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Working for Food Enriches Dogs' Lives and Breaks the Boredom

Positive stress challenges dogs and breaks up the monotonous same old same old.

Sometimes people claim that they wish they could be a dog because they’d just get to lay around, sniff, drool, play, and have food delivered to them in a bowl. It may surprise you, then, to know that a life of laziness is not actually what dogs want or need. Research on a range of animals shows that they’ll choose to work for their food rather than take a “free lunch.” This seems counterintuitive, but it’s well established in the scientific literature. Studies conducted in the 1970s on pigeons, for example, found that they’ll continue to peck at a key to get a food reward, even if the same food is available for free. Researchers sometimes call this phenomenon “contrafreeloading.” Contrafreeloading behavior has been observed in many different species, including dogs, mice, rats, monkeys, and chimpanzees. The glaring exceptions within this research have been domestic cats, who seem to prefer being served by their human pet.

Anyone who’s lived with more than one dog knows there are differences in how hard dogs will work for food. Trainers will often use the phrase “food motivated” to describe this propensity. Some dogs are willing to learn tricks or do other things to get food, whereas others want to be fed for just being alive and cute. Clearly, there are individual differences in the canine work ethic, and one aspect of knowing your dog and providing the best life possible is to be aware of individual attitudes toward hard work. Some dogs are motivated to work hard because they’re industrious. Others give up more easily; they are what we might call “lazy.” But avoid labels and judgments and simply respond to your dog’s individual personality: If your dog really enjoys working for food, keep their life interesting by asking them to do some work to earn it.

Researchers have noted that there are two aspects of having to work for a reward like food. The first is extrinsic motivation—the actual reward, the kibble or biscuit—and the second is intrinsic motivation, or the feeling of achievement individuals experience by having worked for that reward. Effort or work can be intrinsically rewarding because it can create positive feelings in animals and humans alike. The reward centers in our brains are wired to offer pleasure in exchange for hard effort. Just as animals may find work or effort rewarding, they may find lack of meaningful work or activity to be stressful or boring.

Some positive or beneficial stress, or what researchers call “eustress” (such as being asked to work for food), can be enriching, but it’s important to know when good stress becomes harmful stress. Indeed, when too many demands are placed on an animal, whether these are demands for work or the demands of having nothing meaningful to do, animals can slip into psychological depression. For instance, dogs can suffer from “learned helplessness,” which was first studied in detail by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. Learned helplessness refers to situations in which animals get to a point where they learn that nothing they do can get them out of a specific situation, so they give up. One barbaric set of studies involved the use of inescapable shock. After dogs and other animals were trained to do something to get away from the shock, the experiment was changed, and no matter what the animals did, they couldn’t avoid the shock. Another study put rats into a water tank with slippery sides and no means of escape. The rats would swim and swim and swim, but at some point, they would simply give up and drown.

Referred to as “behavioral despair” tests, these are one of the most common models for studying depression, even though they also are among the most inhumane and reprehensible types of research. However, what we now know about learned helplessness can be used to help us understand the stresses under which companion dogs live when they cannot remove themselves from bad situations. This can include chronic pain (for example, from arthritis); chronic boredom (Reference 1), or being continually chained; being exposed to things that are scary, such as constant loud noise; and physical punishments, such as being yanked on a leash. (See "Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?")

Animals clearly need to have a sense of control over their environment, and working for food offers some sense of control. In early studies of animal husbandry and welfare, farm and laboratory animals who were given control over aspects of their environment—such as being able to obtain food, water, and light through pushing a lever—grew up to be more self-confident, more exploratory, and less anxious. In short, they were emotionally healthier than animals forced to live under similar husbandry conditions who were given no control over their environment. (Reference 2)

Most dogs like to eat, and having them work for their meals or treats is a good way to challenge them and to enrich their lives. However, remember that asking a dog to work for food is not the same thing as making a dog work for food. Some dog trainers insist that a dog should never get “free food”: For each little bite of kibble, the dog must do a trick or something “good.” If this works and the dog is clearly not overly stressed by having always to perform for food, this may be a reasonable approach. Be guided by your dog’s well-being, not by a need to control them. For instance, my friend David used to ask his dog, Rusty, to spin around on his hind legs for food. Rusty clearly enjoyed doing this, but he did not have to do it for David’s attention or to get food. If David asked him to spin and Rusty said no, he got fed anyway.

Food can be a very useful training tool. But your dog’s life needs to be about more than obeying commands imposed by humans. There’s nothing wrong with giving a dog a treat between meals just to be friendly. This is what we do among ourselves, and it’s good for the dog and the human for the same reasons, since it helps to develop and maintain strong and positive social bonds. There's also nothing wrong with giving a dog a treat and telling them how much you love them and how special they are, even if they haven't done anything special other than to be there. (See "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.")

Behavioral enrichments for bored dogs often center on food and feeding time. One way we can keep dogs entertained if we must be away from home for part of the day, or will be busy at the computer, is to get them something that takes a while to eat. Many different food puzzles are available at pet stores, and these can be great for dogs who like a challenge. But they can also be very frustrating, so take the time to listen to your dog. Some ideas for homemade food challenges include popsicles made by freezing peanut butter or wet dog food in a Kong or small Tupperware or yogurt container, food-filled ice cubes, and frozen baby food. Search the internet for more ideas, and challenge your dog sometimes by hiding food and asking them to find it.

I used to bury food around my mountain home and loved to sit back and watch my dogs and their canine friends searching it out, getting a lot of joy when they found it, and then munching on it and occasionally sharing it with others. A few times my dog, Jethro, would find something and try to share it with me. When this happened, I always said something like, "Good boy, thanks a lot, but it's really for you and your buddies."

All in all, if your dog likes to be challenged, go ahead and challenge them in positive ways. If they don't, don't. Knowing what your dog likes is essential for you to give them the very best life possible, and this could involve asking them to work for food or treats while being sure it's not aversive. Stay tuned for further discussions of how to add some enrichment and excitement to the life of your dog by giving them the freedom to do some work, make choices, and have fun while they're doing it.

Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.

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1) Barbara King, “Dogs and Pigs Get Bored, Too,” National Public Radio, August 10, 2017.

2) Michael W. Fox, Laboratory Animal Husbandry: Ethology, Welfare, and Experimental Variables (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 117–18.

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