A dog puzzle feeder can provide mental enrichment and slow down your dog’s eating. Which are the best puzzle toys for food though? And are there any you should avoid? Keep reading to find out.
- Why Buy a Puzzle Feeder?
- How to Choose the Right Dog Food Puzzle for Your Pet
- 10 Best Puzzle Feeders for Dogs That Are Safe and Stimulating
- 1. Kong Wobbler (Best All-Round Puzzle Feeder)
- 2. PETBABA Slow Bowl (Best Puzzle Food Bowl for Dogs)
- 3. Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball (Best Dog Puzzle Ball)
- 4. PAW5 Wooly Snuffle Mat (Best Snuffle Mat)
- 5. Northmate Green Interactive Feeder
- 6. StarMark Treat Dispensing Chew Ball
- 7. Trixie Flip Board
- 8. Trixie Mad Scientist for Dogs
- 9. Nina Ottosson’s Dog Magic Interactive Dog Toy
- 10. SNiFFiz SmellyMatty
- 4 Quick Ways to Make a DIY Puzzle Feeder
- Frequently Asked Questions
Despite their sometimes lazy demeanour, dogs thrive when they are forced to scavenge and hunt for food. This dates back to their wolf ancestry, when they needed to earn every meal.
Of course, dogs are not wolves – despite what some old-school trainers might tell you. But they have retained some of the same instincts. Many breeds were also bred for guarding, retrieving or hunting, which require long periods of mental engagement.
The result is that dogs require continuous mental and physical stimulation to stay happy. It’s our responsibility as pet parents to ensure these needs are met.
Unfortunately, the average 21st-century pup doesn’t get much chance to exercise his natural instincts. Dogs are given their food in easy-to-consume chunks, often from the same bowl each day. They don’t need to hunt, pursue, forage or scavenge – and their mental health suffers as a result. Boredom can also lead to behavioural problems, such as nuisance barking, destructive chewing and aggression.
The good news is that puzzle feeders (along with regular dog toys and exercise) are a potential solution. Unlike regular bowls, these toys force your pet to earn his food through nosework, problem-solving and foraging. Aside from being more mentally engaging, feeders also slow down your pet’s eating.
Puzzle dog feeders come in a range of sizes, difficulties and types. In this article, I’ve listed 10 of the best, along with some tips for buying the right feeder for your pup. I’ve also enlisted the help of our own Rebecca Forrest, who works for a major canine rehoming centre in the UK and has used many of these toys, along with her beautiful Cavapoo called Nutmeg.
Our #1 Pick: Kong Wobbler
Simple puzzle toy that’s durable and great value for money
My top pick is the excellent Kong Wobbler. It’s not the most complicated puzzle, but it’s still challenging and fun for most canine companions. It’s also highly durable and available for a relatively low price.
Why Buy a Puzzle Feeder?
Before we get to my top picks, why should you buy a dog puzzle feeder? And are they really much better than a regular bowl or timed feeder?
The short answer is: yes! I would even recommend throwing your food bowl away – you don’t need it. Here’s why:
- Behavioural Enrichment. A puzzle feeder activates your dog’s natural instincts. This can help prevent depression, reduce undesirable behaviours and keep your pet mentally engaged. Puzzle feeders aren’t enough on their own – studies have shown dogs need both mental enrichment and regular human interaction – but they are a good start. For maximum benefit, actively engage with your dog while he’s solving the puzzle (as long as he doesn’t show signs of food aggression).
- Reduce or Eliminate Behavioural Problems Caused by Boredom. Many behavioural issues, such as barking, digging, howling, scratching or chewing, can be traced back to a lack of mental and physical stimulation. The more mental enrichment you provide, the less likely these behaviours are to occur. In fact, studies have shown that even a short 15-minute enrichment session can make a measurable difference to a dog’s well-being.
- May Prevent Cognitive Decline. Regular behavioural enrichment, including toys and dog food puzzles, can slow a dog’s cognitive decline caused by ageing.
- Stop Indigestion and Bloat. Many dogs gobble down food as quickly as possible. This can lead to indigestion and vomiting. In rare cases, it can also lead to a serious condition called bloat. A puzzle toy or slow feeder can stop your pet eating too fast.
- Encourage Natural Behaviours. Sniffing, snuffling, foraging and pawing are all natural canine behaviours when looking for food. Puzzles that force your dog to use these behaviours keep your pet’s brain and senses sharp. They can also encourage fussy eaters to eat.
- Eating Slower May Reduce The Risk of Obesity. Canine obesity is already an epidemic – but it’s getting worse. In a recent UK study, for example, it was estimated that 59% of dogs were overweight or obese. This can lead to a host of medical problems and a lower quality of life. By slowing down your dog’s eating, puzzle feeders may help overfeeding – although it’s still your responsibility to limit your pet’s calorie intake to healthy levels.
There are some downsides though. Food puzzles for dogs aren’t always a good idea in multi-dog households, as they can lead to food aggression. Dog toys for food are also more expensive than a bowl – although there are plenty of great options for under $15.
Another issue is that some dogs need training and encouragement to use a feeder puzzle. Don’t expect your pet to instantly know what to do, but instead provide encouragement and help as required.
Note: If you’re feeding treats in a puzzle toy, make sure you don’t give your dog too much. It can be easy to overfeed sugary snacks when you see how much he enjoys the puzzle.
The Difference Between a Puzzle and Slow Feeder
A slow feeder is designed to force your dog to take longer when eating. They are useful for pups that tend to wolf down their dinner, which can cause indigestion, vomiting, choking or even bloat.
Slow feeders don’t provide much mental stimulation though. For this reason, I recommend a puzzle feeder instead, as you get both the mental enrichment and slow feeding benefits.
How to Choose the Right Dog Food Puzzle for Your Pet
You can’t go far wrong with most food puzzles – as long as they are safe and made by a respected brand.
With that said, some feeder puzzles are better suited to certain pets than others. Here are some factors to consider:
- Your Dog’s Puzzle-Solving Experience. A puzzle that’s too difficult for your dog can be frustrating. If this is your pet’s first puzzle toy, make sure you choose a simple option. Some puzzles also have adjustable difficulty.
- Type of Toy. The most common types of toy are treat dispensing balls or wobblers, activity games with sliders or other moving parts, snuffle mats to encourage foraging, and basic puzzle bowls. There is no “best” type of puzzle, so it’s often a good idea to get several and rotate them.
- Your Dog’s Strength and Size. Not all puzzles are designed to withstand a strong dog or determined chewing. If your dog is more likely to destroy a toy than solve a puzzle, look for one that’s simple and durable (the Kong Wobbler is a good option).
- Your Dog’s Face Shape. Flat-faced breeds, such as pugs, may struggle to grip certain types of puzzle. These breeds can also have a hard time pushing their nose into tall dividers, such as those found on some puzzle bowls.
- Food Type. Most dog toys work best with dry kibble. If you want to use wet food, make sure the puzzle toy is suitable and not too difficult to clean. Kibble or treat size can also be an issue for some activity games, as the holes are a fixed size.
The best way to find out which toys are best for your pet is to try several different types. This also prevents boredom and mimics the wild, where a dog would face many different challenges to get his food.
Warning: You should always supervise your pet when he’s using a puzzle feeder. He’ll enjoy it more if you’re around, and you can watch to make sure he’s not going to destroy the toy or get dangerously overexcited.
10 Best Puzzle Feeders for Dogs That Are Safe and Stimulating
1. Kong Wobbler (Best All-Round Puzzle Feeder)VIEW PRICE
If you’re looking for a simple and durable food toy, the Kong Wobbler is my top recommendation.
It’s a simple toy that wobbles and rolls around the floor, occasionally releasing a treat or piece of kibble. While it’s not the most challenging toy, it still provides plenty of mental stimulation and is great for dogs that have a habit of destroying their toys.
Filling the wobbler is easy, as you can unscrew the head rather than threading kibble via the exit hole. It’s also dishwasher-safe and made from a durable, food-grade polymer.
If I have one complaint about the Wobbler, it’s that you can’t adjust the size of the hole (and hence the difficulty). Even the smallest size Wobbler may also be too big for tiny dog breeds, such as chihuahuas, as it’s bigger than it looks in the promotional photos. For the price, it’s an excellent and almost chew-proof puzzle toy though.
“Nutmeg loves the Wobbler – it’s her favourite food toy and she could throw it around for hours. Many of the shelter dogs I’ve worked with also enjoy it.
The only problem is that it’s quite heavy and bulky – even if you get the smallest size. I wouldn’t use it with a chihuahua or other tiny dog, nor an over-enthusiastic bigger dog who might throw it around and damage walls. Nervous dogs might also be put off by the self-righting design.
It’s pretty tough though, so it’s great for dogs that might chew. I’d definitely recommend it for medium or large breeds who are confident with toys.”
2. PETBABA Slow Bowl (Best Puzzle Food Bowl for Dogs)VIEW PRICE
The PETBABA is on the boundary between a true puzzle toy and slow feeder. Your dog still needs to hunt around for treats, but it’s not as mentally stimulating as more advanced toys.
I’m still a fan of this puzzle though. The simple maze design does a good job of slowing down eating and forcing your dog to forage. It’s also made with food-grade silicone, so it’s soft and safe for your pet. Other features include a sucker bottom to stop it moving, easy-to-wash design and two available sizes.
The PETBABA is also great for breeds with flat faces. The spaces between the mini-walls are relatively wide and shallow, so it could be a good option for pugs and French bulldogs.
It’s not a chew-proof maze feeder though. If your pet is a chewer, the silicone won’t withstand his teeth for long.
“I’ve used this slow feeder with many dogs at the shelter – and it’s usually a hit. The silicone is easy for a strong chewer to rip up though, so I wouldn’t use it for destructive dogs.”
The PETBABA Slow Bowl is a slow feeder that stops your dog scoffing his food. The varying mini-wall heights force your pet to scavenge and use his brain – although it’s not as challenging as other puzzles on this list.
3. Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball (Best Dog Puzzle Ball)VIEW PRICE
Treat or kibble dispensing balls are one of the best types of puzzle dog feeder – and the Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball is my top pick in this category. It’s a relatively cheap ball with a soft exterior and easy-to-refill design, so it’s great for kibble or treats.
Puzzle balls work by randomly dispensing food as your dog rolls or throws them around. Unlike many balls, which are made with hard plastic, the Omega Paw has a soft vinyl surface. This is easy to grip and much quieter for your dog to throw around, especially on hard floors. The first few bits of kibble are easy to get out, but it becomes progressively harder to get those last few bits.
Another advantage of the soft design is that your dog’s jaw can’t get caught in the opening. I’ve seen some distressing pictures of small dogs with trapped lower jaws, so this is a major concern of other balls.
The only downside of the soft design is that you can’t adjust the difficulty. Even so, the Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball is an excellent feeder puzzle that can provide hours of safe entertainment.
4. PAW5 Wooly Snuffle Mat (Best Snuffle Mat)VIEW PRICE
If you’re looking for a snuffle mat, then the PAW5 Wooly is an excellent choice. It’s soft, easy to clean and suitable for almost any dog – including those with flat faces.
Snuffle mats are brilliant for getting your dog to forage for his food. The dog is forced to rely on his sense of smell, which mimics foraging conditions in the wild and sharpens his natural instincts.
The PAW5 is designed with lots of small fabric tubes. Treats or kibble can be sprinkled inside the tubes, so your dog needs to sniff through the mat for his meal. This also makes it impossible for your dog to eat too quickly.
An advantage of the PAW5 is that it’s machine washable, which is important as snuffle mats tend to smell after repeated use. It’s also suitable for dogs of any size, age and breed.
A drawback is that the fabric tubes could be easy to rip off if your dog is a chewer. Most dogs are more interested in the food, but keep this in mind if your pet has a habit of destroying toys. Some dogs also work out they can just shake kibble out of snuffle mats, but that’s a problem with all products in this category, not just the PAW5.
Note: This snuffle mat also appears on our list of the best toys for blind dogs, as it’s a great tool for activating a visually impaired dog’s sense of smell.
“Snuffle mats are amazing for making meals more fun. We use them all the time at the shelter for mental enrichment.
I liked this mat a lot – and so did Nutmeg. Her tail was wagging the entire time she was searching, and when she’d found all the kibble she was desperate to keep looking for more.
If I had a complaint, it’s that the mat doesn’t include different types of pockets like some of the others I’ve used. I’m sure most dogs will love it though – and it feels well-made and built to last.”
The PAW5 Wooly Snuffle Mat is great for getting your dog to forage for his food. It has a soft design, is machine washable and can provide plenty of mental stimulation using kibble or treats.
5. Northmate Green Interactive FeederVIEW PRICE
The Northmate Green Interactive Feeder is another excellent dog puzzle bowl. It’s not as difficult as a snuffle mat or puzzle ball, but it slows down feeding and makes finding food more challenging than a regular bowl.
There’s only one size available, but the “blades” should be suitable for any breed aside from the smallest dogs. It’s also dishwasher-safe, has a sticky bottom and is suitable for both wet and dry foods.
The Green might not be the best choice if you have a flat-faced breed though. The blades are taller than alternatives, so they are great for dogs with long snouts but tricky for those with a flatter face. If you have a pug, bulldog or similar breed, the PETBABA Slow Bowl is a better choice.
The Green Interactive Feeder is a great puzzle toy for slowing down feeding and providing an extra challenge at meal-time. It’s not as mentally demanding as a ball or activity puzzle, but is easy to use and clean.
6. StarMark Treat Dispensing Chew BallVIEW PRICE
The StarMark is another excellent treat dispensing ball. It’s durable, easy to clean and perfect for keeping your pet entertained at meal-times.
One of the great things about this ball is the soft rubber design. As I mentioned earlier in this article, I prefer soft treat balls as they are safer and quieter. The plastic also doesn’t include vinyl, latex or phthalates, which is important for your dog’s safety.
A bonus is that the soft rubber is dishwasher safe, making it much easier to clean.
Keep in mind that this ball isn’t designed for strong or aggressive chewers. The internal hooks are breakable by a determined dog, which makes getting treats much easier. It’s certainly strong enough for the average dog’s play though.
The StarMark Chew Ball is a treat dispensing ball with a soft rubber exterior and dishwasher safe design. If you’re looking for a relatively cheap puzzle toy to keep your pet entertained, it’s hard to beat.
7. Trixie Flip BoardVIEW PRICE
If you’re looking for a toy that’s more challenging than the average ball or slow feeder, the Flip Board is an option to consider – especially if you have a small dog. It’s an intermediate-level puzzle toy with a combination of flip lids, lift cones and sliding disks, so it provides a serious mental workout for your pet.
I like how the Flip Board provides a variety of challenges in a single game. Once your pet has got the hang of simple puzzles, this is one of the best toys to stretch his inquisitive mind. You can also increase the difficulty by only putting treats in a few of the compartments, so your pet needs to explore to find his rewards.
The only downside is that a clever dog may eventually learn how to access the compartments – but he’ll still have fun getting to this point. It’s also dishwasher safe, has a non-slip rim and is built with strong plastic.
The Flip Board probably isn’t the best option for meal-times though. The compartments are small, so you would need to refill it several times for a single meal. It’s a great puzzler for extra treats or a portion of a meal though.
I also don’t recommend it for big dogs. The small sliders and cones could be frustrating for breeds with larger paws and jaws.
The Trixie Flip Board is an intermediate dog puzzle that forces your dog to use his brain in several different ways. It’s great for small dogs, but will probably frustrate larger breeds.
8. Trixie Mad Scientist for DogsVIEW PRICE
The Mad Scientist for Dogs is a unique and engaging puzzle feeder made by Trixie. It’s a bit more expensive than the Flip Board, but provides a mental challenge for clever dogs.
There are three food compartments (or “test tubes”). Your dog needs to use his paw or nose to flip them over, so treats or kibble fall out.
This can be a surprisingly difficult concept for many dogs, so Trixie recommends starting with the lids off to make it easy. I would add that this probably isn’t the best toy if your pet hasn’t solved an easier puzzle dog feeder though.
Once your dog has mastered the idea, you can add holed lids to make it more challenging. Trixie supplies two lid sets with different size holes, so you can use the Mad Scientist with a variety of types of treat or kibble. It also has non-slip feet and a sturdy design.
While the Mad Scientist is an engaging game that many dogs love, there are some drawbacks.
It’s not as big as it looks in the promotional photo (see the photo with Nutmeg below for a more accurate representation – she weighs around 8kg), so large dogs may knock it over rather than spin the test tubes. I wouldn’t recommend it for dogs that struggle with puzzles or who are nervous around moving objects. Some small dogs may also find it difficult to hit the tubes with enough force. For confident medium-size dogs, however, it’s an interesting game that requires a lot of concentration.
“This is a really cool toy, but it takes practice for a dog to use it. Nutmeg is a clever dog, but she still hasn’t worked it out after a couple of sessions (I’m sure she’ll get there though). Be prepared to engage with your dog to make sure he doesn’t get frustrated, otherwise he might just give up.
It’s definitely not a toy you can leave with your pet unsupervised either. If I’m using it with a shelter dog, I always sit with him and hold the base, otherwise it’s likely to fall over (especially with larger dogs).
If you need something more difficult than the average feeder toy, it’s one to try though.”
If you’re looking for a unique puzzler that’s more challenging than simple toys, the Mad Scientist for Dogs is a great option. It’s best suited for medium-size breeds that have experience with puzzles though.
9. Nina Ottosson’s Dog Magic Interactive Dog ToyVIEW PRICE
Nina Ottosson makes a range of puzzle toys for dogs. They tend to be more expensive than other brands, but are well-designed and provide long-term play opportunities.
The Dog Magic is a simple example of this. There are nine “bones” for hiding treats, and the dog needs to work out how to remove these to access his reward. It’s made with strong and durable plastic, is dishwasher safe, and has anti-slip feet to stop it moving during a game. The Interactive Dog Toy is also suitable for almost any breed, as there are multiple size options.
While the Dog Magic won’t challenge clever dogs with lots of puzzle experience, it’s a good introductory puzzle for pets who struggle with more complex games. There’s also plenty of space under the bones for lots of kibble if you’re using it for meal-times.
The only real downside is the price, as it’s the most expensive feeder on this list. The rounded bones may also be difficult for some dogs to grip.
“This is a fun toy, but be careful if your dog has a habit of eating everything in sight – he might accidentally eat one of the small bones. I wouldn’t use it with a food obsessed Labrador, for example. Even if you think your dog won’t eat the plastic, you should always supervise your pet with any puzzle feeder.”
The Nina Ottosson Dog Magic is expensive, but has a durable design and is a great for your dog’s first puzzle.
10. SNiFFiz SmellyMattyVIEW PRICE
If you want a puzzle snuffle mat that’s more advanced than the PAW5 Wooly mat, the SNiFFIZ SmellyMatty is a one of the best options. It’s expensive, but provides a variety of challenges to keep your pet entertained and mentally stimulated.
The basic mat is shaped like a flower, with longer petals surrounded by shorter green grass. There are hidden treat pockets behind the petals, while the grass is great for scattering kibble.
SNiFFIZ has also included five “Tricky Feeder” games, including a wallet, book and puzzle board. These can be attached via rubber bands around the edge of the mat to provide a different challenge to your dog.
The combination of size and range of hiding places makes the SmellyMatty a brilliant way to keep your pet mentally stimulated at meal times. It also has an anti-slip bottom and machine-washable fabric design.
There aren’t many downsides to this mat. You get a lot for your money – especially with the five included puzzle toys. It’s also well-made and should last a long time (although it’s not chew-proof). The biggest drawback is the price, but I think it’s worth the money.
The SmellyMatty is a relatively expensive snuffle mat, but has a brilliant design and includes five extra toys for mental stimulation. If you want a mat that can keep your pet busy for hours, this is the one to buy.
4 Quick Ways to Make a DIY Puzzle Feeder
The feeder toys above are brilliant for providing mental stimulation and keeping your pet entertained. But if you want to give your dog more variety, here are a few DIY techniques that don’t cost a penny.
1. Cardboard Box
Many small dogs love breaking into a cardboard cereal box to get food. This is one of the easiest games to setup, as you just need to put some kibble into a box and close it.
This game probably isn’t a good choice for big or strong breeds though. They are likely to rip through the box on the first bite! You should also supervise your dog during this game.
2. Hide Kibble Around the Home
Playing hide-and-seek with kibble is another easy way to make meals more interesting. Instead of putting kibble in a bowl, get your dog to wait in another room and hide it behind chairs and under tables. This forces your dog to scavenge and use his nose.
Start slowly if your dog isn’t accustomed to this game though – you don’t want him to become frustrated.
3. Milk Jug
An empty and cleaned milk job can make a passable alternative to a Kong Wobbler. Just fill it with kibble and leave the cap off, so your dog can throw it around to get his food.
4. Make Mealtimes a Training Session
For the ultimate challenge at dinner, why not use meal-time kibble as a reward during training sessions? This is a great way to mentally tire your pet, while building a stronger relationship and teaching new commands.
Frequently Asked Questions
What About Interactive Dog Feeders?
Any feeder that requires your dog to perform an action to get his food could be considered interactive. When people talk about “interactive” toys, they often mean those with advanced technology though.
In reality, these advanced toys are unnecessary and often cause more problems than they solve. Dogs don’t care how clever or technologically advanced a puzzle is, after all.
Instead of spending a fortune on a high-tech gadget, it’s better to buy several cheaper puzzles so your dog always has a different challenge.
Which is the Best Puppy Puzzle Feeder?
In theory, any of the above toys could be used for puppies. A puppy has a shorter attention span and less focus than an adult dog, however, so some are better suited to young pups than others. Puppies also prefer chewable puzzles, as they are often in pain from teething.
For these reasons, look for chewable feeders that don’t require much mental or physical effort. The Kong Wobbler and Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball are great examples.
Most pet owners know that physical exercise is essential for a dog’s well-being. But dogs also need daily mental stimulation to stay happy and healthy.
Meal-times are a great time to provide this extra enrichment, as most dogs are food motivated and enjoy solving basic puzzles. Getting your dog to earn his food also mimics the wild, where he would need to forage, hunt and scavenge for his dinner.
So, if your pet is showing signs of boredom, try one of the food puzzles for dogs on this list. You might be surprised at how much difference a small amount of mental stimulation can make to your pet’s behaviour.
I hope this article has helped you choose the best dog puzzle feeder for your pet. If you have any questions or comments, please use the comments form below.
Resources and References
- Reisen, J., “Play Some Brain Games With Your Dog!” American Kennel Club, 2017.
- Hubrecht, R. C., “A comparison of social and environmental enrichment methods for laboratory housed dogs” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 1993
- McGowan, T.S. Ragen, “Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2018
- Milgram, N.W., “Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study” Neurobiology of Aging, 2005
- German, A.J., “Dangerous trends in pet obesity” Small Animal Health 2018
- Stillwell, V., “Dog Enrichment” Positively, 2016