Is That Enrichment Toy Enriching? Not So Much.

I bought my own LickiMat and this is an independent, unsolicited review. 

Here I go again, trying to figure out whether a food toy is fun, neutral, or a drag. This time it’s an Industripet LickiMat Buddy, a rubber mat with texture that you can spread food on. The texture makes it a challenge for the dog to lick all the food off.

I bought one of these mats, and immediately had to ask my trainer friend Marge how you use these without the dog just carrying it off and chewing on it. She said people cut them to size to fit into a pan. Aha!

I had the perfect thing. I’m a potter, and I had previously made a square pan, but it developed a hairline crack when fired. I hadn’t been able to make myself throw it away. Perfect home for the mat! Heavy and almost two inches deep. You can see the setup in the pair of photos below.

If I hadn’t had the dish I would have cut the mat round to go into a cast iron skillet.

The LickiMat Test

So I spread some wet dog food on the mat and let Zani go to it.

First, does it work as promised? Yes, in that it slows the dog down. I used about 1/4 cup of sticky low-fat dog food and covered only about a third of the mat. I think some foods would be a lot quicker to get off, but this was a challenge. It took Zani about 20 minutes to mostly clean it up:

Orange LickiMat in a casserole dish--before and after dog worked on it

Second, is it safe? This would vary from dog to dog. But yes, I’d give it a pretty high safety factor for Zani. She wasn’t able to get it out of the dish in her first introduction to it. (She might be able to learn that skill, though.) But I would still classify this as a “needs supervision” type of toy. I wouldn’t leave a dog alone with it, lest they did get it out of the dish then chew it up and ingest some rubber or choke.

Finally, is it fun? At least satisfying? My assessment is “not very,” at least in the normal way it’s used, and at least for my dogs. I’ve written before about toys that merely slow the dog down. I think they are probably the least fun kind of toy, and some are probably pretty frustrating for the dog. I’m not picking on the LickiMat about this; there are lots of these toys that don’t do much more than slow the dog down. But I have encouraged myself, and encourage others, to be analytical about determining whether toys are fun. They should go beyond just taking up the dog’s time. So I’m sharing my recent test of the LickiMat.

It’s hard to read Zani’s body language with food toys. If I offer anything with food in it, she is thrilled. But when she works on a food toy, she does the “concentration tail tuck.” This makes it hard to know how much enjoyment she is getting. She tried to lift the mat out of the dish several times and wasn’t able to, as you can see in the video. I would imagine that was probably frustrating. On the other hand, one of her favorite hobbies is finding and consuming the last molecules of food in an area.

Here’s what an untrimmed mat looks like. It measures 20 cm (8 inches) square.

full-size, untrimmed LickiMat

The Frustration Factor

Is there a way for this toy not to be frustrating? I was thinking about the difference between things we humans want to chow down on, and things we might enjoy getting a little of at a time. Are there food items that we actually lick? The best examples I can think of are hard candies, suckers, and (some) popsicles. Notice that they are all sweets. Nobody eats pizza in tiny licks and bites unless they have a physical problem that prevents taking normal-sized bites and chewing. And I think most of us would find it pretty frustrating, especially if we were hungry.

To be fair, some people have told me that their dogs are very content licking and licking something and that they enjoy the LickiMat. I think that’s great that they have a suitable toy for their dogs. Some dogs really do find it soothing, so I’m not ruling that possibility out with my criticism here. I just don’t want people to fall into the trap, as I have, that something is necessarily soothing or calming or interesting when it may not be.

I have thought long and hard about whether I would use the LickiMat as an enrichment toy for my present dogs (or most dogs). The general answer is no, but with one exception. I finally thought of a way of using this toy that would likely be both enriching and enjoyable for the dog. That would be if I put a whole pile of food on there, as well as working some onto the surface. In other words, create a situation where the dog can eat most of their meal normally, then can choose whether to go on and work for those last bits.

I see Zani “work for the last bits” a lot. After a training session, she often patrols the area for the last treat crumbs. But since she has already had a meal (I don’t train my dogs on an empty stomach) and a good handful of treats, I think there is little frustration involved.

At the end of a meal, we humans will often chase that last pea around our plate or sop up the last bit of sauce. That’s an organic part of eating a meal, but if the whole meal consisted of tastes and bites that small, it wouldn’t be much fun.

Husbandry

A lot of people use food toys like this one as distractions during husbandry tasks. They give the dog something to do while being clipped, for instance. I would do that only with a dog who is already fine with the husbandry procedure. I use food for building associations during husbandry, rather than as a distraction. For a dog who is already nervous about the handing, using food as a distraction can create reverse conditioning. That means the dog will get nervous when you bring the food out instead of the food making the husbandry a happy thing. But for most dogs who are habituated to husbandry activities, I think licking things off a mat is more enjoyable than just lying there. And of course it’s a better alternative than having to restrain the dog, as long as you aren’t sabotaging yourself with reverse conditioning.

I would also use a product like this for a dog who wolfed food down and was in danger of bloating. In that case, just slowing the dog can be a lifesaver.

Bottom Line

The marketing materials for the LickiMat lead off by saying that mats are a “medical-free” way to calm your pet during storms. There are such assumptions in this statement. First, that a scared pet is even interested in eating. Second, that licking is necessarily soothing. Third, that any method short of medication will help a thunder-phobic dog. I think all of these are questionable. But what bothers me most is the “medical-free” part. Discouraging a medical route when some dogs desperately need it is terribly irresponsible. But it’s a marketing ploy that works again and again.

The bottom line is that if I had read that particular claim by Industripet, the maker of LickiMats, I wouldn’t have supported the company to begin with. But now I have one, and I don’t like to waste things. If Zani, or another future small dog in my household, ever needs to eat wet food, I may use the LickiMat in the way I described above. I’ll put a whole serving of food on there and let her eat a lot of it just as if it were out of a bowl. Then she can choose whether to take the time to lick up the rest. I might also use it for a dog who needed to eat slowly for medical reasons, and for a stopgap measure to distract a dog. And who knows, I may get a dog who loves licking food. But for general enrichment, I’ll give my current dogs a toy that moves or some sort of nosework any day!

Thank you to Alex Bliss for the photo of the untrimmed mat.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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