As any professional dog trainer knows, boredom is one of the biggest contributors to undesirable behavior in dogs. In the absence of physical and mental stimulation, dogs can suffer from anxiety, stress, poor physical health and a lack of proper social skills.
Regular training classes and involvement in canine sports are great ways to stave off boredom. But most pet parents can only participate in these types of formal activities as their schedules and budgets allow. So what can be done to keep their pups engaged and happy the rest of the time?
What Is Contrafreeloading?
While there are a variety of options, one of the easiest and most effective is contrafreeloading.
Contrafreeloading refers to an interesting and somewhat unexpected behavior observed in most animals (with the notable exception of the cat). Contrary to what most people might assume, research shows that, when given a choice, animals would rather work for their meals than have it given to them with no effort required.
Unlike their wild ancestors, who had to work for their food on a daily basis, most of today’s dogs lounge around on their beds waiting for the dinner bell to ring. They gulp down their food in just a few minutes (or seconds) flat, and then return to their previous position. With lots of time and energy to spare, dogs often find other, less-than-ideal ways to occupy themselves, like inappropriate chewing and nonstop barking.
How Does Contrafreeloading Help?
But by turning mealtimes into a game, dogs must use both their brains and bodies to earn their food. The mental and physical exercise leaves them content, tired and less apt to engage in “bad” behaviors.
For pet parents, one of the most appealing aspects of contrafreeloading is that it requires very little effort on their part. Here are a three simple ways they can get started:
- Scattering – This involves taking the dog’s normal portion of dry kibble and scattering it in the yard, in the kitchen or another appropriate room in the house. Pet parents should make the game easy at first, keeping the food confined to a relatively small area. As the dog catches on, they can broadcast it over a larger and larger area.
- Hiding – Playing hide and seek with the dog’s food will require training the cue, “Find it.” A portion of food should be placed in front of the dog, who should wait until told to “find it.” Gradually, owners should move the food farther and farther away and eventually out of sight. Once the pup is really good at the game, food can be hidden in several areas of the house at the same time.
- Puzzling – Today’s puzzle toys range from simple to high tech, but the goal of all of them is to make the dog work both physically and mentally for their food. Some toys can be made more challenging by either freezing food in the toy so that it lasts longer, or requiring the dog to take specific actions to get the reward.
By encouraging mental and physical engagement on a regular basis, dog parents will discover that their pups are more relaxed, less stressed, and more open to learning both in formal training sessions and at home.
Your turn: Have you ever used contrafreeloading with your dog? Would you ever recommend it to others? Tell us in the comments.