Why use food toys for boat dogs?
What if I told you that food toys are safer, healthier, and more enriching than feeding your boat dog from a conventional food bowl? And that food toys stop behavior problems before they start?
Want to know more?
Our Food Toy Beginnings
I’m a big believer in feeding dogs out of food toys. In fact, I started feeding Honey with a makeshift toy when she was just 8 weeks old.
We’d measure Honey’s kibble into an empty soda bottle and balance it on its mouth. When she bumped it with her nose, it tipped over and the food spilled out.
While Honey was busy scarfing up the food from the floor, I’d reset the bottle for her to push over when she was ready.
Eating out of a food toy was the first thing we trained Honey to do. She learned that her actions could bring good things her way. It was the foundation of a life of positive training. And it was the first of many food toys we’ve introduced her to.
Honey has benefitted in many ways from eating out of dog food toys. Would your dog?
Benefits Of Food Toys For Boat Dogs
I believe all dogs benefit from eating out of food toys. But boat dogs gain even more.
Food toys provide the following gains for boat dogs:
Tire dogs out
Whether you’re managing boat chores on a passage or (like us) just trying to make a living from your boat, quiet time helps.
Once your dog works for their food, they’ll need to rest. Which helps any captain with a particularly active or young pup.
Provide stimulation and enrichment
The reason we walk our dogs is not to tire them out. Most young dogs can’t be tuckered out by most humans.
Instead, walking gives your dog a chance to gain stimulation and enrichment—from the smells, sights, and feel of the ground under their feet. But if a long walk isn’t possible, a food toy can provide the same level of enrichment as most walks.
May reduce fear
If your dog reacts badly to storms or other frightening conditions, a stuffed food toy like a Kong (Amazon) may help.
Once a dog is petrified, they’re not going to show interest in food. But if you plan ahead, you may be able to get your dog involved in emptying a food toy before they have a chance to get too scared.
Gives them something to do when you’re away or busy
A food toy is a helpful tool to have if your dog has separation anxiety. Some high-tech food toys even allow you to watch your dog while you’re away and dispense food to them at random.
But an even more basic dog food toy can still keep your dog occupied when you’re not available to comfort or keep them company.
Finally, the best reason for feeding your dog from a food toy is that it might just save their life.
Slows down their eating
Have you ever heard of a nasty thing called bloat? No, it’s not what happens to your boat jobs list.
It’s a serious health condition more formally known as gastric dilatation and volvulus. Bloat causes the stomach to fill rapidly with gas and flip in on itself. It is often fatal, especially if you can’t get your dog to the vet immediately.
There’s a lot of misinformation about what causes bloat. But most veterinarians believe it is a bigger problem for some breeds (particularly those with deep chests). And that quickly gulping food has a strong correlation with the condition.
I can’t think of anything more horrifying than having Honey become seriously ill when we’re hours or days away from a vet. Slowing her eating down just seems like an easy and smart precaution.
So what type of food toy should you try with your boat dog?
Best Food Toys For Boat Dogs
When I adopted my first dogs, the Kong (Amazon) was the only food toy available. But now you can find toys for any level from preschool to a graduate program at M.I.T.
And they can cost about as much as grad school at a top university.
Luckily there are lots of options. You should be able to find something for your boat dog.
Slow feeder bowls
A slow feeder bowl is the easiest food toy to get your boat dog. It’s a large, shallow dog bowl with maze-like dividers.
Your dog has to work harder to get their food out, slowing them down and tiring them a bit.
- Dogs take to them easily.
- No training needed.
- Large size for a compact boat.
- Can be difficult to clean.
Stuffing toys are OG dog food toys. The oldest is the Kong. But now you can find a variety of hard rubber toys to stuff with a kibble, soft food, cheese, and more.
To slow your dog down even more, freeze your stuffed toy once you’ve filled it.
- Good for soft food or biscuits.
- No training needed.
- Can be messy on floors and furniture.
- Difficult to clean.
Only the smallest dogs will be able to eat their main meals from a lick mat. But it’s a great way to distract a dog from something they dislike—like a bath or nail trimming.
- Great for soft food.
- No training needed.
- Can be messy on carpet or cushions.
- Will “move” unless it comes with suction bottom.
Snuffle mats are coarse fleece mats that allow you to hide kibble and treats in the pile. Dogs “snuffle” around until they find all the food hidden for them.
- Great for hard treats or kibble.
- Can be tossed into any washing machine.
- Won’t work with soft food or messy treats.
- A poor choice for dogs who will eat and swallow pieces of the mat.
Nina Ottoson was a Swedish mom who felt guilty about not having as much time to work with her dogs once she had children. She invented challenging puzzles that required dogs to move features of the puzzle to get to the food.
Now a number of companies make similar puzzles. But the original ones are the most creative. And challenging.
- Come in a wide range of difficulties.
- Great for high-energy, intelligent dogs.
- May not hold enough food for an entire meal.
- Will require some training and supervision.
Food dispensers, unlike all the previous examples, actually eject food in some way.
But newer, high-tech versions come with apps you can download on your phone so you can dispense treats. They even have cameras so you can watch your dog while off the boat.
- High-tech versions can be very helpful with separation anxiety.
- Come in a wide range of difficulties.
- Many don’t hold enough food for an entire meal.
- You dog can make a lot of noise pushing the manual dispensers around.
Getting Started With Food Toys For Your Boat Dog
You don’t have to invest a lot of money in gadgets for your dog. You can make some DIY food toys for boat dogs using items you already have onboard.
Anything that requires your dog to work for their food will provide some level of enrichment and slow their eating down.
DIY Food Toy Ideas
To simulate a slow feeder bowl, grab a muffin tin or pie tin. Pour your dog’s kibble into the bottom then fill it with tennis balls. Your dog will have to push around the balls to get to the food.
It’s one of the simplest puzzles for any dog to solve.
If your dog needs a bigger challenge, you can do something similar by scrunching up an old town or blanket and hiding kibble within. (Caution: Know your dog. If they like shredding fabric, this might be dangerous.)
When we’re off the boat at dinner time, we’ll do something similar by scattering Honey’s food in a small area of lawn in a park.
If you feed soft food, you can also freeze their meal in a muffin tin and require them to lick it out.
Finally, a local shelter taught us how to create challenging food puzzles using cardboard boxes.
Add about half your dog’s kibble in a small, cardboard box. Tape it up. Put it inside a slightly larger box with a little more kibble. Tape it up and add it to a still larger box.
Repeat until you’ve hidden all the kibble in the boxes. (Caution: Once again, know your dog. If they’re likely to chew up and swallow the cardboard, don’t try it.)
This DIY food toy will result in both a mess on your boat and one happy dog.
Check out my list of 30 healthy, inexpensive treats you can buy from the grocery story for treats to add to your dog’s food toy.
Whether you buy a complex puzzle for your smarty-pants dog or create a simple DIY game for your motivated but maybe not the brightest pup, food toys are great on a boat. There are many to choose from–check out this list of even more food toys from our friends at Puppy Leaks.
Your dog will love working for her food. And you’ll love having a happy, healthy, and tired pup.
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