Think Outside The Kong: Food Puzzle Alternatives For Dogs
You would think that finding a dog who doesn’t like Kongs is as rare as finding a kid who doesn’t like chocolate, but in reality, some dogs are not big fans of the classic food puzzle toy that has been around since the 70s. Claiming to be the most durable in the market, and promising long-lasting fun for your pooch, what’s not to love? Well, it is not uncommon to hear tales of disappointment, such as “my dog doesn’t get it” or “my dog gets bored with it after 10 seconds,” many times followed by the gloomy conclusion “my dog doesn’t like food puzzles.”
Don’t give up hope! Your dog might not like the classic Kong (no matter how much your friends told you “dogs love it!”) but there are plenty of other types of food puzzles in the market. How do you know which one your dog will like? Well, first you should figure out why your dog isn’t into the classic Kong. Then, you will probably need to experiment with a couple of different types of puzzles, which we will cover below. If the one you buy turns our not to be a big hit with your dog, donate it to a local shelter.
It’s not your dog, it’s the Kong
Let’s explore first why your dog might not understand the hype behind the classic Kong. Here are some potential reasons:
- The reward is not worth the effort. You need to start with a treat or food that you know your dog absolutely loves. For example, I know a rescued dog who doesn’t care for treats, no matter how beefy, smelly or tasty, but she can’t resist Goldfish crackers. Some dogs even like carrots or bananas more than a piece of filet mignon, so choose whichever super-high-value treat your dog goes absolutely nuts over (but don’t give them nuts as they tend to be bad for them). One of my dogs is incredibly picky and will turn down even jerky treats, but he can’t resist Gerber’s baby food (ham or beef, please) or small pieces of dog food rolls, such as these.
- The effort looks like mission impossible to your dog. You need to make it incredibly easy for your dog to get the treat out of the Kong the first few times. Otherwise, your dog will associate the Kong with frustration. Then, after a few times, increase the difficulty little by little. Don’t even think of freezing it until your dog loves the Kong so much they start drooling at the site (or sound) of it.
- Your dog is just not that into it. Simple as that. The classic Kong (red, black, pink, or purple) requires dogs mostly to lick the contents, with maybe some intermittent chewing or gnawing. For some dogs, the rubber might be too stiff, for others the whole process of licking the contents ad-nauseam doesn’t sound like much fun: they might lick the peanut butter or cheese spread sticking out of the top, but then they look at you as if they were saying “could you get me one of those spoon things so I can get the rest out?” Here’s when knowing about other types of food puzzles comes in handy.
A Treasure-Trove of Treat-dispensing Toys
Instead of dividing food puzzles by brand or difficulty, I’d like to categorize them by what the dog needs to do to get the treat/food. Some dogs find it much more fun to push the object in order for the reward to come out, others instinctively bite or chew anything containing food (or sometimes, anything at all, including shoes and couches), and others get into a trance as they methodically lick its yummy contents. Of course, many of these categories are overlapping: some dogs will try pushing, biting and licking just about any food puzzle.
For each category, I will only mention a few representative examples to give you an idea, but there are many others produced by the same big companies (Kong, JW, Jolly Pets, PetSafe, etc.) or by lesser-known inventors, such as the creators of the Odin. And also note that there is a whole other category of game-like puzzles, such as Nina Ottoson’s famous line, which are not included here but would be certainly fun to review another time.
The most basic ones in this category are the so-called “treat balls,” such as: the Omega Paw Treat Ball, the Cog Ball, Jolly Pets’ Tuff Tosser, PetSafe’s Busy Buddy Animal Shapes, and JW’s Hollee Treat Ball.
If a ball is not challenging enough for your dog, there are a number of other food-dispensing toys that also require your dog to nudge and chase: PetSafe’s Busy Buddy Twist’n’Treat, Starmark’s Bob-a-lot, Nina Ottoson’s Pyramid, Planet Dog’s Orbee Tuff Snoop ball, the Kong Wobbler, and OurPets’ Buster Food Cube, among many others.
Some of the toys in this category are made of hard plastic, while others are made of soft rubber. You should take into account whether you and your dog are bothered by noise. For instance, one of my dogs, who absolutely loves nudge-and-chase food puzzles did not care for the Buster Food Cube at all: unless you have low-pile carpet or rubber flooring, it is both very loud and quite difficult to move or tip over on hardwood floors.
Other practical considerations include how easy they are to clean and to put treats in them. Most “treat balls” tend to be difficult to clean, so you should not use soft treats or anything that might stick to the inside walls.
The Kong Wobbler stands out as probably the human-friendliest, given that you can easily unscrew the top to put food in it or to wash the inside. It is true that the hole is rather large so small treats will come out too fast, but there are ways to make it last longer: in addition to tasty treats of different shapes and sizes, you can put other things in it so when it rolls, the hole is blocked (larger treats, a golf ball, plastic caps from medicine bottles, etc.).
The issue of treats coming out too fast is a common complaint for several of the food puzzle toys in this category. PetSafe’s Busy Buddy line boasts about their patented Treat Meter prongs, which pet parents can cut or keep in order to offer an easier or more challenging experience for their canine kids. In my experience, keeping all the prongs intact makes it very difficult and frustrating for the dogs to get the treats out, but when all of the prongs are removed, the treats come out a little too fast. The Orbee Tuff Snoop Ball is probably the worst in that respect.
It only takes my dogs a matter of seconds to get all of the treats out. The Omega Paw Treat Ball was also a disappointment, not just because the treats come out too easily, but mainly because the plastic material is so thin and pliable that was torn apart within 24 hours.
And speaking of chewing, you will probably read reviews about the Wobbler or the Bob-a-lot being turned into hard-plastic confetti. Before placing blame on the quality of the product, consider the following three things: (1) the dog might frustrated that the treats are not coming out, possibly because there is not enough room for them to push the toy and chase it, (2) the dog instinctively prefers to chew on toys rather than push them around, and (3) the dog is not being supervised enough while playing with the toy; as soon as you see your dog attempting to bite a food puzzle toy that is not meant to be chewed on, you should stop them.. and possibly consider one of the toys suggested in the next section.
There are several toys to give their jaw muscles a good workout, and here are some of them: Kong Genius Mike, Busy Buddy’s Waggle, Starmark’s Treat Dispensing Football, JW Playbites Treat Bone, Pet Projekt’s Furchun Cookie, Jolly Pets’ Tuff Range Teeter or Monster Ball.
The most important factor to consider is how powerful of a chewer your dog is. Most of these toys will not last long if your dog finds it more entertaining to destroy it than to get the treats out. In some cases, the issue is with the design and durability of the toy. The Kong Genius Mike, for example, is too pliable and with its shape makes it too tempting for just about every dog to try and chew the ends off.
Also, the type of treat you use can also make a difference in how much your dogs likes these types of toys. For example, I use crumbly treats for the Waggle (like Bil-Jac America’s VetDogs Skin & Coat Dog Treats), so my dogs have to first chew on it, and then nudge it for the crumbs to come out.
The classic Kong fits into this category, so if you think your dog is not into it because they get bored after licking the contents for a few seconds, then maybe these are not for you. However, if your dog doesn’t like the Kong because of the shape or texture, these two alternatives might be more appealing.
The first one is the SmartPaw Honeycomb Bone, which offers several small compartments to stuff different treats or even some canned food or peanut butter. since they can easily see and smell all of the food, it is too tempting for them to ignore. It is not easy for dogs to lick something off out of the honeycombs, so it entertains them for a while. And yes, they make the funniest sound as the stick their tongue in each honeycomb and suction the contents out. Word to the wise: it is by no means indestructible as it claims. Some dogs, especially if they are into chewing, will likely resort to tearing the toy apart to get the treats out. I would suggest using something like peanut butter or very crumbly treats so they resist the temptation of going all Chuck Norris on it.
The second suggestion, on the other hand, is for strong chewers: Starmark’s Pickle Pocket. My dogs have yet to make even a dent on it. That being said, it is not for everyone. Some dogs find it fascinatingly challenging, and others give up after merely looking at it. It is heavy and dense compared to other toys, so let’s just say it is an acquired taste. Since it has three different wavy openings, you could stuff each one with different treats.
Try before you buy
If your dog is not into the classic Kong, you should first see how they feel about “pushing” puzzles. All you need is a tennis ball or any kind of durable rubber ball, especially if your dog eats the fuzzy part of tennis balls, and a pair of scissors. Make several large holes and insert high-value treats (again, “high value” to your dog, not to your wallet). Try it out first to make sure the treats come out easily; if they don’t, your dog won’t get it, and frustration will ensue. Put it on the floor and let your dog figure it out first. They might nudge it instinctively and get the treats without much effort, or you might need to push it first so they see the treats come out. Some dogs then proceed to obliterate the tennis ball into infinite pieces of fuzz and rubber, so take it away from them after they got all the treats out! An alternative that doesn’t require you to be crafty is a “Chuck It! Whistler Ball”, or anything similar to that, if you happen to have one. Those holes are just perfect for hiding treats.
If all else fails, or if you are on a tight budget, there are many ways you can fight boredom without buying food puzzles. If your dog likes hide-and-seek interactive toys, like Outward Hound’s Hide-A-Squirrel, you could put very small pieces of treats in them, along with several other toys, so they have to take all the toys out to find the treats. Many household items can also be used as food puzzles: you can hide treats in empty cereal boxes, egg cartons, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, old socks, etc. My dogs could spend hours looking for treats or squeaky toys inside old handbags or suitcases. A variation of that is wrapping treats or toys in any large piece of fabric (e.g., blankets, towels, sheets, tablecloth, etc.), and then tying the fabric up in a relatively loose knot. It is a workout for their nose, jaws, and paws!
CCDL (Certified Crazy Dog Lady)