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Pet trainer: Want a happier, healthier dog? Then don't just dump food in a … – WCPO

CINCINNATI - When I talk to pet owners about feeding as the form of training, with food chew or activity toys, they often are surprised. Putting food in a bowl and walking away is such a natural thing to do. 

However, let’s think about that. When food is placed in a bowl, often the dog either gobbles it up quickly or will leave it in the bowl to graze on throughout the day. Leaving food in a bowl all day is referred to as "free feeding" and is something I caution against.

It does not take scientific research to see that dogs enjoy working for their food. A dog who is engaged in positive learning, with a chew toy filled with something yummy, is fully engrossed in that activity. It is both mental and physical stimulation. 

Still, it is great to have data to back up this assertion:

One study out of Sweden looked at whether a dog prefers an easy paycheck or prefers to problem solve to get his desired outcome: food. Guess what the researchers concluded? Dogs prefer to be able to control their environment and earn their living.

MORE: Positive affect and learning: exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs

Researchers looked at six matched pairs of beagles who were taught how to manipulate three pieces of equipment in a room over the space of a one week.

  • When a dog did what she was taught to do, the gate opened, giving her access to a ramp leading to the reward.
  • With dogs in the control group, the gate was simply opened after the same amount of time it took for the experimental dog to solve the puzzle. 

The control dogs became increasingly reluctant to enter the test room, and, by the end of the study, even had to be coaxed into that area by a handler. The experimental dogs were more active in the start arena. Researchers also saw more tail wagging in the experimental dogs. 

"These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare." -- McGowan et al. 

Lesson learned

It is important for us to remember enrichment is vital when it comes to helping our pets succeed in our homes. Giving them ways to solve problems, exercise their minds and bodies, and use their senses allows them to expend energy in positive ways and also adds to their quality of life.

About Lisa Desatnik

Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. Check out her blog and website.  You can also connect with her via the So Much PETential Facebook Page,  and follow her on Twitter.

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