THINKING OUTSIDE THE FOOD BOWL – MRSC Presentation 13th Nov 2018


Dr Emma Hughes BSc (Hons); BVSc (Hons); MSc (Animal Behaviour & Welfare); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).



The Use of Food as Environmental Enrichment:


  • The goal of environmental enrichment is to increase an animal’s ability to perform natural behaviours.


  • This not only improves their welfare but reduces the risk of unwanted behaviours developing.


  • Food is a fundamental resource related to survival.


  • A dog would naturally spend between 4 and 6 hours (per 24 hour period) foraging, hunting and consuming food. This is VERY different from the few seconds a typical pet dog takes at dinner time.


  • Animals prefer to ‘work’ for their food – a concept known as contra freeloading (see references for more information).


So our goal is to increase both the time and effort they put into gaining food.


  • This reduces boredom and frustration which can be contributing factors to some of the problem behaviours we see in pet dogs.


How do we do this?

1. Know your own dog.

  • What drives/motivates them?
  • Do they have any mental health deficits that may compromise their ability to perform tasks such as anxiety or canine dementia?

2. Interact and assist them if needed (when they first start);

  • Use high value treats (to increase motivation);

3. Rotate toys/ideas; dogs get bored as easily as we do;

4. Separate dogs in multi dog households; feeding time should be a solitary affair;

5. Measure out daily rations to avoid obesity;

6. Incorporate food into training sessions; POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINING IS THE WAY TO GO!

7.There are some great commercial products available and more coming out all the time. Nina Ottosson®, Kong®, Slow feeders etc;



8.But you don’t need to spend a fortune – homemade alternatives can be just as beneficial to an animal. See end of handout for Facebook® sites dedicated to this very topic!

Some DIY ideas include:

Placing treats/kibble in empty boxes, wrapping paper, toilet rolls etc.

Try using old muffin tins to hide food under tennis balls!

Summer months are a good time to freeze food and treats.

Or simply scatter feeding and/or hiding food around the back yard.


A little on Nose Works:

Inspired by working detection dogs, K9 Nose Work is the fun search and scenting activity for virtually all dogs and people.

K9 Nose Work starts with getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a favourite treat reward hidden in one of several boxes, expanding the game to entire rooms, exterior areas, and vehicles. Classes have started in the Macedon Ranges; more information can be found in the references section.


What about cats?

The same principle applies to all other species – by allowing animals to gain their food in a more ‘natural’ way we can improve their welfare and in turn, often, their behaviour.

There are, however, significant differences in the natural behaviours and time budgets between species so enrichment needs to be tailored to the individual.

For example; cats are generally stimulated more by movement than by smell (compared to dogs); and they prefer small frequent meals rather than a large juicy bone to chew on.



Boredom and frustration are real life problems for many of our domesticated animals. But with some simple changes and a little thought we can make improvements to our pet’s lives at home.


We just need to start ‘thinking outside the food bowl’…..



References: Angela for more details on upcoming classes in the Macedon Ranges.



Facebook sites:


Canine enrichment      


Nina Ottosson Puzzles



Cat enrichment            


Food puzzles for cats            

Dr Emma Hughes

Author Dr Emma Hughes

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