Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Kongs, the hollow red dog toy that is made to be stuffed, keeps dogs occupied—maintaining their minds stimulated and active. Many owners recognize that dogs need physical exercise, but sometimes they fail to recognize that they also need mental "exercise".
I often think it's a waste when a dog wolfs down a bowl of kibble in under half a minute, just as I am not a fan of the fast-food industry. Being of Italian heritage, I grew up sitting down at the table enjoying meals for several minutes at a time. I realize though that today's lifestyle causes many people to want to eat fast because they have a short lunch break and need to eat as fast so they can get back to their duties, but what about dogs?
Dogs luckily don't have our same time constraints so there's really no need to rush it, even though instinct is to wolf food down like there's no tomorrow!
After all, while Rover had to once hunt or scavenge in search of food, nowadays humans do all the "hunting" for him by purchasing his kibble at the store and pouring it in their shiny food bowls. And once the kibble drops in the bowl, there's no more need to disembowel, separate meat from bones or gnaw on anything. It's just there, ready to eat and be wolfed down.
Therefore, with the complete "hunt' taken care of, after eating his meal, Rover is left under-stimulated and with not much left to do. Stuffing a Kong Wobbler, a Buster Cube or even a plastic water bottle filled up with kibble instead can keep Rover busy, and on top of that, helps meet his natural needs for foraging behavior. No more thumb-twiddling for Rover!
A Hand-Made Kong for Reactive Dogs
A Kong can have many uses when it comes to dog behavior problems. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety, stress and reactivity may benefit from a stuffed Kong. You can stuff one and offer it to your dog when you want him to relax and pay less attention to other stimuli.
My idea of crafting a hand-made Kong popped up the other day when I was in the car waiting for my husband to purchase dog food for a dog whose owners forgot to supply food during the dog's stay at our boarding and training facility. I had watched this dog before but wasn't aware that she had a tendency to act reactively towards people walking by the car.
I wasn't aware of this problem, so when I realized it, I noticed with horror that I had a shortage of treats. Usually, when I work on cases of dogs acting protective of the car, I bring along several soft, high-value bite-sized treats so I can work on counterconditioning by giving a treat the moment the dog sees a person walking by.
This dog though wasn't there to see me for this problem, he was coming to see me just for boarding, so I wasn't prepared! I really hoped my husband would quickly return to the car as I had only 4-5 treats left and I soon realized that even if I split them into small pieces, there just weren't enough to cover all the people coming and going. It was quite a busy morning and, no, I wasn't eager to see him snarling and barking madly at each one of them!
I had to think quickly about how to use those treats in a wise, parsimonious way. Then an idea struck my mind. I kept my fist closed and inserted a treat at the bottom. I let the dog smell my hand and he soon got the hint. He started licking and gently nibbling my hand trying to get the treats inside my closed fist.
Luckily, he was very gentle. As an experienced Kong user, he soon ignored all the people walking by as he was too busy trying to get the goodies out of my hand with his long tongue. I soon realized I may have invented the first hand-made Kong!
Different Uses for Hand-made Kongs
I now use this "hand-made Kong" method when I have to distract dogs for a little bit. Say I need to remove a thorn from dog's toe (something that can happen quite often here on walks on country roads in Arizona), weigh them, distract them while the vet takes a temperature, or need to brush a dog that doesn't like to be brushed.
The last time, we placed a young puppy in a shopping cart and the puppy was super wiggly and we feared she would fall off the cart of start barking. All I needed to calm her down was to offer her my hand-made Kong!
Most dogs are too busy trying to get the treats out to realize what I am doing or what is going on around them and this way, they are more collaborative. Soon, they even come to anticipate the "hand-made Kong" as I work on getting these little tasks done.
This simple solution has saved me from using muzzles many times and works optimally when you have little time for implementing formal classical conditioning and desensitization.
I have noticed, that dogs who respond well to this are mostly dogs who are familiar with the Kong in the first place. However, those unfamiliar with the Kong catch up quickly if you make the treats more accessible.
Best of all, the hand-made Kong method can be used in those emergency cases where you have a shortage of treats or need your dog to be distracted for a little while--if you don't mind being licked of course!
I haven't tried it yet, but I think it could also be a good idea to stuff your hands with some peanut butter and use the hand-made Kong to train puppies to be more gentle with their mouths. The moment the puppy nips a bit harder, you can "yelp" and remove the hand-made Kong, only to offer it when the puppy is being more gentle. Just sharing an idea that others may find helpful!
Lately, I am finding myself using hand-made Kongs more and more so I have added it to my virtual toolbox of tricks. Of course, always be careful as some dogs can get rough in taking treats when aroused and some may accidentally bite by mistake, you don't want to get hurt! Happy training!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Adrienne Farricelli