Lots of owners will approach me and say “My dog doesn’t like Kongs.” I can even confess this is something I’ve said myself when I first brought Harvey home over 4 years ago and was frustrated with scrubbing food out of a half eaten kong. We’ve all heard the comments, “They never get everything out” or “they give up after a while”, it would be easy to assume that this is an indication that their pet isn’t interested in the toy, but this isn’t always the case, even dogs can need to be taught how to ‘play’ with a kong. When introducing any dog to enrichment activities it is important to take the time to teach them and try not to overwhelm them with confusing and difficult puzzles, this applies to puppies, rescue dogs or even just dogs that are new to enrichment, not every toy will suit every dog but it is our responsibility to try and set our pets up for success and do as much as we can to help them engage and reap the benefits from the enrichment we provide. It shouldn’t be an obstacle between your pet and their meal, it should be an enriching and fun game that can help give an outlet for natural behaviours.
If you need help with finding the right kong for your dog, the Kong company website has a great size guide that explains the different varieties available and helps you find the right size for your pooch.
So where do you start? Most people think of kongs and think of wet foods and spreads but I advise starting with just dry food such as your pets kibble, cold pressed biscuits or dry treats, anything that will fall out easily effectively using the kong as just a kibble dispenser to start with. Fill the kong with dry food and allow your pet to roll it around and dispense the reward, this easy ‘level 1’ will help them gain confidence with the toy and encourage them to work through to the end. This may seem a little simple and some pets will this a really easy task lasting only a few seconds but this is how we can build duration and help them persevere when puzzle solving. Once your pet is happy with this and starts approaching the activity with confidence, for some dogs this could be as soon as one session, for others it may take a few weeks of daily use to get to grips with it, it’s time to ‘up the difficulty’ adding another level of difficulty.
We can add difficulty but just slowing the rate at which the biscuit falls from the kong, if you’re using treats this could mean choosing a large shape or bigger pieces to slow the dispensing rate. If you are using kibble that may only come in one size you can still slow the dispensing rate but by wetting and freezing the food in there. Simply fill the kong with kibble as you’ve previously been doing at ‘level 1’ then run the kong under a tap, try to ensure the water reaches all of the corners of your kong, you may find briefly holding your finger over the small hole will allow the water level to rise fully in the toy, then release for the water to drain away again, we’re not looking to keep the water in the toy we just want to wet the contents. Once the majority of the water has drained away pop the kong in the freezer, this can be for a few hours or you could batch prep some kongs for the week ahead. The water will help the biscuits stick together meaning it will require more licking, pawing and rolling to dispense the reward. An alternative to water would be the use of peanut butter around the inside of the kong, this can also be frozen to keep the biscuits stuck to the kong, again reducing the dispensing rate, however it is important to factor the additional calories of the peanut butter into your pets daily calorie intake if choosing this option. If your dog begins to disengage with the toy at this stage you may have moved on too quickly, try to reassure your pet and offer direction but if they’re still not interested drop back to level one and try again another time. As with ‘level one’, ensure your pet is confident and happy with this ‘level’ before upping the difficulty.
So what’s next? You’ve got a pup that’s spending more time with their kong and eagerly working for the rewards, so we can start looking at spreads and toppings! Start by prepping your kong as you have with ‘level 2’ but grab something your pet enjoys such as peanut butter, primula cheese or even wet food to seal the large hole, this will encourage your pet to lick at the toy rather than just roll around for the reward, this doesn’t have to be a large amount of spread or paste, just a blob to start with. You can then slowly move on to larger and thicker layers of spread and wet food toppings, gradually increasing the time your pet spends with the toy. I still find it easier to leave a small sprinkle of kibble in the very tip of my kong so clean up is always quick and easy but if you’re dog is happy with the toy you could easily fill the whole thing with wet food, or even soaked kibble (see our other blog for a quick guide for turning your kibble into a tasty mush for enrichment toys!) as long as you slowly increase the thickness of the layer over several sessions, however their ability to clean the whole kong can be breed dependent as their muzzle shape may cause them to struggle to reach right to the end of the toy, especially in the case of brachycephalic dogs such as pugs and bulldogs.
Once your dog is Kong confident the possibilities are endless, if you’ve spent much time on our instagram page you’ll see we often get very creative with our toppings using everything from green beans to puffed chicken feet and rabbit ears to add to our kong toys, but the recipe below stays the same, a sprinkle of kibble, a thick layer of wet food, we use forthgalde (follow this link for 20% off), and then a small topper with either a blob of yogurt, vegetable/fruit puree or some peanut butter.
We hope this blog helps you and your pet make the most of kongs as they are an easily accessible, cheap and easy resource for crate training or if you’re busy in a zoom meeting and just need some peace and quiet. Taking the time to teach your pet how to use the toy will allow you to get the most of it and help keep them engaged over a longer period of the time, with the confidence they gain often being evident in other aspects of their training!