What to do with a Kong

(This puppy is licking goodies out of her Kong instead of fussing during down-time at puppy class.)

If you have a new dog, especially a puppy or teenage dog, I bet everyone is telling you to get a Kong. Dog trainers are wild about Kongs, your veterinarian may even sell them in the waiting room, and every pet store stocks them in all sizes.

But let’s be honest, you have looked at a Kong and wondered what the big deal is. Maybe you even purchased one and brought it home. You put it in front of your pooch expecting a small miracle to occur. But your dog just sniffed it and walked away. You can’t help thinking, “Now what? Why all the hype?”

The truth is, the Kong is just a hunk of hollow rubber, unless you start thinking like a dog. Dogs like games and puzzles that engage their amazing brains. They need to use their powerful sniffers, their paws, and their jaws to scavenge and extract food from tricky places. The Kong is designed to make all of this physical and mental challenge happen in a way that does not involve your furniture, rugs, shoes, undies or other potential objects of fascination.

If your dog could talk, he or she would ask you to please stuff the Kong parfait-style: some smelly, gooey stuff in the tip (like cheese or peanut butter), layered with some kibble, then something globby like part of a banana, layered with a few dog biscuits or leftovers from last night’s supper (veggies are great, no cooked bones or toxic stuff, please), topped off with something easy to get started, like more peanut butter.

Now you’re on to something!

That should keep your dog quiet in the crate, or occupied while you prepare dinner or watch Dancing With the Stars (in which case you obviously cannot lower your eyes from the TV, even for a moment). You also get Good Dog Owner points for providing an outlet for your dog’s daily behavioral needs.

Fancy versions of this (because I know your dog is above-average smart):

  • Jam everything in as tight as possible by using the back of a knife
  • Prepare the Kong, then freeze it
  • Prepare the Kong, then nuke it for 15 seconds or so
  • Feed all regular meals as stuffed Kongs (use just a dab of PB mixed in to hold everything together)
  • Make multiple Kongs ahead of time (refrigerate) and hide them around the room/house before you leave

Yes, it’s gross, but your dog really will get every last morsel out (if not, adjust the difficulty by stuffing looser and using less goo). I put mine in the top rack of my dishwasher and, voila, they are sterilized and ready for another round. And I’ve had the same bloomin’ Kongs for 15 years.

If your dog has mack daddy chewing power, get the black Kong. If your dog is a girl, or boy, and color-coding is important to you, get the pink or blue Kong. But please, get a Kong. Your dog will love you for it. While your dog is munching away, please share your recipes, success stories and questions and comments below. There is likely another dog owner out there who would learn from your experience.

Bone Appetit

Do you remember those old Flinstones T.V. cartoons? You know, Fred and Barney, Wilma and Betty. And of course, Dino (my personal favorite). Now, is it my imagination, or did our pal Dino, as the series’ family dog wannabe, get to chew on just gigantic bones? In fact, as I recall, all the bones on that show were, whether they were on Fred’s plate or in Wilma’s hair, just enormous. Well, today I met a dog in one of my training appointments who had such a bone. I kid you not; the bone was longer than the dog. So big, in fact, that it just teetered on the edge of the dog’s bed. It looked like a caveman must have placed it there.

The dog’s owner informed me that the dog really enjoyed chewing on it, and that it was a much better bargain than the smaller bones, from which the dog only got about a couple of hours of chewing enjoyment. LogicalDSC_0153 enough! And then she asked me a great question, which was, “Do dogs need bones?” (Besides the kind they use to walk around on, wise guy.)

Dogs, as a general rule, need to chew. If you’ve ever failed to provide your dog with adequate, appropriate chew outlets, you know firsthand that your belongings, including furnishings, can fall victim to your dog’s choppers. Some dogs need to chew often (like young dogs, retrievers, and dogs who have extra energy to burn). Others rarely chew anything other than their food.

Dogs generally also get mental and physical benefit from working for their meals. And I don’t only mean sitting before you serve them. I mean, because they are natural scavengers, part of meeting their normal behavioral needs includes providing them opportunities for puzzling food out of nooks and crannies.

And finally, there is nothing like the fresh minty breath of a dog who has sufficient chew time on a regular basis.

There is now a dizzying array of toys on the market that can meet your dog’s need to chew. There are the meal-dispensing variety (Kibble Nibble, Twist and Treat, Kong and the like) and there are the in-between-meal edible chewies (like Nylabone, Zukes Dental Bones, and Sam’s Yams, for example). Experiment and see what keeps your dog occupied.

So what about bones? If you would like to offer your dog bones, err on the side of making sure they are too large to swallow or break into smaller bits. And never offer cooked or grilled bones of any size—they can break and splinter and cause severe damage to your dog. Instead, opt for bones sold as “soup bones” or “marrow bones” at your grocery store, like the organic and more humanely raised beef bones sold at Whole Foods. You can find them in the meat freezer; just thaw them in your fridge before use. They are a pretty good bargain, too. And their smooth-edged, tubular shape means a pretty safe chewing experience. Nevertheless, supervise your dog when he’s working on one of these bones. (Some veterinarians recommend against feeding bones, so consult with yours before deciding what’s best for your dog.) Most dogs are pretty excited to be presented with one of these. A marrow bone can keep them occupied for quite a while, not to mention meet their needs for chewing, puzzle solving, and working those teeth and gums. Yabba dabba doo.

Backyard Blues

It is awfully convenient to be able to open the backdoor and let your dog out. Maybe you are even able leave him there for extended periods. Particularly if he can easily reach water and shelter in your absence, this may work out just fine for you, depending on the type of neighborhood in which you live. And then there are those dogs who sing the backyard blues. Dogs are smart, social creatures. Therefore, leaving them unattended in the yard can cause trouble that outweighs the convenience of having them spend their days outside. If your dog is bored, under exercised, or agitated by being isolated from you, you may find yourself with problems such as:


Barking or howling

Fence-fighting with neighbor dogs

Barking at passing dogs, kids or other pedestrians

Fence jumping (which means not only could your dog be hit by a car, but you will also be in violation of city ordinances; your dog may be picked up by animal control for being “at large” or disturbing people or their property)

Being let out of the yard by a worker, solicitor, or neighborhood child

Coprophagia (eating feces)

Ingesting toxic plants, mushrooms

Pawing or tearing at the screen or back door

Chewing on your belongings or deck

Being frightened by thunder or unruly kids (which can lead to a fear of going into the yard, or aggression toward strangers or children)

Being vulnerable to theft, abuse, or predators (such as hawks and coyotes)

Being in violation of noise ordinances (for incessant, early-morning or late-night barking)

That list covers just about every issue I’ve gotten a phone call about from clients who thought they were doing their dog or themselves a favor by leaving him in the yard, and found themselves with problems down the line.

For most people, the backyard is best used as a place to enjoy the dog by engaging him in fetch, playing or training, or just relaxing and having the dog keep them company while they garden. If you’d like to be able to use your yard to temporarily confine your dog, unattended, here are a few tips to help it turn out well:

  • Provide your dog with interesting things to do in the yard so he won’t develop bad habits or anxiety barking. Keep him occupied with: a stuffed Kong tied to a tree, a sandy area in which you bury dog treats, his meal flung out into the grass for him to scavenge, or a Kool Dogs Ice Treat Maker.
  • Make sure your dog is housetrained before using the yard this way. Otherwise you may be surprised to learn that your dog does not really understand the concept of “holding it” until given a yard opportunity, since he’ll be in the habit of just eliminating whenever he feels the need.
  • Provide adequate exercise for your dog. Your dog will likely just lay around in the yard, or maybe chase a squirrel or two. So you’ll still need to provide exercise in the form of fetch or walks for his mental and physical well being.
  • Use a fence tall enough that your dog can’t jump it.
  • Be courteous to your neighbors. It is not ok to allow your dog to bark incessantly. Not only does that indicate that he may be stressed, but also that he may be causing your neighbors stress. Noise ordinances prohibit this in many towns.
  • Keep your yard free of feces so that you can both enjoy the yard (and cut down on the spread of parasites).
  • If your dog is not used to being unsupervised outdoors, start out leaving your dog for short spurts, like five or ten minutes, and build from there. This will give you a chance to monitor whether or not this is a good idea for your dog.

Finally, be aware of why you want your dog in the backyard. If you are avoiding a training challenge, it might be best to get help with the problem that is resulting in him being placed in the backyard in the first place. Perhaps you just need a place to put him so he won’t be underfoot, or so your dog and kids can have a break from each other (in which case I would recommend an indoor Safety Zone). With a little forethought, you can keep your dog from singing the backyard blues.

Counter Surfing Safari

One of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever known was one we adopted when he was 4 1/2 years old. He was gentle, funny, wise, loved people and other dogs, and had a way of calming everyone around him. He helped me teach pre-school aged kids about the right way to meet a dog, and taught our new puppy how to play politely. He used to hop out of the car when we arrived at the veterinary clinic and race up to the clinic door to get in, delighted at the thought of all the people inside waiting to see him.

But when we first got him, he  was a horrible counter surfer. That means that he had his front paws up on the kitchen counters almost as much as he had them on the floor, and he likely had been rehearsing that behavior for years. The foster person who had cared for him before he came to us warned me about this. She said she had tried everything to keep him from surfing the counters to grab a snack or catch a whiff of food. She had tried yelling at him and spraying him with water. She had even booby-trapped the counters to scare him out of his habit. One time, she hid in the pantry with the door closed, silently lying in wait. When she heard the dog rustling about with his paws up on the counter, she sprang from the closet, broom in hand, making an explosive, “AArrrGgghh!” noise at him. He just looked at her, wagging his tail, as if to say, “Ha ha! Hey, did you happen to see any snacks in that pantry?”Ravenous

Well, we didn’t want him surfing our kitchen counters. Partly because we didn’t want his feet all over the countertops, but mostly because I didn’t want him eating my snacks! Not to mention that there are all kinds of things on countertops that are dangerous for dogs to eat. So, we decided to solve it right off the bat. How, you may wonder, did we do it?

When solving a dilemma like this, it helps to get inside the dog’s head. The key is to recognize that dogs do what works. And most dogs just love food. If standing on their back legs, balancing themselves on the edge of the counter with their front paws means they can reach food, or even just smell food, why wouldn’t they do it? Sometimes there may be nothing there, but they figure it is always worth it to check, because chances are someone left a morsel, or a dirty dish, or (yes!) a sandwich or a roast cooling unattended. Sure, they realize sometimes humans get cranky about it, but the reward is so wonderful when it does pay off, that it’s worth doing any chance they get. Besides, when the dog food bowl is empty, the counter is the only interesting area worth investigating. Such is dog logic.

And therein lies the solution. As in nearly all matters of dog training, the most effective approach is to prevent what you don’t want and reward what you do want. (Note that if your dog hasn’t yet started counter surfing, this process goes much more quickly than it did for us, since we were undoing a 41/2-year-old habit.) Our first step was to allow the dog in the kitchen only when we were present and prepared to make interesting, yummy items available at the level where we wanted the dog’s feet—the floor. We put up a baby gate for the first week, and only went into the kitchen with him when we had prepared a meal or food puzzle for the pooch. So he started getting into the habit of checking out the floor as his first order of business any time we entered Kitchen Counter Land.

In the meantime, we had to make sure that there was no chance that our counters would ever, ever be for him a source of food, or even the scent of food. It would not have worked to just shove things back from the edge of the counters; we had to make them a food-free zone any time the dog was in the kitchen. He began to default to choosing the floor over the counters (because of the goodies we provided down below, away from the counters), and so it was time to teach him that even if we left him unsupervised, the counters in our house would never be worth surfing. We did this by leaving him in the kitchen, with spotless, food-free counters, and Kongs stuffed with goodies placed on the floor. I remember leaving the house, and peeking in through the window to see what he was up to. The first few times, the rascal would leave his Kong, and counter surf! (Old habits die hard.) But soon thereafter, I’d witness him leave the Kong and merely walk along the length of the counters, feet on the floor, with his nose held high. He was still checking out the counters, but he had clearly learned it wasn’t worth the energy to put his paws up. Finally, about three weeks after we got him, we left him with his Kong, I peeked through the window, and he didn’t even budge from his spot on the floor. Success! It didn’t work for him to counter surf any more, because it never paid off, and all the interesting, smelly, delicious stuff was happening down below, on the other side of the kitchen. (Here are some pointers if you need help with your Kong stuffing technique.)

We will never know if his former owners may have encouraged his habit by saying “off,” shoving him down (he really liked to be touched and talked to!), or perhaps they left food out frequently, fed him tidbits as they cooked, or merely pushed food to the backs of the counters where he could still smell it. Showing him that something else worked for him did the trick. Unfortunately, we forgot that his new manners wouldn’t transfer automatically to a new environment without a refresher course. Which is why, in his first visit to my parents’ house, an innocent carrot cake fell victim to our negligence. I am sure he is still wagging his tail over that one.