What Would Your Dog Choose? "Free" food in a bowl or a little enriching "work" for food?
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

This is not a fancy video or an especially creative game - it's just a clip of my dog Koa enjoying her breakfast by shredding an empty box this morning, which I recorded for my personal Instagram. But it's illustrating something really important that I wanted to introduce to my Community - contra freeloading.


Contra freeloading sounds like a jargon-y, complicated term, but what it comes down to is choice. This is the concept of providing a dog with access to food that is "free" ie in a bowl, or otherwise easily available without needing to problem solve, forage, or anything else, along with access to food that is more challenging to obtain, ie some kind of food puzzle or game. In many (but not all) cases, the dog will actually choose the harder to get food.


This seems a little counter intuitive to many at first. Why would the dog choose to work harder? Often because the experience of obtaining the food in some other way is more stimulating and engaging than the experience of just passively ingesting calories. Pretty much all animals are designed by evolution to use a variety of behaviors to access food on a day to day basis. Of course we do not want to make our animals suffer or struggle for access to sustenance, but by providing this choice we can often see that engaging in species-typical behaviors, or versions of them, is truly reinforcing and enriching for our animals.


I often remind my clients that the learner gets to choose what's reinforcing. So even if you bought some really expensive treats and you think your dog ought to work for them, if she doesn't truly find them worth working for, then you're going to have to try something else. But similarly, the individual also gets to choose what's enriching. Just because we spent time and energy getting toys and setting up puzzles for our dogs, doesn't mean that those things are actually improving the quality of their life.


Think about how many choices you make in a day - what to eat for breakfast, what to wear for the day, how to style your hair, what route to take to work, what you say to your coworkers, where you go to lunch, or if you bring your own lunch... The list goes on and on. Our dogs get VERY little choice. They go out to potty when we let them out. They eat the food we prepare for them. They make friends with the dogs and people we introduce them to. This is just one small way to introduce more choice into your dogs' lives - and their choices may surprise you!


What you can't see in this video, is my other dog, Muchacho. Mooch is much more variable about his choices, and whereas Koa will almost always choose the more challenging food option, he will often choose the bowl over the puzzle or destructible I've made for him. Muchacho spent his first few months living on the streets of Tijuana, so I can't help but wonder if for him, the simple luxury of eating a prepared meal trumps the fun of foraging. But that's just story-telling - a the end of the day, all I can actually know is that about 75% of the time he prefers the bowl over the more complicated option.


So this is a bit of an add on to last week's Enrichment Challenge. Let's call it a Choice Challenge! What's one way you can provide your dog with choice this week? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!