Mealtime for Kona, my newly adopted terrier mix, is over in seconds. About 34 seconds to be precise. While she may own bragging rights as a canine speed-eating champ, I know that she was on pace to be at risk for a host of digestion problems, including the life-threatening condition known commonly as bloat (gastric dilatation volvulus).
This gotta-gobble-quickly mindset, unfortunately, affects far too many dogs, noted Rolan Tripp, D.V.M., chief veterinary behaviorist for Hannah The Pet Society based in Portland, Oregon. Gulping causes a dog to swallow air, and it disrupts digestion.
“A dog who gulps his food is eating so fast as to not break down the kibble into smaller particles, and he is not allowing any time for saliva to mix in with the food,” Dr. Tripp explained. “These first two important stages of digestion are skipped. Large chunks of food get dropped into the stomach before enzymes from the salivary glands can lubricate the food to aid in proper digestion. Gulping also causes the stomach to expand too rapidly, and that can lead to vomiting, regurgitation, and other issues.”
It was time for me to ditch her stainless steel bowl and reach for new options to slow down her eating. Option #1: I dished up her twice-a-day meals inside a heavy, deep bowl that features raised mini-hills inside. Success! Kona took nearly 2 minutes to eat the kibble and canned food inside this bowl known as the Go Slow AntiGulping Dish by Dogit. (Check out this 6-second video of her working hard to reach kibble inside this bowl by going to YouTube and checking out the video Getting Kona to Slow Down Eating by Arden Moore.)
But speed isn’t the only reason to consider breaking up the mealtime monotony for your dog. By opting to go bowl-free at least once a week, you can help banish boredom in your dog and bring out his natural hunting instincts.
“The act of putting down a bowl of food on the floor for your dog robs him of the opportunity of increased intelligence through problem-solving and can lead to boredom-fueled destructive behaviors,” Dr. Tripp said. “By going bowl-free, you allow your dog to hunt and capture ‘prey’ and experience what is called contrafreeloading, which means working for your food.”
Inspired by Dr. Tripp, I introduced Option #2 to Kona — the Wobbler, a popular food puzzle made by Kong. Quick tip: Set your dog up for early success in “capturing” spilled kibble in the beginning to prevent your dog from getting frustrated and calling it quits by walking away from the food puzzle.
“If you don’t do it right with a food puzzle, then learned helplessness is a real possibility,” Dr. Tripp warned. “You don’t want to cause emotional stress in your dog by teasing him with a food puzzle too challenging for him to figure out.”
Try these food puzzle introduction tips:
Unscrew the Wobbler and fill it completely, allowing a few pieces of kibble to spill out. Encourage your dog to sniff it, and praise him when he noses or paws it.
Mix in some small, aromatic treats to spike his interest in getting out the food.
Up the ante by packing it with kibble, canned food, and a smear of peanut butter. Insert a treat at the opening, and freeze it before serving.
“You have essentially created more of a lick puzzle than a food puzzle, but the result is that it will take your dog a long time to get out the food, which slows down his eating in a healthy way,” Dr. Tripp said. “Pop the Wobbler in the dishwasher to thoroughly clean it before the next bowlfree meal.”
For times when I need to leave Kona at home, I put treats inside another food puzzle called the IQ Treat Ball made by Our Pets. I unscrew the ball top, pop in some small treats, and reattach the top and the bottom. I can also adjust the size of the opening to make accessing the food more challenging.
“Giving food puzzles to your dog as you leave creates a pleasant experience — the food — with your departure,” Dr. Tripp said. “Plus, you are adding eustress — or good stress — to your dog’s life. You are allowing your dog to work his mind and his muscles plus enjoy that ‘Eureka!’ moment when he is successful in this food hunt.”
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