A happy dog - is a happy home...

Puzzles and interactive toys are designed to challenge your dog's mind and nose

chew toys

A typical puzzle toy


Is a stuffed treat toy considered a puzzle toy?

In its most rudimentary definition of what constitutes a puzzle, a stuffed treat toy may qualify. But on a scale of complexity, most stuffed toys are no match for the intricate puzzles available today.

When put to use, stuffed treat toys serve an important function for training specific behaviors. See a full discussion about stuffed treat toys on our page for synthetic and rubber chew toys.

Perhaps the most significant difference between a stuffed treat toy and an interactive puzzle toy is that the former is given to freely chew on for a period of time while the latter is to challenge your dog to solve a problem.

There are a handful of companies that dominate the interactive dog toy market. Nina Ottosson is considered by most the leading designer in this niche of the toy industry but she is not alone. Outward Hound has an extensive line of puzzles by Kyjen and Ethical Products has their Seek-A-Treat line.

The interactive toys are not chew toys and supervision is recommended. Many of the games include small plastic or wooden pieces and if left unattended these may be viewed as chew toys and destroyed or worse and swallowed.

Interactive dog toys all share a simple concept, hide a treat within the toy that requires the dog to manipulate the toy in some way in order to gain the treat.

The types of manipulations typically involve either exclusively or in combination, sliding, pressing or removing a piece of the puzzle to reveal a treat compartment. For beginners, start with games that require a single manipulation to gain the treat.

For example, the Seek-A-Treat Shuffle Bone puzzle by Ethical Pet only requires the simple sliding of the pieces to reveal the treat. Dog's can use their paw, nose or teeth to accomplish this so most figure this out pretty quickly. Whereas, the MixMax line of puzzles by Nina Ottosson requires several different manipulations in sequence to gain the treat so this game is a little more advanced.

Be open to how your dog approaches a given puzzle. Some dogs are more apt to paw at a puzzle piece while others may use their nose to push it around. Once you have an idea of the types of strategies your dog might apply you can tailor the games you try.


Competition by several dogs attempting to "solve" the same Dog Smart puzzle for the first time

Every puzzle has a different learning curve, start out with a simple puzzle and then introduce more difficult puzzles later.

Puzzles should be viewed as games for two

An element of learning comes with achieving the treat with these toys and this may require some involvement of your own. When introducing a new puzzle, it may be neccessary to provide a little guidance or coaching in the beginning. There is a fine line between encouraging self discovery for your dog and the frustration he'll experience from a failure to succeed. Your goal is to teach them how to manipulate a complex puzzle.

Success will foster confidence in your dog.

As your dog begins to master the strategy needed for one game he may be better prepared when presented a different game that requires the same strategy.

For example, Dog Smart by Nina Ottosson is a level 1 game. The treats are hidden beneath the plastic bones. To expose a treat, your dog simply removes the plastic bone either by pawing at it or picking it off using their mouth or nose. At first, it might be best to place a treat under every bone so they learn the technique. In time, make the game more challenging by only placing a treat under some of the bones. In this manner you are teaching them to actually smell where the treat is located. In the newest release of this game, the plastic bones have been modified so that in one orientation they are flush with the game board, more challenging and when reversed, they protrude above the game board.

The Kyjen Treat Wheel by Outward Hound uses the same strategy with an additional twist. As each of the 4 cups are removed, a treat is revealed. When all 4 cups have been removed, the top cover can be spun to reveal additional treat wells.

The Mix Max Puzzle Game by Nina Ottosson comes as a set of three puzzles, each more difficult. Remember, for the more difficult levels, you may need to demonstrate the sequence in order for your dog to catch onto the strategy. This may be especially true if you're trying the more advanced games that Nina Ottosson has to offer like the DogTwister Interactive game.

Puzzle time can be a great teaching moment

Make the most of puzzle time with your dog. There are several commands that can easily be worked on while your dog is interacting with the puzzle toy. Targeting or touch with either the nose or paw is one example. Teaching your dog to move from one object to another with the next command is another possibility. Wait is also a good behavior to teach and can be applied during puzzle time.

If you are familiar with "touch" training or targeting behaviors you will immediately recognize how puzzle time can be used to either reinforce a targeting behavior already learned or to work on a new one.

"Next" is another command that is easy to work on during puzzle time. Once your dog has revealed the treat in one compartment they will move to the next. Time the move with the cue "next". With practice, your dog dog will associate going to the next object with the command "next".

The "wait" command is particularly useful when you want your dog to pause as in going through a door, crossing a street, when you leave a room and don't want them to follow or you want to control their approach to the food bowl. When playing a puzzle game, use "wait" before starting or when moving between pieces.

Puzzle toys can be a part of your dog's pyschological well being.

Research in veterinary medicine over the past several decades has accumulated considerable evidence that mental health is just as important as physical health in an animal's well being. Its now very clear that your dog's mental state has a profound effect on his physical state.

Although much of the research was directed towards nonhuman primates, the lessons learned can be applied to the family dog just as easily. Toys are a must, particularly if they encourage manipulation. Foraging boards or food-related enrichment devices are particularly useful at engaging your canine's mental faculties.

Your dog's ancestors spent a large portion of every day hunting for their next meal. This behavior kept them alert and engaged with their environment. Consider changing up your dog's feeding routine. Instead of the usual 5 minute ritual to inhale their bowl of food with the subsequent look of "what's next" routine, stimulate them at meal time. Many of the interactive puzzles can hold enough kibble to be an appropriate feeding quantity for most dogs.

In the next video, a large dog is interacting with the KONG Wobbler. This toy can hold as much as a cup of food and as the dog paws and noses at it the toy is set in motion spilling the food.

video of KONG kibble feeder

Turn feeding time into an enrichment activity. Similar interactive kibble dispensers are the Pyramid Treat Dispenser made by Nina Ottoson and the Bob-A-Lot dispenser by Starmark. They all have similar designs. The KONG is dishwasher safe and the Bob-a-lot dispenser hole can be adjusted for more or less kibble, although most will claim their dog figures out how to slide the hatch open anyway.

The research also showed that novelty was another aspect that kept animals engaged. Have several puzzle games available and rotate which game you bring out for them. This will go a long way to help keep interest and engage them longer.

Simply put, a happy dog is a healthy dog.


Canine nose work

There is no doubt that a dog must use his nose to be successful with almost any of the interactive puzzle games. But there are games you can play that are a dog's version of hide and seek.

You don't have to have a police detection dog or a bloodhound to have fun with canine scent detection activities, also known as canine nose work. Besides being a lot of fun and a good way to bond with your dog, this is another activity that builds your dog's confidence and engages one of his most primal instincts.

To start out training, you would want to use a high value treat. Typically you start out using a small number of boxes and hide the treat in one of them. In the beginning its important that your dog see you hiding the treat in a box and then mixing up the boxes. Once they have identified the correct box, immediately reward them with the treat and plenty of praise.

Once your dog is comfortable with the game, try using a favorite toy hidden in one of the boxes. If they locate the correct box, spend a few minutes playing with the toy. Another variation to consider once they have the idea is place their food bowl with food in a box. Again, you can turn feeding time into a fun game of search.