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If you’re not using treat-dispensing toys with your dog, you’re missing out on one of the greatest training inventions of the last 100 years – seriously!
These wonderful tools and toys can help you with a long list of dog-training and -management challenges, including boredom-busting, excessively fast eating, high-energy consumption, building mental skills, counter-conditioning, redirecting inappropriate behavior, and much more.
Jump to: Snuffle Mats | Kong-Style | Kibble-Dribbling | Slow Feeders | Lick Mats | Puzzles | Electronic Dispensers
In the mid-1980s, when I acquired my first Australian Kelpie, food-stuffed toys were an unknown. A tennis ball was “the thing” – and Keli, my Kelpie, was quite addicted to hers. Then we discovered the Kong. Still perceived primarily as a fetch toy in those days, the hollow, snowman-shaped, hard, rubber toy delighted my dog with its high-flying unpredictable bounces. Almost as good as herding sheep! She switched her allegiance from ball to Kong.
Then one day Jean Donaldson – dog trainer, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, and book author extraordinaire, suggested stuffing treats in the Kong’s hollow interior in order to entertain otherwise bored dogs. The food-dispensing dog-toy revolution was on.
The market has expanded since those early days when the Kong Company pretty much had a food-toy monopoly. Or should I say exploded? Today your options include an almost endless variety of products that contain food that will entice and challenge your dog. These products encourage him to chew, lick, nudge, paw, and toss in order to find and reach the food.
We still love the basic Kong toy, as well as the variety of other toys made by Kong. But we have to admit, we also love many of Kong’s competitors in the food-stuffable toy category. In fact, there are so many it’s hard to even have favorites anymore! But at a minimum, we think you should be aware of how many options are available to you and your dog today, so you can select the ones that are best suited to your own dog’s needs and wants.
It’s a simple concept: short pieces of fleece tied onto a flat plastic or rubber frame, creating a tufted surface, ideal for scattering or hiding kibble or treats. Originally, the snuffle mat was a takeoff on the idea of scattering a dog’s food in some grass, so it would take him a while to find and eat his meal.
When I first heard of snuffle mats, they were a do-it-yourself project. Not long after, I started seeing mats made by individuals and sold in a small cottage industry, and not long after that, the concept became quite commercialized. While you can still easily make a snuffle mat for your dog, you can also purchase several creative variations, with rubbery fingers instead of fleece tufts, fleece tufts of varying lengths and patterns, and activity mats that include pockets and other treat-finding challenges in addition to the tufts and fingers.
These mats can serve several different purposes. They are perfect for dogs who eat too quickly and are at constant risk of choking on a bowlful of unchewed food or inhaling bits of their food. Sniffing out and retrieving bits of food from the many mat crevices is guaranteed to slow down the most ravenous speed-eater.
Snuffle mats are also useful for keeping your dog occupied during events when she might otherwise get fussy. My dog Kai’s snuffle mat was a godsend while he impatiently waited his turn at agility class. The mat kept him calmly and happily searching for treats instead of barking from frustration and arousal at the sight of other dogs running the course.
The mats also may be used to keep your dog from getting bored when left alone (not recommended for a persistent or aggressive chewer!). Just load the mat, set it down for her in her “home-alone” space, and you’re good to go.
Some dogs, especially the gentler, less assertive ones, need a little help learning how to use the mat. You may need to start by dropping treats on top, rather than burying them deep in the mat. As your dog gets the idea, you can start pushing treats deeper and deeper into the tufts, until your dog really has to work to get them.
- Toss in the washing machine when they start getting sticky, stinky, or moldy; many can also be put in the dryer.
- The dog gets to use her sense of smell, touch, and taste to find food.
- Dogs can chew these up (and ingest them!). Do not leave your dog alone with a snuffle mat if she’s an aggressive chewer and/or prone to ingesting non-food items.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Snuffle Mats
Darkyazi Snuffle Mat/Nosework Blanket, $31
Paw5’s Wooly Snuffle Mat, $40, (215) 383-1654
Petvins Dog Feeding Snuffle Mat, $25
SNiFFiz Smelly Matty, $40
Good instructions for a make-it-yourself snuffle mat
Fill-with-Food Toys to Lick and Chew
The snowman-shaped Kong toy is still around, of course, and is still a great choice for stuffing food into, as well as a fetch toy. While not indestructible, the black Kongs are very tough and a wise choice for the aggressive chewer. In fact, I still have the original black Kong that Keli happily chased some 30-plus years ago. It’s a little worse for wear, but it’s still here!
In addition to the classic red and black Kongs, the Kong Company also offers “puppy” Kongs in pink and blue that are a little softer and easier to chew.
Between Kong Company and their competitors (including Busy Buddy, Idepet, Trixie, and others), there is an almost endless list of food-stuffable toys of various shapes, colors, sizes, and materials. Some are grooved, inviting your dog to lick squeeze cheese or peanut butter from the grooves. Some are hollow, encouraging chewing more than licking. You can stuff your dog’s entire meal into a few hollow toys, and even freeze them, to slow down the fast eater and keep the bored dog occupied for a longer time. Our freezers almost always contain a few!
- Most are dishwasher safe.
- Wide variety of products; novel products will keep your dog engaged.
- Some dogs have little interest in actively chewing to access treats and food. You may have to encourage yours, or choose a different type of food toy.
- Dogs can chew these up (and ingest them!). Either select super-tough toys specifically designed for aggressive chewers or do not leave your dog alone with her food-stuffed toy if she’s an aggressive chewer.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Fill-with-Food Toys
Busy Buddy’s Twist’n Treat, $7-$15, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online, or from its maker. (866) 738-4379
Kong, $7-$14, depending on size. See the entire line of classic Kong toys at the company website. Available for purchase in pet supply stores everywhere and online.
Kong Genius Leo Food Dispensing Dog Toy, $5-$8, depending on size. Connect several to add to the difficulty. Available in pet supply stores and online.
West Paw Rumbl, $19-$23, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online.
West Paw Toppl, $20-$29, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online.
Planet Dog Orbee-Tuff Snoop, $18. Available in pet supply stores and online.
I call these products “push toys,” because dogs need to push and roll them around in order to get kibble to fall out of them. What they all have in common is a compartment that you can fill with kibble or other small, hard treats, and a hole for the treats to spill out off, provided the dog rolls it over and over.
The first product like this that I ever saw was the Buster Cube – a hard plastic cube with rounded corners and a hole on one side for the treats to spill out of. Omega Paw’s Tricky Treat Ball was similar, but made of a softer vinyl material that didn’t make such an ungodly racket as a dog rolled and bashed it around, making the food fall out a piece or two at a time.
Today, there are many variations of these kibble-dribbling toys, including those original products. Look for products that won’t spill all the goods too quickly, but aren’t so difficult to get food out of that your dog gives up in frustration. Another nice feature is the ability to open the toy in order to empty it completely every so often; you don’t want pieces of kibble to get stuck inside, grow moldy, and only then fall out and be eaten by your dog.
Kong came out with a product that we like a lot: the Kong Wobbler, which is shaped like the original Kong, but made of two hard plastic halves that screw together, making it incredibly easy to load with kibble or treats and open afterward for cleaning. The bottom half is weighted so that the toy rights itself after each push, which increases the interactive nature of the toy and makes it a bit more engaging than some of the other push toys. Our pot-bellied pig, Dexter, happily eats part of his meal from a Kong Wobbler!
Note that, depending on the level of difficulty, your dog may need to be taught how to use these toys. Roll or push it over several times so she can see the treat fall out (and eat it) each time. Encourage her to use her nose and/or paws to engage the toy until she realizes that she can make the treats appear.
- More interactive than most of these other products; playful dogs will particularly enjoy these.
- Because these toys are meant to be pushed or pawed around in order to dispense the treats, they are not necessarily able to withstand chewing (unlike the products mentioned in the previous category, which are designed to give up their food stuffing by being licked and chewed). These products would not be appropriate for dogs whose go-to tactic is to try to chew the food out of the toy. Dedicated chewers can damage, chew, and ingest pieces of these toys if they are so inclined.
- Be aware! These toys can be very noisy, especially on hard floors.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Kibble-Dribblers
Busy Buddy’s Kibble Nibble, $10-$18, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online, or from its maker. (866) 738-4379
Omega Paw’s Tricky Treat Ball, $7-$14, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online.
Our Pets Buster Cube, $8-$19, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online.
In contrast to the push-around toys, these products are designed to be stationary – though they, too, are meant to slow down speed eaters. Slow feeding is believed to decrease the potential for life-threatening choking or bloat, a not-uncommon problem in dogs who inhale their meals.
These products are usually grooved or have pegs in the bowl, requiring the dog to use her tongue to reach the food. They are often weighted and/or equipped with non-skid feet and a wide base to minimize spillage. They may not be quite as challenging as some of the other food-toy products, though this makes them a good choice for dogs who get easily discouraged and stop trying to get treats from the more difficult designs.
- These products work equally well for feeding dry food, wet food, raw frozen, or home-prepared.
- Most are dishwasher-safe.
- The grooves in some designs can make these bowls difficult to wash without a dishwasher.
- Most of these products are made for larger dogs; fewer models are available for small dogs.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Slow Feeders
Neater Pets’ Slow Feeder, $15. (877) 917-7387
Outward Hound’s Slo Bowls, $10-$22. Available in pet supply stores and online, as well as from their maker. (800) 477-5735
QT Dog’s Brake-Fast Stainless Steel Dog Bowl, $22-$50, depending on size. Available in pet supply stores and online.
Compared to some of the other food-dispensing toys, “licky-sticky” is a relatively new concept. This category describes products that are meant to be filled with a type of food that the dog can remove only by determined and prolonged licking, such as peanut butter, cream cheese, yogurt, baby food, or a pt-type canned food – and that are designed to be affixed to a stationary position (usually with suction cups).
Prior to the invention of these products, I’ve suggested to clients that they just smear cheese or peanut butter on the refrigerator door or shower wall. I can see how some might prefer this alternative!
The thing I like best about these is that they can keep your dog relatively immobile, happily occupied, and licking/eating, while you attend to a husbandry task that requires two hands, such as buckling a muzzle, bathing, grooming, taking a temperature, etc. That’s so useful that I actually squealed with delight the first time I saw one!
- Because the dog can’t carry them off to enjoy in private, these are great for keeping him in one spot, without force or restraint.
- The dog’s enjoyment of delicious treats may classically condition him to associate grooming (or whatever you are doing to him while he licks the food) with good things, making him more happier to cooperate and participate.
- These products may not be a good choice for a dog who has food-guarding behavior, unless and until behavior modification has been done.
- If your dog is prone to chewing up toys, don’t leave him unattended with any of these products. Most are flexible and not durable, as they are meant for licking, not chewing.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Licky-Sticky Things
Aquapaw Slow Treater Treat Dispensing Mat, $15-$17.
Chase ‘N Chomp’s Sticky Bone, $17.
Helpcook Dog Lick Pad, $11.
Lickimat Tuff Buddy Dog Mat, $16.
Lickimat Tuff Soother Dog Mat, $16 for creamier treats.
Interactive Toys and Dog “Puzzles”
Interactive toys have become very popular since they first appeared a decade or so ago – and with good reason. They make a dog work for her treats, with her brain as well as her body! Brain games are incredibly useful for keeping dogs mentally as well as physically healthy.
Swedish dog-toy designer Nina Ottosson started developing her line of interactive toys in 1990. Today, there are dozens of her products on the market, as well as many from other designers. Some are clear-cut imitators, others are quite innovative and original. All are guaranteed to provide dogs with fun and stimulation.
- These are fun for all dogs, but especially useful for helping to entertain and occupy senior, handicapped, or rehabilitating dogs who need to be kept calm.
- Because most of these were designed to have the human interacting with the dog as the dog interacts with the toy, they are also good for relationship-building.
- Some of these interactive toy puzzles are quite complex and challenging. Your dog may need some assistance, at least at first, to help her succeed and learn, and avoid frustration. Start with simpler toys and work up to the more challenging ones once she understands how the games are played.
- The early Nina Ottosson toys were made of wood – easily chewed and hard to clean. More recent models are made of plastic; still some have small pieces that your dog can chew up if you are inattentive.
- These toys are designed to be used under human supervision. Many of them are easily destroyed if left with your dog unattended.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Interactive Toys
Nina Ottosson‘s dog puzzles, $10-$40. See complete line of products available on the company website. Available in pet supply stores and online.
Trixie Pet Products’ Dog Activity Strategy Games, $10-$30. See complete line of products available on the company website. Available in pet supply stores and online.
Electronic Treat Dispensers
Last, but by no means least, is a new generation of computerized electronic food-dispensing toys, giving a whole new look and feel to the treat-dispensing toy market.
The earliest products in this category allowed you use a remote control to release a treat to your dog at a distance from you. Next, they came with timers, so you could release meals or treats at pre-set or random intervals (helpful for preoccupying dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress). Today, some allow your to dispense treats to (and sometimes, communicate with) your dog from remote locations, via an app on your phone or computer!
Many dog owners and trainers are fascinated with the technology. Some products can be set to beep randomly to signal to your dog that a treat is coming, and some will actually take pictures of your dog as she arrives to eat the treat.
I will confess I’m a technology troglodyte and am pretty intimidated by these products! But I do love the remote treat-dispenser function that allows you to signal to your dog the opportunity for a treat from 50 to 500 feet away, depending on the brand. This type of toy has many helpful applications, such as when visitors arrive, you can use its function to move your dog away from the door (as he runs to get his treats from the machine that you have set up elsewhere). Other training and management applications include situations where you want the dog to go to her bed, move away from begging at the table, stop obsessing over squirrels or UPS trucks outside, and more.
- Brilliant for engaging dogs who are easily bored when left home alone. Anticipation of random treats can keep the canine brain engaged and out of trouble.
- Surveillance features (still camera, one-or two-way audio, video, and/or live-stream monitoring), ease owner anxieties about home-alone dogs, too.
- The remote treat-dispensing function can potentially cause problems in a multi-dog household, especially if there is competition for resources. Be careful!
- Some of the fancier high-tech products require a fair amount of Internet bandwidth to function. If you are on satellite/limited bandwidth, they may not work or be optimal for you.
- You do need to be somewhat tech-savvy – or have access to someone who is – to figure some of this stuff out!
- These can be quite pricey.
Whole Dog Journal-Approved Electronic Treat Dispensers
Furbo Dog Camera, $210. Dispenses treats via phone app; also takes video and allows two-way audio.
PetCube Bites, $249. HD pet camera that allows you to monitor and talk to your dog and fling treats via app.(888) 447-2522
PetSafe Treat & Train Remote Reward Dog Trainer, $190. Dispenses treats via remote control.
Ready Treat Remote Treat Dispenser, $50. Dispenses only one serving of treats via remote control before needing to be reloaded.
Lots to Choose From
As you can see, there are many options for teaching your dog to play with her food. A list of examples of products in each category appears on page 22. Find the ones that are likely to appeal to her – and to you – and get started!
We have used the Omega Tricky Treat balls for years (13) with our dobermans. We’ve really enjoyed watching them think, boxing themselves into a corner and figuring out how to get out.
Our favorite is the IQ TREAT BALL.
See : ourpets.com
The West Paw Puzzl (also labeled Toppl) is my favorite. Easier to clean out than a Kong, but still long lasting because of the rubber fingers inside. My absolute “go to” for enrichment.
West Paw is the only dog toy company I’m aware of that is made in the USA with products made in the USA. I toured their Bozeman, MT factory where they employ locals. I was impressed.
Maureen, I agree! I no longer buy Kongs even though they are a bit less expensive. The Toppl last longer and is much easier to clean. You also don’t need to put as much food in it if you freeze it. Somehow, it takes longer for my dogs to clean them out. Maybe it’s the little fingers. Seems like there is more problem solving involved too since there are multiple ways to get at the food inside.
We love the Omega Tricky Treat ball! Since they’re soft and have indentations, my dogs can mouth them and bring them to me for a reward when they’re empty. They roll quietly and wash by hand easily but you must drill the tiny hole in the bottom bigger to drain the water efficiently.
You have 2 dots in the URL of the link in your email, leading to this post.
The best “kibble dribbling” toy I’ve had for 6 dogs over 20 years is the Bob-A-Lot made by Starmark. It is indestuctible & still have the original 3 I bought. Over the years have bought every treat dispensing toy I could find & the Bob-A-Lot is still the favorite. I’m disappointed the WDJ didn’t include this one in their list.
Could you post a link to item, plz?
Available on Amazon. Suddenly, everyone I know has a Bob a Lot!
Copper loves his midnight toy and treat in one!
Did you not consider the treat dispensing toys by West Paw? They have a few in their toy lineup. As far as I know they are the only dog toy company based in the USA that uses only USA sourced materials. I’m a big fan, my dog is a customer, and I toured their factory when I was vacationing in Bozeman, Montana where they employ locals.
I was hoping this article would provide some help with food dispensing toys and their safety and best ones to use for non-kibble based diets. I feed my dog raw food that I purchase in frozen patties. I spoon the food into a Kong. I recently noticed that the Kong rubber was very tacky to the touch. I’m concerned about having my dog ingest this rubber and am on the lookout for another way to dispense his food. Most of the toys in this article are geared towards kibble diets. As for safety, I was hoping to learn more about plastic and rubber safety of the various food dispensers.
West Paw Toppl and Tux. Any slow feeder like the ones from Outward Hound will work. Smash the food in there and freeze to make it even more challenging. We use pure meat air dried or dehydrated treats in the treat dispensing toys and “real” food in the Trixie puzzles, like cheese, lunch meat, etc. You can adapt almost anything to a raw diet.
Why no Cleverpet in the electronic section? We love ours, and it’s way more interactive than the others!
I agree with other commenters, the West Paw toys, especially the Toppls are missing from this article, as well as the Bob-a-lot, which has the benefit of a sliding door to adjust the size of the opening to accommodate different food types or alter the difficulty level depending on the dog or experience. Overall a great resource though to introduce people to this idea, or to new toys they may not be aware of (I am going to need to “lose” my CC for a few days to avoid spending more money on some myself, lol).
West Paws toys ! And don’t put the sticky bone on the dishwasher – it turns to trash
SNUFFLE MATS – Please try to find a local dog person / Junior Handler who is making these to support their dog habit or a training club that might be trying to raise funds!!!
thanks, I’ll do that!
Our Pom at 12 lbs and 15 years old didn’t do well with a Kong and I hadn’t heard about the Snuffle Mats at that time,
so I went to the cat area of our local pet store and bought him one of their smaller treat feeder toys and he loved it. Then
after he passed away and our other Pom was over weight, I gave it to her, thinking before she had no interest in it,
took to it right away but since she was only allowed 1/8 a cup of kibble, 3 times a day, she was finished eating the
dropped kibble within about 5 minutes which was ok because she also has a puzzle bowl and we gave her a Snuffle
Mat for her 12th birthday. Thanks Whole Dog Journal for telling us about them. Now every one’s happy at the Waggin Tale Rast Ranch! Especially our Vet who put her on a diet and she’s loosing weight!
WO has a new Ball toy that has treat dispensing features, which also work great for holding bully sticks, etc.
Each WO Ball is made in the USA and with the #buyonegivetwo mission, 2 meals are provided for widows and orphaned kids with each WO Ball sold.
The Busy Buddy Twist ‘n’ Treat didn’t hold up at all for my dogs. They aren’t particularly aggressive chewers but a 6 month old puppy shredded this in a couple days. Waste of money for all but the most mild mannered of dogs IMO.
You can actually make your own puzzles too. I have a couple of the Nina Ottossson games but they’re quite expensive. I purchased a plastic muffin-type tin from a charity shop for 50p and just put tennis balls on the top of treats in the homes for the dog to move and get the treat.
I got my dog the Buster Cube when she was a teenage puppy. It would keep her occupied for a long time, and she LOVED that toy!
When we go for walks, we sometimes find random items in odd places. There was the time that my pup just happened to find a discarded clock radio in the shape of a cube. Without hesitation, she proceeded to flip it over several times with her nose in order to get the treats out! She was pretty disappointed when it didn’t produce any treats. 🙁
Excellent culling of benefits, ideas and options! I provide a hand-cured list to all my clients and will certainly be adding this article to the resources section. Thanks for the updated article!
Our dog has loved her Omega Ball for 6 years now. We call it ‘orange’ and she will bring it to us when we ask her to.
A great treat dispenser for occupying her and also use we when we go away and put her dinner in it. We hide the the ball but pretty sure she gives herself dinner as soon as we leave the house LOL
TIP: put in some treats that just fit in through the channel (without needing to force it through). It helps keep smaller treats from tumbling out too quickly.
The problem with a lot of these items is, they are made in China!! Personally, I don’t want my dogs eating treats/food off of anything made in China. No regulations & who knows what toxins are in the materials used to make these items?? Kong products are not made in China.
I’m sort of a minimalist, and I love the marrow bone as vehicle. You can select them to be the exact right size (length, weight and diameter) for your dog. They can be reused by filling them and freezing them. For dogs who are overweight, stuff the middle of the bone so the dog has to lick and work slowly toward the goodies (no fair if the goods are out of reach, though!) For dogs with sensitive stomachs, people who don’t like commercial treats and foods, dogs needing low fat treats: make bone broth with vinegar so it sets up to a stiff gel. Stuff your bone and freeze it. Great for hot weather outside or in a crate where the melting broth won’t stain furniture or carpet. Healthy, low calorie and cheap!
Unfortunately marrow bones are much harder than the teeth of dogs and can result in fractures. I have removed many fractured teeth from marrow bones and the worst culprit, antlers.
I buy my dog raw soup bones locally (usually lamb or veal) and after she has chewed the meat off and sucked the marrow out I gather it up and toss it.
I happen to have found a “Kong Tiltz” from Kong at Petco. My foster puppy is a Lab, and so eats everything, and I was worried about bloat. However, this works so well that I feel not even a thread of worry! My only concerns are that it is hard to unscrew, and it got VERY scratched up and sticky. Overall, Three Paws, to use WDJ ‘s rating. I will have to try Kong Wobbler, and “Sticky Licky Toys”.🐾
Just to point out that there are a number of slow feeder bowls available that are good for smaller dogs. These also tend to be suitable for cats too, who also suffer from the problem of regurgitation when gulping or eating their food too fast.
This is awesome, your thoughts are very nice. This article has given me many ideas on what toys to purchase for my dog. In particular, these toys are better for keeping dogs busy #Kibble-Dribbling Toys.
Thank you very much for sharing a nice post.
For hounds with touchy stomachs, individuals who don’t care for business treats and nourishments, hounds requiring low fat treats: make bone soup with vinegar so it sets up to a solid gel. Stuff your bone and freeze it. Extraordinary for sweltering climate outside or in a carton where the dissolving juices won’t recolor furniture or floor covering.
Can anyone recommend a licky-sticky small enough to suction to a grooming arm?
Can any one recommend a dispenser is safe for the dishwasher..