Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

It just occurred to me that it is super easy to make assumptions about how much our dogs prefer a particular food toy, or even whether they really enjoy them that much.

Don’t yell at me. To be clear: I use food toys for my dogs every single day. I think they can be enriching and that they are ethical things to use.

But food toys present us with a funny little problem. The laws of behavior get in the way of something we might like to know. How can we tell which toys our dogs like best? Or whether they like them at all?

Resource guard much, Clara?

Classical Associations

Most of this post is about operant behavior, but here’s a quick run across the classical domain. Any event or object that predicts food can prompt an animal’s responses to food if the pairing is consistent. My dogs salivate when I open the silverware drawer at a certain time in our morning routine. It’s because I then grab a spoon before administering pills embedded in peanut butter. The dogs weren’t born with that response. The silverware drawer meant nothing until it came to predict peanut butter. And it means little to them at other times of day.

Here’s another example: One of my dogs salivates when another dog barks. (Really!) And we frequently see the signs of the positive conditioned emotional responses that go along with the body’s preparation for food. For instance, most hungry dogs will perform excited behaviors in anticipation of their food bowl or toy.

Filled food toys predict food perfectly.  If a dog is healthy, has a normal appetite, and can get food out of a particular toy, she’ll likely be delighted to see it. But that excitement is not a pure love for the toy itself. We can’t easily separate the toy from the food the dog gets out of it.

Preference Tests and the Matching Law

Clara thinks that empty food toy still has potential 

So if it’s hard to tell what part of a dog’s excitement about a food toy is about the food itself, then it’s also hard to tell which toy a dog might prefer over another.

Can we use a preference test to determine a favorite food toy? I’ve written recently about such tests and how easily we can mess things up when we try to determine our dogs’ preferences. There are several types of tests, and some are more appropriate for testing dogs’ preferences than just putting an item in each hand and waiting to see what happens.

The most basic preference test is a “free operant observation” test. In this type of test, the animal or person has access to several potential reinforcers over a period of time.  An observer tracks the amount of time the participant interacts with each item. This method removes a lot of the problems that can give us false results.

But food toys have food in them. If a hungry dog is put in a room with three different food toys he is familiar with and that contain the same kind of food, he will make choices roughly according to the matching law. He will most likely gravitate toward the toy he can get the food out of the fastest first. As that one empties and the rate gets slower, he will likely switch to another toy. (Most toys yield food faster when they are full.) It’s unlikely that a dog will be making any kind of choice other than “what will get me the most calories the fastest right now” if the toys are equally familiar.

This would also apply if one toy held much higher value food than another. Usually more preferred food has more calories. (Not always, but usually.) So the matching law would still be in effect if the dog took five minutes to ingest a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter before taking one minute to eat a similar mass of low-calorie kibble that had less than one fifth of the calories.

I suspect the treats in Zip’s pickle toy are pretty high value!

Un-Fun Toys

Two toys came out a couple of years ago that were marketed heavily. They looked intriguing. Both were stationary and were challenging because of their shapes. They didn’t require much creativity or skill, just persistence. (I’m purposely not naming them here. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them and I don’t want to single them out as “bad” in some way.)

My teacher bought one of them, and after a while said that she thought it wasn’t fun for the dogs. All it did was slow down their eating. I bought it from her to see if my dogs liked it. I came to the same conclusion after a while. I donated it to a breed-specific rescue for a breed prone to bloat. The manager said they got plenty of dogs who just needed to slow their eating down a bit, and this was perfect.

But honestly, my dogs never acted disappointed or thwarted by these toys. They wagged their tails and did the suppertime happy dance just like they did with every other food toy I gave them. It was just my educated guess that the toys weren’t as fun. There was no movement. There was no particular behavior required beyond doing a lot of persistent licking to get the kibble out. That made the meal last longer, but there was no challenge, no skills, no problem solving involved. Same with the LickiMat, which also takes persistence but no particular skill.

I guessed that my dogs would prefer toys that involve movement, since they prefer that in general. But it was only a guess.

Ethics sidebar: If my dogs’ normal habit is to eat as fast as possible, is it ethical to use food toys to slow them down?  My glib answer is that anything that relieves boredom, that is stimulating, that brings some interest to their lives in our house and yard, is a good thing. That’s the major idea behind food toys.  I’m looking at the whole picture when I make the decision to use one. But would the dogs agree? Hmmm.


This is the place where someone will bring up contrafreeloading. Contrafreeloading is an observed phenomenon where an animal will choose to work for food rather than eat food that is available for less work. Does this phenomenon “prove” that food toys are always good in themselves? Not necessarily. There is evidence of contrafreeloading in many species, but that doesn’t mean that animals choose it all the time or even most of the time.

There are both behavior science and ethological hypotheses for the function of the behavior. You can check out the abstracts of the review articles below if you want to know more. The important thing to keep in mind is that it appears to happen a lot less often than choosing the more accessible food. In other words, animals that do contrafreeload don’t always do it or even mostly do it. So I don’t think it’s fair to use contrafreeloading to support a claim that food toys are always and automatically better for our dogs.

You can do a test. Split your dog’s meal between an open bowl and a food toy and put them next to each other in your dog’s eating area. Release the dog. What does she eat first? Try it both when she is extra hungry and when she is rather full. Is her behavior different?

Two Winners and a Runner-Up

Possibly the best food toy ever

When wondering about how to tell whether my dogs prefer a certain food toy, two examples come to mind. One is that over the course of my life with my dogs, I have taught them to search for food. I started small, using boxes as in a canine nosework class. I built the searching behavior and the dogs got so skilled that I could hide food anywhere in my house and each one could find it (even if I had some of the same food right there in my pocket). Then we expanded the search to the back yard and developed their skills outdoors. Nowadays I have to make very difficult hides—elevated or placed under something—unless I want them to run straight to it. They are all skilled. What they search for is a folded up piece of a cardboard paper towel roll with about 7-10 pieces of kibble in it.

Their body language—all three of them—is that of thrill and delight. They love sniffing out their food. They can’t wait for their turns. But the reward is relatively low value. Their excitement seems out of proportion to the food alone. Sometimes one of my dogs will leave a piece of kibble or two in a regular food toy. “Meh, not worth it.” Never in the yard. They will search every piece, then cruise the yard again after the other dogs’ turns just to make sure. I can safely say that there is fun in this activity above and beyond actual eating.

And like most R+ trainers, I can say the same about training. My dogs love the combination of interacting with me, learning things, and getting food. Again, their demeanors tell me that there is fun in this activity beyond the food. Although they get excited for meals, they get thrilled at training sessions.

Another winner of a food toy

And here’s the runner-up. I have a tentative candidate for another favored food toy. It’s one that is comparatively easy, but involves that searching behavior that seems to be so fun. It’s the Snuffle Mat. Here’s a link to the Snuffle Mat I purchased, from Your Mannerly Mutt, a store owned by a positive reinforcement based trainer. You can also make your own.

I rotate our one Snuffle Mat among my three dogs as an alternative food toy. And I’ve noticed that when I prepare to put it down for another dog, Summer will leave her own area where she usually waits for her food to come and watch the mat. She may jostle the other dog (atypical for her) to get closer. It’s clearly attractive. She normally ignores the other dogs’ food toys. This appears to be a favorite. But playing devil’s advocate to my own argument (a.k.a. falsifying), I could propose that it’s because it’s a big visual target. Or that it appears more “open” with the food more accessible like a big bowl. Either of those could be the reason. But it also could be true that the foraging behavior required makes it a more fun toy.

I think I need to buy at least one more. I’m sure my dogs think that more tests are in order.

Anybody else have observations about whether your dogs might prefer one food toy over another? Can you rule out matching law factors? Do you have a way to quantify or at least describe the behavioral difference?

Resources on Contra-Freeloading

Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B., & Lazarus, J. (1997). Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading. Animal Behaviour, 53(6), 1171-1191.

Osborne, S. R. (1977). The free food (contrafreeloading) phenomenon: A review and analysis. Learning & Behavior, 5(3), 221-235.

Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Zip copyright 2017 Marge Rogers.

Text and all other photos copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson.

19 thoughts on “Are You SURE Your Dog Prefers That Food Toy?

  1. I will test the open bowl vs. the “purple forest” that I usually use for Sophie. I got the snuffle mat and she leaves most of her food in it for me to shake out onto the floor! I could keep trying it since it took her awhile to learn to get the food out of the Orbee Tuff ball and now she likes that one a lot. The snuffle mat not so much.

    1. Interesting!Thanks for sharing and let us know. What’s the “purple forest”?

        1. Ah yes, there’s a green one for dogs. (That’s one of the ones I suspected, but can’t prove, my dogs didn’t enjoy.)

          1. This morning’s experiment was that the bowl won. In the past the forest won. However, she gets a fair amount of table scraps and plates to lick in or on the bowl. We will continue to experiment. Thanks again, as always, for a thought-provoking blog. 🙂

            1. Last night’s dinner was the same: Sophie ate out of the bowl before eating from the Orbee Tuff. Hmm.

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking stuff, as always. (Uh, hi. I’m new here, but I’ve come across your posts before – on the “kickback Stand” and superstitious behaviour, from memory. Will definitely be following closer in future!)

  3. Great article, as always, Eileen! I love that you take the time and detailed analysis to try to tease out possible differences between a dog simply anticipating and enjoying the food vs. preferences for (or not) different types of delivery toys. One thought about your comment “Ethics sidebar: If my dogs’ normal habit is to eat as fast as possible, is it ethical to use food toys to slow them down?”. I guess I would consider, first and foremost, exactly how fast the dog normally eats. Some dogs (remember I live with Goldens….), eat so quickly that they are at risk of choking or swallowing large boluses of air. Other dogs consume their food too rapidly if they are fed near other dogs in the home. In those cases, I think the health risks are more important than preferences and so would definitely slow down rate of eating. However, as always, I love that you raise the question of what it is that the dogs actually enjoy – good stuff!

    1. Great point about the fast eating–yeah, it would be unethical **not** to intervene in eating habits that could be risky! Even though I donated a food toy to help prevent bloat, I hadn’t put two and two together since I’ve never had a dog who ate quite that fast. Thanks for the comment–glad you liked the blog!

  4. Always welcome a chance to talk about my dog…who loves tooth work and movement. Default position is ‘apply teeth’. He generally has good control but, when excited, still (aged 9) defaults to teeth and will perseverate with them – nibble, nibble, nibble til distracted. So, Kong genius with smallish food pieces – he pushes it around but it’s too easy, no chewing required, doesn’t last long enough, looks unimpressed. Same chew with a single huge piece – he lies down and has a really good chew. He’s totally engrossed but it lacks the movement he also seems to like. He discovered, when he couldn’t get it out, he could shove it in my lap – “you get it out” – and I’d help. Yep, it soon came to my lap faster each time. Best food toy? One with human interaction? Or just easier to get the food? I too play ‘find the snack’ and I reckon he loves it. I recently got a Kong bounza. It combines everything I think he likes. Chases it, chews vigorously, returns it for treat. And I laugh and do it it again, and again. I think it’s the best food toy. He seems to go along with it.

    1. Great observations, Jean (and your dog sounds really fun). Good questions about the human interaction, too. One of my dogs asks me to help her if she accidentally loses a piece of food under a closet door. But in that case I think I’m just a tool, grin. I’ve seen that Kong bounzer and now I’m inclined to try one. Thanks for the great comment!

  5. Hi Eileen. Lots of food for thought in this article. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never really thought whether the food toy is fun for my dog or more fun for me. I feed all of Valentino’s meals in some form of toy, Kong, stuffed marrow bones, one of several moving puzzles that deliver the food slowly — you guessed it, he inhales his food. He also inhales treats, swallows everything whole. He has had two emergencies requiring radiographs and medications. And he isn’t a breed or type prone to bloat. He’s a Maltese. I enjoy the food toys and games. I can’t read his mind but I don’t see any sign he’s enjoying food more from one food over another. He just wants to eat. Or so it seems to me. Reading his overall body language when he’s training, I believe I see excitement and enjoyment, not just for the food item, but, because of the delivery system — I perceive him using his mind to have me deliver the food. I perceive him working to get what he wants. And because working for something I want is enjoyable to me, I think (not going to say I know) he’s enjoying working for food in this particular instance. He still gets fed using toys. It’s a necessity and probably not so much fun. Would her prefer to inhale the calories and ingest them as speedily as possible? I don’t know. Thanks for the article. Enjoyed it and got me thinking. I’m always eager to learn.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I have never thought as much about the medical angle until I started getting responses like yours. Slowing down can equal saving a life. I think we are on the same page about training. I, too, see something in my dogs beyond simple eating or even problem solving. Trying not to be self-centered but I do think they like doing training games with me! Thanks for the comment! Glad the article was helpful.

  6. Another thought-provoking post, Eileen. Loved the “Resource guard much, Clara?” photo and caption.

    Speaking of Snuffle Mats – we keep our back lawn 4″ tall, so it’s a ready-made snuffle mat. Exuberant border collie Obi can spend a half hour sniffing out his morning cup of plain-old-kibble which I fling widely across the lawn (kibbles three to six feet apart). As he is inclined to bark at neighbors talking on their side of our back fence, we’re using this game to focus him on HIS business in the backyard and ignore them, and it’s working. As the reinforcement is plain-old-kibble, and he stays focused for so long, I can only think that the search activity itself is highly motivating.

    On a side note, we’re finding “Remember Me?”, your book on canine cognitive dysfunction, very helpful as dear old Habi enters her thirteenth year. She’s still sharp, but it’s very helpful to have information about the little signs of mental slippage which we’re seeing, and tools and strategies to work with as she ages further. She too loves searching the back yard, but her kibble needs to be in a smaller area or she loses interest and wanders off. She needs a higher rate of reinforcement than Obi (kibbles within six inches of each other), or a higher value bunch of treats, to keep her engaged. Aren’t old dogs great?!

    1. Hi Chris,

      Glad you liked the photo. I guess that one is pretty obvious, but it took me years to realize just how much she resource guards.

      I’ve done the lawn thing at times, although in the summer the ants are so fast that they get to the kibble faster than the dogs sometimes! But my dogs enjoy any kind of finding/foraging game I can set up. Good call on your part on how to adjust the game for your older dog. That reminded me of an amusing video I made of a “training” session when Cricket was very old. A lot of it is watching her chew up the treats!

      I’m so glad the book is helpful, and thank you for telling me. Yes, old dogs are the best!

  7. Very informative and a fun article. Thanks for taking out your time and sharing such detailed article with us. I liked every bit of it, especially the preference tests and the matching law. It’s amazing. I am yet to try that with my pet but I’ll do it soon.

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