Is your dog behaving like a wild animal? Constantly hungry? Destructively bored? While there is no magic cure, we can take a cue from behavioral experts and zoo keepers around the world by trashing our food bowls. Contrafreeloading is the the term coined for the fact that animals will choose to work for their food, even when “free” food is available, and it’s a concept I’ve embraced since I became a dog owner. I have three jumbo, young, high-energy mutts and I need all the help keeping them entertained I can get.
While perhaps the best way of contrafreeloading is using the dog’s daily ration of kibble as part of your training rewards, I have three big dogs, they eat a lot of food, and I don’t have time for that every day. In fact, one of the major benefits of my chosen method of contrafreeloading is that they’ll leave me alone for a good half hour or more while they eat. With fewer or smaller dogs, this could be an excellent way to feed. Using kibble means that the behavior you’re training is repeated a lot of times over the day, so they learn new stuff quick. To cut down on time required, you can “jackpot” your dog, meaning that you can sometimes give them just a few pieces of kibble and then suddenly reward them with a huge portion for a particularly good effort. Not only does this make feeding quicker, it’s also backed up by lots of behavioral science. Animals have been proven to learn better when their behavior is rewarded on a random schedule.
Personally, I love food dispensing balls, and my dogs love food dispensing balls. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve settled on the Kibble Nibble because it’s easy to fill and actually holds a whole meal for a large breed. It’s no more difficult than filling up a bowl, and because I’m lazy, that’s important to me. Another option is to hide your dog’s food and give him the opportunity to sniff it out. I tend to do this with chicken bits after a week of rain has kept them indoors, but it can work just as well with dog food. If you have access to a yard, you can spread their food out in the grass and let them hunt it out. My coonhound mixes are particular fans of anything that requires them to use their nose, and gives them an edge over their older (and smarter!) border collie/lab brother. You can use what your dog already loves to do as a basis for what method you pick.
Many studies have shown that dogs will often choose to work for their food, even if free food is offered elsewhere. After my monsters learned to open their big food container, they still wanted to play with their food balls. Their idea of begging involves rolling an empty food toy around until I fill it up for them. Working for their food is something fun they do, not me being evil and cruel and making them scrounge on the floor for scraps. Sometimes being a dog is kinda boring. It’s like the difference between getting out of the house to go eat versus eating what’s already made and sitting in your fridge. The fridge is probably easier, but sometimes you’d like a little more stimulation.
Having them work for their food prevents gulping, increases satiation, and encourages exercise, so it can help create and maintain healthy eating habits. With large breeds, I worry about gastric torsion, and food gulping is a major concern, so food balls are a great way to prevent that. Their joints are also a potential problem, and eating more slowly and combining that with exercise helps them stay healthy and active and goes a long way to prevent overeating.
I have lots to say in favor of contrafreeloading for young dogs, but its also great for older dogs who aren’t able to run around as much anymore. There are many products available that allow dogs to eat by solving a puzzle, or chewing, so even dogs that aren’t able to push a ball around the house can enjoy the challenge of working for their food. I’m thinking of my childhood lab mix, who became very arthritic at a relatively young age and still *really* wanted to play. It was a challenge to keep her entertained and I wish the food toy revolution had come a decade earlier, for her sake. Older dogs also have a tendency to overheat, and food frozen into ice can help encourage them to keep cool and give them something to do in the heat of the day.
To begin, it might be easier to use more high value, or scented items and help your dog learn what they’re going to do to eat. This should be fun, not something they’ve been starved into! With the treat balls, I had to teach the dogs to roll them around. A little dry cat food is a good treat food, because it comes out easier than larger dog kibbles, and many dogs consider it to be delicious manna from heaven. The chewing toys are usually easy to learn, but the more complicated the behavior, the more help your dog will probably need to learn it. For dogs that need large meals, many people feed a portion out of a bowl and have the dog earn the rest. Even after they’ve mastered it, it’s fun to put a few special treats in on occasion, just to keep their meal interesting.
Of course, many people have successfully raised dogs for years by just feeding them out of a bowl. It works, and it’s easy, but I consider contrafreeloading to be a bit of a dog owner’s cheat. Behavioral problems are a huge issue for dog owners everywhere, and lack of stimulation is a major contributing factor. Giving your pup a way to earn their food is a simple step to help keep problem habits at bay, and keep them too busy to get into trouble elsewhere. It’s fun for dogs, it’s easy for people, and it’s good science. What’s not to love?