Foraging is the act of working to find and procure food. For dogs in the wild, this meant a lot of sniffing, problem solving, and keeping watch for prey. They had to forage in order to eat and survive, but this is largely untrue for the dogs of today — the ones riding shotgun to the local pet store after running around on the trails.
With a steady, reliable source of kibble, raw dog food, and treats, dogs are well-fed but don't have much work to do during the day. This can leave dogs feeling bored and under-stimulated, both mentally and physically.
We underestimate the mental work that goes into foraging and the fulfillment and confidence that experience gives for dogs.
Dogs Still Forage
Dogs still enjoy and naturally partake in foraging. They sniff for crumbs on the floor and surf their noses along the countertops. They'll eat rabbit droppings if they find them to be nutritious enough, and they easily locate the wild blackberry bushes along the trail. I've personally watched my dog Lola sniff out and eat a fresh fish's tail in our yard that one of the birds had dropped.
So dogs are still foraging, it's just often less productive, less necessary, and less fulfilling.
Enter dog enrichment feeding. Dog enrichment feeding is the act of feeding your dog in a way that creates a foraging-like experience. (Often we hear the goal is to make dogs "hunt" for their food, but "forage" is the more accurately descriptive term. "Hunting" drums up the image of taking down prey while "foraging" is all about searching and finding.) By making mealtime more like foraging, you're giving your dog the opportunity to eat in a way that more closely resembles how they would eat when they were wild.
There isn't one way to do dog enrichment feeding, but all involve dogs using their noses to search for their food. Let's look at different things you can do at home to make mealtime more foraging-like for your dog.
Scattering Their Kibble
This may seem overly easy — can't my dog just see the kibble? Yes, but you have to remember: dogs' primary sense is scent, not sight. So while you and I might rely on our vision, your dog naturally relies on their nose. It's their primary way of interacting with the world.
- Snuffle mat: Sprinkle kibble into a snuffle mat and let your dog sniff out the pieces amongst the fabric.
- Blanket: Scatter your dog's kibble on the floor and cover it with the blanket. Alternatively, you can lay the blanket out, scatter the kibble on top, and then scrunch and ruffle up the blanket to hide the kibble.
- Grass: Use the grass to obscure the scent of your dog's kibble. You can also cover the area with some leaves to make it even more challenging!
- Ball pit: Use a kiddy pool and fill with balls. Sprinkle their kibble around inside!
Hide and Seek
Most common in dog enrichment feeding are enrichment toys — things like stuffable toys, treat-dispensing toys, and slow feeder dog bowls. These products create a more interactive form of foraging where both sniffing and problem-solving are used. An example of this type of foraging in the wild would be dogs locating the blackberry bush through smell and then figuring out how to get the berries off the bush.
A lot of enrichment toys are designed so that dogs have to use their teeth, tongue, nose, or paws to procure the food. This type of problem-solving is mentally stimulating and resembles the type of food-accessing behavior they used to rely on in the wild.
Foraging, not feeding
By "ditching the bowl" and opting for an activity that lets your dog forage, you're creating a mealtime experience that is enriching and brings your dog closer to their natural self.