Puzzle and treat toys give dogs an opportunity to work for a portion of their meals or extra snacks. For dogs who need to lose weight and are eating smaller-than-normal portions, these toys are a way to extend mealtimes while encouraging exercise.
To learn about the best possible treat toys for dogs, we talked to Alicia McCusker. As the Greenway store manager, she’s helped a lot of customers find the very best toys for their pets. And with two dogs and a cat at home, she’s also familiar with using treat toys and puzzle toys as a pet owner.
MB: Dogs can gain weight because they’re not hunting for their food. So, do you have tips for choosing puzzle toys that will help dogs work for their meals?
AM: When we talk about puzzle toys, we’re actually talking about two options: puzzle toys and slow feeders. Both toys provide excellent mental stimulation, but they also can make dogs work for their food and eat more slowly.
If you want to encourage more exercise, you want to find a puzzle toy that can hold a larger portion of food or treats. When you use these toys, you can put a portion of your dog’s daily food into the puzzle or treat toy. Then they can slowly work for that food. Some dogs like to throw these toys around the room and chase them. I’ve also seen some dogs push food-dispensing toys around the room, so they’re going to burn calories while eating.
Using a toy to dispense part of a meal isn’t just about maintaining a healthy weight; this type of work can be incredibly rewarding for the dog and provides plenty of mental stimulation.
MB: Lots of customers feed frozen raw, which doesn’t work with puzzle toys. What do you suggest as a healthy substitute for part of the meal?
AM: Well, if you want to maintain the same type of diet, we do have freeze-dried raw that you can use a partial substitute for frozen raw. And a lot of the brands we carry in frozen raw, also have a freeze-dried raw option. The formulas are similar, so your dog should be able to adjust easily.
MB: If you want to choose a puzzle toy or some other type of toy for your dog, how do you go about choosing a treat toy that your dog might particularly like?
AM: My first suggestion is to consider your dog’s breed and prey drive. These traits may give you clues to help you decide how your dog likes to play. For example, my dog Jodie is a border collie, which is a type of herding dog. And we have a toy that she can guide around the house with her nose, and she herds the toy around the house in that way. I think the reason she enjoys that particular toy because it plays to her natural instincts. She’ll even roll it around when there aren’t any treats inside.
Mixed breed dogs may have several different interests. In that case, it’s just about watching how your dog likes to play. Do they like to use their paws when playing? Do they try to pull on things? Then, you can look for a toy that uses that existing instinct to make that toy work.
Mud Bay has ten to fifteen completely different puzzle or treat toys. And once you know the play style your dog likes, we’ll be able to find the right toy for your dog.
MB: With more complex toys, sometimes dogs need some coaching to figure out how to play with it. How do you recommend that owners work with their dogs to ensure that playtime is a success?
AM: A lot of dogs are really food driven, but they’re not willing to work hard for their normal kibble or a biscuit. So, start by finding a treat or food that is highly palatable to use with the toy. Most toys work with smaller treats, so freeze-dried treats tend to be a great option.
You might also want to choose easier toys at first. For example, we have the Pet Rageous Thinkrageous puzzles, and each toy has one of three difficulty ratings. So starting with easy toys can help set your dog up for success.
The other option is to start by playing with your dog with the toy. Then they can mimic your behavior, and see how you’re able to get a treat out of the toy. It’s crazy how intelligent dogs can be, and by mimicking you, they can learn a new skill.
This can be a helpful technique if your dog likes to chew and you’re concerned that she’s going to chew the toy to get the treats inside. By demonstrating how the toy works for your dog, you can show her that there’s a better way. And lots of dogs are receptive to that coaching.
MB: Even though all dogs are different, are there any puzzle or treat toys that you’ve noticed that customers consistently love or that your own dogs love?
AM: I really think that the Pet Rageous Thinkrageous toys are really appealing to a lot of different dogs. They are floor puzzles that your dogs can either nose or paw at to move the little pieces. And people really enjoy being able to see how intelligent their dogs are.
The other popular toy at the store is the Starmark Pickle Pocket. You can create varying levels of difficulty by how far you push the treats into the pickle. And then, the Planet Dog Orbee-Tuff Snoop is great because it can hold larger portions. So, if you wanted to put a portion of your dog’s meal into a puzzle toy, that’s the one I recommend.
I do want to mention that many people with both cats and dogs will buy puzzle toys for their dogs but forget their cats. Cats are just as likely to reap the benefits of both exercise and mental stimulation from puzzle toys as dogs are. Cats are hunters and so chasing/batting a toy around, such as the Pet Safe Egg-Cercizer, is going to play into their natural cycle of hunt, eat, groom, sleep.
MB: Some people also really like Kongs and similar toys, but smart dogs can often immediately remove the food from those treat toys. Do you have any tips for upping the difficulty level on that type of toy?
AM: Stacking and wedging biscuits inside the Kong can make them harder to remove. But the other option is to freeze softer treats inside the Kong. You can fill the Kong with nut butter, yogurt or pumpkin, and let the toy freeze overnight. Then when you give your dog the toy, it will take a lot longer to eat.
Greenway Store Manager Alicia McCusker spends her workdays helping customers in Tigard, Oregon. She’d love to talk to you about what toys make sense for your dog or cat. When she’s not a work, she’s playing with the family pets, who include Jodie, a border collie and whippet mix, Arlo, a malamute, and Loki, a cuddly, part Norwegian forest cat.