Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Understanding Dog Foraging Behavior
Wait, did you just say dog foraging behavior? Isn't foraging something animals such as cows, horses, and sheep do? That's what I thought the first time I learned about this term when I attended a class about dog behavior. I was used to hearing the term "forage" a lot when I owned horses, as the term was used to depict the food used for horses and cattle. While it's true that the term ''forage" is used mostly for depicting horse and cattle feed, the active term "foraging" is used to depict the act of searching for food and provisions.
Many canines in the wild are considered group foragers because they form social groups that allow them to engage in teamwork to capture larger, dangerous prey. While this teamwork is helpful, the downside is that the canines must then compete for resources without spending too much energy fighting. This applies more to wolves, though. Domestic dogs are known for being scavengers more than hunters—at least when it comes to hunting in the real sense of the word. More on this can be read in the article: "Are dogs hunters or scavengers?"
What do scavengers do for most of the day? They'll sniff and walk around looking for food. The food may consist of leftovers from other predators, food left behind from humans, or the occasional edible fruit or even animal poop containing nutrients. Even hunters spend a good part of the day in search of food and this helped them stay in top shape.
And today? Rover most likely doesn't have much left to do. His owners take care of "hunting" at the supermarket and pet stores so they can bring their canine companions some goodies. Then, Rover is fed in a food bowl and the food is wolfed down in less than a minute. This leaves him with not much left to do during the day which can lead to a frustrated, under-stimulated dog. If your dog though walks around the home sniffing and patrolling all areas under the table, by the kitchen and where your kid eats his sandwich leaving crumbs behind, he's most likely foraging.
This behavior is reinforced every time the dog finds some random treasure, so you'll see this behavior become reluctant to extinguishment, but will rather continue. . .In the next paragraphs, we will look at ways to encourage foraging behaviors in dogs.
Encouraging Dog Foraging Behaviors
So how can you make Rover work for his food? No worries—you won't need to take him hunting for ducks with you all day! There are many fun ways to keep your dog engaged and happy, and mostly, mentally stimulated. For instance, there are many toys on the market meant to keep your dog entertained as he works to get his food.
Toys to Help a Dog Work for Its Food
- Kongs: these are quite popular durable toys that are hollow so you can stuff them and the dog can work at "disemboweling" them. There are several Kong recipes with suggestions of freezing its contents or distributing it in layers.
- Northmate Interactive Green Feeder: this dog toy brings dog foraging to a whole new level. You'll just need to hide his kibble and watch him try to get his food from in between the "grass blades."
- PawHide Puzzle: this toy has seven treat-hiding cups that the dog needs to learn how to remove to find the underneath hidden treats. A great way to trigger the dog's curiosity and encourage foraging tendencies.
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Short on money? There are also more economical ways to encourage foraging behaviors and the good news is that you already most likely have all you need in your home. Following are some ideas:
- Treat dispensing bottle: remove the cap off a bottle and fill it up with your dog's kibble. Your dog will need to move the bottle around to release the kibble. This may keep your dog entertained for quite some time.
- Treasure hunt: instead of using a food bowl, make trails of food around your home so your dog will have to search and walk around. Also, hide some kibble around your home, under your rugs, under your dog's toys, under his food bowl, etc. Be creative!
- Muffin Tin Game: use a 12-muffin tin and place the dog's kibble in each tin, then cover with tennis balls so your dog will have to move the tennis balls in order to uncover his food.
- The Shell Game: get three plastic cups and hide his kibble under all three cups. Let your dog nose and paw them to uncover his food. Then, make the game more challenging, hide the treats under only one cup and see if he can guess. Then, further the challenge by putting the treat only under a cup and moving the cups around to confuse him.
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.
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on December 11, 2013:
Great tips and products. After all, dogs have behaviors that are innate.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 25, 2013:
I have been saving a portion of food lately and tossing the kibble around the room to tire the dogs out while working on the computer or watching TV.
Shasta Matova from USA on November 25, 2013:
Great way to make your dog work for his food! We don't do this nearly enough.