A lot of people tell us that they struggle to find the right puzzle toy for their dog - either the dog finds it really easy and they've completed it in a few minutes, or they get really frustrated, can’t figure it out and end up destroying the toy. Puzzle toys aren’t cheap so it’s really frustrating when you’ve bought something and don’t get the use out of it that you hoped you would.
With a few tweaks you can make most puzzle toys work for most dogs, so we’re going to share some of our top tips on the most common problems to help you get the most from your puzzle toys.
The puzzle is too easy
We hear this one a lot, and I know my dog Poppy is really quick to work out a new puzzle and have it finished in seconds. The first thing to remember is that enrichment is about adding some interesting activities to your dog’s day rather than challenging them or making it difficult for them to get their food. Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t enjoy it, and it’s important to strike a balance between easy and more difficult activities as if we’re always making it harder, it can stop being fun for them.
If you’ve got a puzzle your dog finds really easy you can try a few things to make it more interesting:
Does your dog normally use their paws or their nose to work out the puzzle? Poppy tends to use her paws when a puzzle is on the floor, so putting the puzzle on a raised surface means she has to try a new approach and use her nose a little bit more.
As well as trying different surfaces, you could pop the puzzle in a cardboard box so they’re coming at it from a different perspective - just make sure it’s shallow enough that they can still access it comfortably.
Try using a different type of food - if you’re using one of the plastic puzzles that are easy to clean you could use something like dog-safe peanut butter or pate rather than dry treats so it’s longer lasting
Try a new location - dogs aren’t great at generalising, so being able to do something in a quiet corner of the house doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it as easily in a different environment or somewhere more distracting. Take your puzzles out and about - whether that’s in the garden, in the car, or even if you’re out for a picnic!
Make the puzzle part of bigger enrichment activity. You could set up a whole range of enrichment activities in one room, with a scatter feed, a lickimat, a busy box or any other enrichment activity your dog enjoys, and let them work around all the activities at their own pace. This is a perfect rainy day activity to keep them entertained when you can’t get outside as much as normal.
They’re struggling with the puzzle or getting frustrated
Perhaps you’ve got a puzzle that your dog can’t quite figure out, so they either give up or try to chew their way through it to get to the food.
When I’m introducing a new puzzle to Poppy, particularly if it’s quite a challenging one, I often keep the food in my hand rather than putting it in the puzzle. Sometimes our dogs are so eager to get to the food they don’t slow down enough to work out what they need to do, so they’ll end up chewing or scratching the puzzle and just getting really frustrated with it.
‘Shaping’ can be a great way to help your dog figure out a puzzle without creating all that frustration that happens when they can’t get to the food straight away. To start with, reward your dog with a treat for any interaction with the puzzle, then start to reward them for more specific actions, for example if they need to push a certain part of the puzzle with their nose then reward them for putting their nose in the right place. Gradually get more and more specific with your rewards until they’ve got that part of the puzzle figured out, and you’re just rewarding them for getting it right. Once they’ve got it sussed and they’re getting it right every time you can try putting the food in the puzzle and see how they get on.
With a puzzle that has lots of different elements you can also try putting food in one section at a time and pointing them to that part of the puzzle, rather than filling all the different compartments. Don’t be afraid to help them out and show them what they need to do - working as a team is a brilliant way to really develop your bond!
We'd love to hear about the puzzles your dog loves, and how you get the most out of them - let us know in the comments!