Updated: Jul 3
I’ve talked about how using food to treat separation anxiety can interfere in the the separation anxiety training process and process and isn’t a good choice. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give your dog treats and food toys at other times as a form of enrichment!
A lot of people new to the toy wonder how to use the Kong toy for dogs, which looks like a bee-hive. It's actually one of my favorite toys to stuff with food. Be sure you get the correct size for your dog; too small of a Kong can present a choking hazard, and Kong suggests that when in doubt go up a size. Kong also makes a couple of different colors. Red is for average chewers, with black being for power chewers. If you have a dog with assertive chewing habits, definitely get the black Kong as they'll be more likely to hold up.
Kongs are pricy, but they are a good investment because they are virtually indestructible and will last a long time. I had a Kong that I purchased for my first dog that lasted for almost 20 years!
Kong dog toy benefits
Dogs natural behaviors include chewing, licking, and working to get food from difficult spaces. A food stuffed Kong is a great way to provide your dog the opportunity to practice these natural behaviors. Research shows that when dogs are allowed to practice their natural behaviors, they are less likely to experience stress and anxiety. It also reduces the likelihood of unwanted behaviors that can develop when a dog’s needs aren’t being met.
I give my dogs frozen Kongs stuffed with food when the weather doesn’t allow for walks or other outdoor activities, and it keeps them busy for 20 minutes or so. But my dogs are pros at getting all the food out. A novice dog with less practice could be engaged for as long as 45 minutes. Living in Wisconsin between freezing cold and snowstorms in the winter, and excessively hot and humid days in the summer, there are a lot of days where giving my dogs a Kong to occupy their time is a great option.
Additionally as I work from home and conduct Zoom calls, it works well to hand out Kongs before I start my meetings with clients as it keeps them busy and lets me focus on the call. It’s also a fantastic diversion for when you have visitors to your house. If your dog tends to resource guard items either have your dog work on their Kong in another room, or make sure your guests are told to leave the dog alone as long as he’s got the Kong.
Giving a puppy or adult dog a food stuffed Kong in their crate can be a wonderful way to condition your dog to love their crate. The action of licking and working to get the food out has a bit of a meditative effect, and has the added benefit of helping your dog relax.
Foods that can be used for Kong stuffing
If it’s safe for dogs to eat, you can pretty much use anything as long as your dog likes it and will eat it. I favor using my dog’s kibble and canned dog food, but below are some other ideas:
Mashed sweet potatoes
Meat leftover from your meal
Teaching your dog to unstuff a Kong
There are a lot of Kong stuffing recipes and ideas that can be found with a search, but first you need to get the dog enthused about working on getting all the food out. A complaint I hear a lot is that the dog gets half the food out and then abandons it, leaving their owner to clean it out.
The following is how I start off dogs who aren’t used to working on a Kong. I do it this way because if you stuff it so that it's difficult for the dog to get all the food out easily, many dogs give up. It’s kind of like teaching a child to enjoy jigsaw puzzles. If you start them on the 1,000 piece puzzle they’ll find it too difficult, will get frustrated and give up. If you start out with an easy puzzle they can successfully solve, you can increasingly give them more difficult puzzles and they’ll enjoy the challenge. To a dog a Kong is merely a puzzle they need to solve.
The first time you stuff a Kong for a dog new to it, fill the Kong almost all the way up with their kibble. Leave a space at the wide opening of about 1/2 an inch. Fill that space with something wet; peanut butter, liver sausage, cottage cheese, baby food, vanilla yogurt, canned dog food, or anything else you can think of. For dogs with sensitive stomachs that eat dry kibble, it works well to use the canned version of the kibble they usually eat.
Freeze the whole thing for an hour or two. Your dog will easily get that end plug out, and will discover that the kibble spills out without any trouble. Keeping it easy and letting your dog learn that it’s possible to solve the puzzle will allow them to continue being engaged!
After your dog has been given a few of those really easy versions of stuffed Kong, it’s time to bump up the challenged just slightly. The next step is to fill it 2/3 of the way with kibble, put a layer of wet stuff (any of the above) another layer of kibble, and the end with a wet plug. Again freeze for several hours or overnight.
Once the dog gets pretty good at that you can make it a bit harder. Put in a one inch layer of kibble and then alternate layers of wet food with layers wet food with kibble. For dogs that attain expert level, I like to put enough kibble on the bottom of the Kong to form a barrier to prevent leaking, and the rest is wet food.
One of the ways I stretch whatever wet substance I’m using is to mix it with kibble that has been soaked for a few hours with water. The kibble will absorb the water and can be mashed and mixed with your wet substance. I’ve found that 1 part hot water to 1 part kibble will do the trick, and when 1 cup of kibble treated this way is mixed with an 8oz can of dog food will stuff 5 medium, and 5 large Kongs. Yes, I really do own that many! I figure if I’m stuffing Kongs I might as well stuff enough to last for a number of Kong sessions.
After I'm done stuffing my Kongs, I place them in a gallon size bag and put them in a freezer. If you have a Kong savvy dog this is a pretty important step because it makes the Kong activity last much longer!
Cleaning a Kong is fairly easy. They are dishwasher safe. If you don’t have a dishwasher, or don’t want to put your Kongs in your washer they can be hand washed using a bottle brush. Soaking them first to loosen up any food clinging to the sides to be very helpful.
Dogs need to be able to have something to chew on, and one the Kong dog toy benefits is that giving your dog a frozen food stuffed Kong is an easy way to provide that outlet and keep them happy. I believe the Kong is one of the best dog enrichment toys out there.
Here's a brief video showing my process of Kong stuffing!