If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.
If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.
That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new to food toys, and not for those who are experienced with them. You’ll see why below.
How it Works
The Foobler is a food puzzle toy with six separate compartments inside a hard plastic sphere with a lid. It has a removable battery pack. The batteries power a timer that can be set for several different intervals ranging from 15 to 90 minutes, a motor to change the active compartment, and a mechanical bell. It is weighted to make it wobble, and kibble falls out of a hole when the toy is rolled around. It’s a very easy toy; it need only be rolled, and kibble comes out rapidly until the current chamber is empty. (There are plans to add a method to adjust the difficulty; I’m not sure whether this is present on the models currently shipping or not.)
The idea is that the dog’s fun gets spread throughout the day because only one chamber is open at a time, and the timer determines when the next one becomes available.
The Foobler was invented by three engineers and produced with a Kickstarter campaign. I was delighted to support the campaign and got my Foobler early on. I think it’s really cool that these guys figured out a niche in the market and put their heads together and came up with a nice design.
I like the design, and I like how the food compartment and the battery pack are separate. It’s washable. It is kinesthetically pleasing to open and close; the lids close with a nice snap.
I introduced the Foobler to all three of my dogs, and as a result I have some cautions to share. Besides the danger of being damaged through chewing, the Foobler may be generally frustrating for many toy-savvy dogs.
What’s the Problem?
The problem with the Foobler for experienced dogs is the “unexplained” down time. Every other food toy the dog plays with likely reinforces persistence. As long as the dog can smell and hear food in the toy, she can generally continue to get it out. It may get more difficult as it empties, and the dog may have to vary her behavior more, but she can generally get all the food and know when she is done. For instance, I have seen Summer roll around her Tricky Treat Ball for 10 minutes to get that one last piece of kibble. After she gets it out, she stops. The lack of rattling tells her the toy is empty.
However, the Foobler gives out mixed signals. After the dog has emptied the current compartment, and the next compartment won’t become available until the time interval has passed (up to 90 minutes), the dog can still smell food in the toy and it still rattles when the toy is rolled around. For every other kibble toy she’s ever experienced, these are cues that playing with the toy will be reinforced. However, with the Foobler, when the current chamber empties, the behaviors that she has been performing to get the food suddenly do not work without any clue from the toy.1)It may be possible for some dogs to learn to detect the sound or smell difference when no kibble is available in the current compartment. But that would take a while.
Using the terms of behavior analysis, there is a discriminative stimulus to indicate when food is available: the little bell. But there is no stimulus delta, no signal that food will be unavailable for a while when the current compartment is empty. With no straightforward way of communicating that to the dog, we are putting the dog’s behaviors into extinction. This can be quite frustrating for the dog and dangerous to the toy.
It’s important to acknowledge that in almost all cases, the amount of time that food is available is very small compared to the down time. Because the Foobler I have ejects food so easily, and because my dogs eat small amounts of kibble, they were all able to empty each compartment in 2-3 minutes.
Despite the claims by Foobler that theirs is the first puzzle toy to spread the food out over the day, there was at least one previous toy that did that, and it didn’t have the problem that the Foobler has. There used to be a Kong dispenser that would eject up to four stuffed Kongs on a set schedule throughout a dog’s day. It was similar in that food periodically became available, then unavailable throughout the day. But the beginning and end of the food availability were salient to the dog. 1) Kong bounced down from the counter: there was food. 2) Dog cleaned out the Kong: no more food till the next one bounced down.
How the Foobler Could Be Improved
There is a “training mode” for the Foobler, which can be implemented by holding down the power button. It causes the bell to ring and the chamber to switch. I used this to teach my dogs about the bell signaling food availability. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is telling the dog that she needs to stop working at the toy for a while (again, up to 90 minutes!). Adding a sensor that could detect when a chamber was empty and provide a signal for that would certainly be ideal, but unrealistic.
I would suggest instead that the Foobler include a 5-minute interval on its timer. This would create an interim state between the manual training mode and the shortest interval currently available, 15 minutes. This would be especially helpful for small dogs who can empty out their portion quickly, and they are arguably the best candidates to use the toy safely.
Oh, another caution: the Foobler stays on when it is powered up in training mode. So be sure to turn it off when you are done, or it will keep advancing and ringing its bell at the next interval. If it does so and no kibble becomes available, this will work to undo the salience of the bell = food relationship you were carefully building up.
One Pass and Two Failures
Of my three dogs, only Summer is a candidate to enjoy the Foobler. She was fascinated and made no move to chew it. After I teach her about the “down time,” the Foobler may be good for her.
However, there is a very quiet little motor noise when it powers up and shifts to the next compartment. It’s a bit scary to Summer. (You can see her response in the movie.) But I think since it is mild, the fact that it signals food availability will quickly correct the problem.
Clara adores chewing hard plastic, and had immediate plans to destroy the Foobler. The present food compartment wasn’t even completely empty before she managed to pick the toy up and carry it to her staging area. No matter how much training, supervision, and management I might do, it would never be safe to leave it with her unattended for any period of time.
The Foobler is not recommended for dogs who can get their jaws around it, a very good caution. But note that even though Clara is not big enough to do that, the toy is still not safe for her. I have absolutely no doubt that she could break into this toy. The photo below shows where she would start.
Little Zani also decided very early on that chewing was called for. She is only 19 pounds but was able to get her jaws around some indentations. She couldn’t lift it, but I’m not willing to wait to find out whether she can break into it. She is a genius at that type of thing.
Even if the Foobler were not vulnerable to being damaged, I would not feel comfortable just setting the timer and leaving it down for a dog to figure out. Some people might think this is overly solicitous on my part. Perhaps it is. But food toys are supposed to be fun. I don’t find it fair to let my dogs go through long periods of frustration and extinction because of the huge reinforcement history for persistence with food toys I have built up. My dogs get plenty of practice with frustration just living with a human; I don’t see a benefit in deliberately allowing repeated periods of pure extinction until they figure out how a toy works.
Again, this toy could work very well with many inexperienced dogs. Dogs who are new to food toys lack the persistence that experienced dogs have. The fact that they are likely to give up more easily actually will work in their favor. And the bell will probably attract them back to the toy again after very few repetitions.
Who else has tried the Foobler? Did you do anything in particular to help your dogs learn about the down time?
This review was not solicited. I paid for my Foobler through the Kickstarter campaign, received it, studied my dogs’ reactions to it, and wrote this review.
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|1.||↑||It may be possible for some dogs to learn to detect the sound or smell difference when no kibble is available in the current compartment. But that would take a while.|