along next to you.

Tracy Krulik from I Speak DogTracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT, is the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to promote dog body language and behavior education. An honors graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers, Krulik writes about pets and their people for publications including The Bark magazine, The Washington Post, and The Chronicle of the Dog. Follow her blog Dogz and Their Peoplez for more tales of Emma the Beagle and for insights into dog behavior, body language, and training.