Puzzle toys are like books for dogs.
They serve a lot of the same purposes–they amuse and entertain, they exercise a dog’s brain and increase her capacity to think, they tire her out, they amuse her when she’s all by herself.
When I first adopted Nala, I knew that I wanted puzzle toys to be a part of Nala’s life. I was also determined to Do Everything Right, including slowly gradually introducing her to being at home by herself so that she wouldn’t develop separation anxiety. And according to most of what I had read at that time, a kong stuffed full of delightful foods and frozen was an important part of that process. That put introducing her to puzzle toys close to the top of my list of things to do with my brand new Nala.
I’m lucky enough to be a long-time fan of Eileen and Dogs, and so I was familiar with the concept that dogs might need special introductions to puzzle toys. With Eileen’s permission, I’m sharing one of her videos on introducing a dog to puzzle toys here:
That’s a great guide, and clearly outlines the skills a dog needs to learn in order to unstuff a kong. It gives multiple recipes for types of stuffings that will teach a dog the skills she needs in order to eventually enjoy a really difficult stuffed kong–the kind that buys you thirty to sixty precious minutes of peace from your high energy puppy, or which amuses your slightly anxious new rescue dog when you’ve left her alone for a carefully selected interval of time. Eileen knows the value of splitting, and that’s what she encourages you to do in this video–split the types of fillings (pushable, lickable, throw-and-dislodgeable, chewable) into single units so that a dog can learn them one at a time and build up a big reinforcement history for persistence with puzzle toys.
Thanks to Eileen’s video, I was smart enough not to leave Nala with a frozen kong and expect that to create an immediate eagerness for my departure. Instead, one of the first things I did with Nala (after conditioning a marker word, and doing some really basic stuff to introduce the idea that going in the crate is the best! idea! ever!) was to introduce her to her brand new Kong toy. As instructed, I mixed kibble and pieces of cheese, put them in her kong, let her sniff it, and then set it on the ground, in the middle of the floor.
And Nala avoided that food-filled toy like the plague. She wouldn’t even look at it, much less touch it. She stared at me. She gave a little bit of a low, nervous wag.
Okay. So what was wrong?
I have some ideas.
- Honeymoon period with a very polite dog: In her booklet “Love Has No Age Limit,” Patricia McConnell says that new rescue dogs typically show significant behavior changes three days, three weeks, and three months after adoption as they settle in and grow comfortable in their new homes. They might be quite withdrawn and polite for the first three days. Then they might relax a bit, but still be on their most polite and best behavior until the three week mark, when they will feel comfortable enough to start testing a few rules and boundaries. Nala followed this to the letter–she didn’t try to approach me at all until the three day mark, when she jumped up on the couch with me to cuddle. And she didn’t approach human food while I was in the room until we had had her for a month. It took the entire three month period for the concept of offering behavior–lots of different behaviors–to begin to click for her.
- No history of reinforcement based training: Clicker-savvy dogs understand that their behavior affects the world, causing good things to happen to them. This was a new concept for Nala, who took about three months to begin to get fluency in this idea. She had also probably never seen a puzzle toy, and had no reinforcement history with them.
- Dead toy problem: While Nala likes playing with toys, she finds them most fun when they’re either inherently very cool (soft, flippy, squeaky, smelly!), linked to interaction with me (chasing! tugging!) or both. But she’s not one of nature’s fetchers. She chases the toy when it’s in motion, but as soon as it hits the ground and “dies,” she totally loses interest in it and won’t interact with it. I still haven’t managed to teach her to “go get your toy,” as much as we both delight in playing with toys together. She’s just not interested in doing so.
- Nala’s a quitter: Some dogs lose a toy or a treat under the couch and they’ll push so hard to get it that they’ll move the couch, dig a hole in the carpet, spend several minutes pawing and frustration-barking at the obstacle to make it give up the goods. Nala won’t. If a human is nearby and she has lost a squeaky toy under the couch, she defaults to the domestic dog problem solving method of asking the human for help. If she’s alone, she just quits (I learned the hard way that I should check for the empty kong when I get home. They get unpleasant if you leave them to ferment under the couch).
Fortunately, at the time, I happened to see some videos of a trainer working with her puppy and some fairly complicated puzzle toys–Nina Ottosson and Trixie treat puzzles. Her puppy’s tendency was to bash the toys with her paws. To keep her puppy from getting frustrated and keep the toys fun, she shaped her to use her mouth and nose to find and flip the lids open instead.
I wanted Nala to quickly learn to interact with kong toys. She wasn’t very clicker savvy, and she had no interest in interacting with the object at all. Inspired and a little desperate, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to introduce myself to the puzzle toy picture. After all, any interaction is better than none, right? And I thought that if I played it right, I could not only create a positive conditioned emotional response to the toys–I could make it clear that the toy, not my hand or person, was the source of the good stuff.
Here’s the shaping game that I made up to convince Nala that kongs are endless, bountiful fountains of deliciousness. It’s a lot like clicker-training a retrieve, but with a couple of changes to reinforcement delivery that drive home the idea that interacting with the kong is awesome.
- A Kong toy
- A mixture of kibble and really good treats (pea sized pieces of meat and cheese are recommended). Prepare to be generous–consider having this training session during meal time.
- A dog who wants her dinner and has been introduced to the target game and a marker word like “yes!” These instructions will assume that your dog is pretty new to these concepts.
Now you’ll want to pick an appropriate training set-up. I put the food in a wide bowl that I find easy to reach into and grab a handful. Since Nala’s a big dog who is most comfortable approaching me while I’m sitting, I sat in a chair with our treats on a table that’s too high for Nala to stick her nose in. If you have a smaller dog, you’ll probably want to sit on the floor. Are you ready? Comfortable? Dog salivating at your feet, treats and toy at the ready? Good.
- Warm up by reviewing the target game. Once your dog is enthusiastically bopping your hand with her nose, proceed to the next step.
- Using the same hand that your dog was targeting, pick up the food toy. Offer it in much the same way that you offered your hand. Your dog will hopefully interact with the toy in some way–she might just look at it, and if she does, click and treat.
- Since you were just playing the target game, there’s a really good chance that your dog will immediately move toward the toy and bump it with her nose. Click and jackpot! You can deliver the treats either by dropping them on the floor or putting them right in her mouth–either is fine at this stage.
- Your dog will probably keep offering touch the toy. Great! Click and deliver one treat for each nose touch. Toss the treats as you deliver them to increase your dog’s enthusiasm and arousal for this game.
- Since you’re building arousal with treat tosses, your dog should soon begin offering open-mouthed touches. Click and treat those–you can give extra treats for them if you like.
- Grab a handful of treats and put them into the kong while she’s chasing a treat you tossed to reinforce her for one of those nose touches.
- Watch for a big, open-mouthed touch–it should be almost big enough to grab the kong. Let go of the toy as she grabs it, and then click! Your dog’s mouth should open in anticipation of her reinforcement, at which point the kong will fall out–and so will a huge jackpot of treats! (I wish I had filmed Nala’s face when we did this the first time. She was so surprised and thrilled that I actually laughed at her!)
- Repeat step 7 a couple more times. But move to step 9 quickly–you want to start removing yourself from the picture as soon as possible to make sure that your dog learns that kongs work even when you aren’t attached to them.
- Start moving the kong toward the floor. You’re still going to click and give one treat or any interaction, but the kong is also going to be full of treats so that it will deliver a jackpot if she picks it up and drops it. Keep in mind that you can split this into as many steps as you need to–for instance, before you just set the toy on the ground, keep a few fingers on it for a few rounds of clicking and treating. Be sure to refill the kong with a handful of kibble each time your dog picks it up and drops it.
- When your dog is accurately moving toward the kong on the ground, you can add a verbal cue, if you like. But the toy itself, smelling like food, should be the cue to try to get food out. Your dog will probably quickly realize that kibble comes out when she simply nudges it on the ground, too. Now you’re well on your way to having a dog who enjoys puzzle toys!
As with any learning, you’ll want to consider helping your dog generalize her new skill.
One thing that helped cement Nala’s determination for working at toys to get food out was giving her fun, simple puzzle toys that dump out a lot of kibble for pawing, shoving, and nosing them around. We have a Starmark Bob-a-Lot toy, but, as much as Nala loves it, I don’t recommend it. It’s loud when it crashes into baseboards and, more importantly, something about the yellow plastic cap is really attractive for chewing, according to Nala. And while the toy has a gate that you can open or shut to increase the difficulty, smart dogs quickly learn to pin the toy down with one paw and lick the gate open so that they can get kibble out more quickly. So if you’d like to try this kind of toy, I recommend the Kong Wobbler or the Nina Ottosson Pyramid (which even comes in a quiet version).
Over the next few weeks, we worked through the different kongs in Eileen’s first video, and moved on to her Intermediate Kong suggestions. I made sure not to increase the difficulty until Nala was consistently emptying her kongs when I left her home alone. If I came home to a partially full toy, I made it easier the next day.
You also might consider tailoring your dog’s kongs to meet the needs of your departure. Nala empties kongs by throwing them around the room. To this day, if I leave her alone with a difficult kong for only an hour or so, I’ll come home to a half-full toy. That’s because Nala works at the toy until it gets difficult, goes to sleep for a while, then wakes up from her nap and finishes the now much easier kong (she really is way too smart). If I want her to lay quietly in her crate while I clean the house, a loud storm is making her nervous, or I only mean to be gone for an hour or two, I opt for a different kind of toy. Both the Westpaw Tux and the Toppl are shaped such that Nala can always see and reach the food by licking, so she’ll work continuously on them without moving around even if they’re frozen solid.
All Dogs Can Enjoy Puzzle Toys!
Just some, like Nala, need a little bit of help learning that objects are fun and rewarding to interact with.
You’ll note what I didn’t do above: at no point, not ever, did I “do” Nala’s food toy for her. I simply made sure that every time she made a choice to interact with the toy, she got rewarded for it. I also made sure that whenever possible, the biggest rewards came straight from the kong. I think that this method will work well for any dog who is reluctant to work with food toys because they don’t want to interact with objects or who has a tendency to give up very quickly.
Even old dogs can enjoy puzzle toys, and the extra mental enrichment that they provide may help delay dementia! In Teaching an Old Dog How to Play with a Food Toy, Eileen offers another method for teaching a reluctant dog to interact with a puzzle toy–just start with a really easy toy!
So that’s it! Have you ever had, known, or heard of a dog who was reluctant to interact with food toys? What’s your dog’s favorite book-substitute?
*I have in no way been solicited or paid to advertise any of the toys mentioned in this post, and I bought all of the puzzle toys we have my own self. I’m just a big fan of this form of dog enrichment.