Snuffle Mats: Great Enrichment for Senior Dogs

senior dachshund noses around in a pink and white mat for food

Chile, the 14 1/2 year old dachshund, enjoying her snuffle mat

Snuffle mats are one of the easiest food toys for dogs to learn how to interact with. And if my dogs are typical, snuffle mats are among the most fun ways to eat as well.

A snuffle mat is a mat with multiple fabric strips protruding from a base. Homemade ones are usually created by weaving fabric strips through a grid—usually a rubber mat with a pattern of holes. Some pre-made ones are stitched together on a fabric base instead of the rubber mat. The fabric strips are placed as densely as possible to make lots of places for kibble or other dry food to hide. The dog manipulates the fabric strips with her nose and paws as she sniffs out the food.

closeup of food in a snuffle mat

Enrichment

Snuffle mats and other food toys are great ways to provide your dog with enrichment.

The ASPCA defines enrichment as:

Additions to an animal’s environment with which the animal voluntarily interacts and, as a result, experiences improved physical and/or psychological health. —ASPCA Canine Enrichment Program

Enrichment, especially lifelong enrichment, has shown to reduce the incidence and severity of canine cognitive dysfunction. So even if you came to this site because of your older dog, be thinking about your younger or future dogs as well.

In my book, I have a whole section about enrichment for dogs with dementia (and all senior dogs).

Here is my senior dog Summer getting excited about her snuffle mat and then going for it. You can even hear her snuffling!

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Tips (and Cautions) for Using Snuffle Mats

tan dog eating her dinner out of a snuffle mat• Introduce your dog to a snuffle mat only if she has a good appetite. They are not appropriate if your dog is picky or frail. They do make eating a bit more of a challenge. Most dogs with a hearty appetite will find it a fun challenge.

• You can elevate the snuffle mat to make it more accessible if your dog has back or balance problems,

• Be careful with puppies. Snuffle mats are not appropriate for puppies in the “chew everything” phase or for any dogs who want to chew up fabric.

• Supervise any dog with a snuffle mat. Pick it up as soon as the dog is finished so she won’t be tempted to go for the fabric. I was afraid my dogs would want to eat the fabric, but I never let them get in the habit and now they leave the mat alone when they are finished with their meal. But I still pick it up, because they are dogs and there’s always a first time!

• Wash it regularly. Most dog food has a moderate amount of fat in it, so the mat will eventually get greasy. (Not to mention slobbery!) My snuffle mat is washer and dryer safe. It does take a long time to dry.

• Be sure to use fabric that is “food safe” if you make your own. No toxic dyes, etc. This is why I bought one readymade from a reputable source.

• Consider your dog’s normal eating habits. Snuffle mats, like most food toys, may not be interesting to dogs who are free fed. The point of food toys is to challenge your dog to use his body and brain to get his meal. If he has food accessible all day in a bowl, he may not be interested. Follow your vet’s advice on this of course, but most trainers recommend feeding your dog in meals, rather than having access to food all the time. It opens up a world of training games and enrichment with food. It also allows you to notice much more quickly if your dog isn’t eating normally.

Sources

  • black dog sniffing a snuffle matHere’s a source for making your own: Snuffle Mat Mayhem. You can also check Pinterest.
  • I bought my mat from Your Mannerly Mutt. I love it! There are lots of handmade ones on Etsy as well.

 

 

If anybody has a photo of their senior dog enjoying a snuffle mat that they would to share, drop me a line through the photo gallery page. In the meantime, happy snuffling!

Thank you to Tina Flores of Doggie Einsteins Training for her photo of adorable Chile the dachshund enjoying her snuffle mat! 

Dachshund photo copyright 2017 Tina Flores.

Other photos and all text copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Suus: The Rescued Dachshund Who Found Her True Home

Guest post by Nadia Hermans from Belgium in which she tells the story of her dachshund Suus, a former mill dog who is doing great at the age of 17. When I saw Nadia’s photo of Suus in her custom stroller, I had to know more! Nadia kindly shared Suus’ story–Eileen Anderson

wire haired dachshund in the woods in Belgium

How Suzanne (aka Suus) Came To Us

When our dachshund Didi died ( adopted from a nice woman who couldn’t take care for her anymore due to ALS disease), due to liver failure some four years ago – she was only 7 years old but she had a great life. She had Cushing’s Disease and the tumor was located in the adrenal glands and in this case dogs who have the disease live less longer,  We knew, as fond as we both were about this breed (my wife and I)–we knew we would adopt another dachshund, no matter how old but definitely adopting.

Since we had adopted our Lili, an ex-Spanish street dog, we knew that we would never buy a dog again, there were so many dogs waiting in shelters for a new home. ( Lili passed away about 5 weeks ago due to a mast cell tumor which was inoperable, she was 16 and also a great dog.) We looked on shelter pages on the internet and found on the general internet a strange advertisement, 4 dogs for sale and one of them was a dachshund, for only 100 euros [about $117 American dollars]. The price was strange for a dog of only 6 years old and we were suspicious. My wife phoned the owner and when we got the address we knew it was a former big puppy farm on the other side of our little country.

We went to see her 2 days later and when the owner, a too friendly lady (we later called her Cruella De Ville) showed her to us we were internally angry and very astonished. She was completely unattended, her fur looked long and filthy but from the first time we looked into those gentle eyes we knew that she was going home with us. We went for a little walk so we could take a closer look at this poor girl who looked much older than 6. She was so gentle, so shy but not really fearful for a mill dog but rather submissive and you could see she liked our gentle voices and pushed us to pet her. The love of the whole world was in those eyes and we were in love.

She Needed Our Help

I saw a little bald place on her back and a hump on one of her breasts and she had a terrible smell coming from her mouth and what we could see of her teeth—they were infected and brown. We didn’t discuss this with the owner; we paid 50 euro ’cause she gave a 50 euro discount for the vet and a European passport and we went home. In the worst case scenario, she would have Cushing’s, and a lot of teeth would have to be pulled. But no matter what she was our girl now and she was safe. At home, 3 dogs were waiting for us, Lili, Jitse a mixed breed, and Bela-Bartok,  a Cairn terrier female ( She passed away due to heart failure two years ago and was nearly 17.)

Because we both were for years volunteers in different dog shelters we had met and cared for a lot of ex-mill dogs and knew what we could expect, thinking about non socialization, not being used to live in a house, not used to live with other dogs and cats not to mention the severe behavior problems that could occur. We knew we were taking a risk taking her home.

On our way home I phoned our vet Lieselot to tell her we were on our way home with a dachshund and to make an appointment as soon as possible. We could go the next day. We named her Suzanne, which became Suus and when we got home the meet and greet with the other dogs went very well, she sniffed at them and vice versa and then we gave her a bath. Later on she fell asleep for the first time in a warm basket in her first house covered by a warm fleece. We adored her from the first minute. She got a complete medical checkup by our vet and her rotten teeth were pulled out first… The hump was a breast tumor so she had two more major operations to remove all her nipples and was sterilized at the same time… Her bloodwork showed that she was positive for Cushing’s disease and soon we started with Vetoryl. She recovered very well from surgery twice. She also had a heart murmur and got medication for that too.

Suus surprised us having no severe behavior problems such as being fearful or aggressive but acted quite happy in her all new environment and she followed us all around the house and bit by bit she got very fond of walking around in the garden. The other dogs accepted her and Bela-Bartok became her special friend; they slept together on our bed. We taught Suus to walk on a leash and taught her the most important skill ‘the recall’ and she did well. So she could run free too without a leash. Due to the heart murmur, we could only do small walks in the beginning but after some time she could come for an hour or more.

Our Bond

There was a bond from the moment we saw her. We took her home because we wanted to give her a life no matter how old she was. We never think about losing them, a senior when we adopt one, no, we think about what we can give them no matter how long their life will be. We knew that mill dogs didn’t have a life and although our Suus wasn’t completely unsocialized she knew not much more than her kennel and its environment. She is so gentle, so friendly and likes her treats, her raw meat food and she likes to puzzle or search for treats in her Snuffle Mat or in the woods or our yard. Her hunting dog instincts were still there and she tried to catch a rabbit now and then but wasn’t fast enough.

Additional Health Problems

One day in the morning I think about two years ago there was something terribly wrong with her. She fell over, head tilt, no balance anymore and so tired… but she wanted still to eat so I hand-fed her and after that, she fell asleep. Our vet told us after she examined her that it was the old dog vestibular syndrome—we had never heard about it. The only thing that mattered was “is it treatable?”. It wasn’t but normally it resolves itself after a week or longer. Two weeks later she was better, everything was ok again. Months later she had it for the second time but it resolved itself again after a week but a slight head tilt stayed and also a little loss of coordination.

But Suus kept going like she has always done, no matter what comes on her path she wants to go on and she does: our hero. It’s like she embraces life. She couldn’t join us on our long walks and walking her alone was no option, she wanted to be with her friends. She rushed almost falling to the car port to go with the gang and even tried to jump into the car which was impossible but she jumped anyway so I had to catch her. So there was the thought of designing another stroller. I had designed one for our Bela-Bartok when she got too old to do long walks so the idea was not new. The one from Bela was ruined completely after walking the woods, the Ardennes, traveling abroad, uphill and downhill.

dachshund in a custom stroller in the woods

Suus in her custom stroller

I saw on the internet that one could buy a stroller especially for dogs. So we bought a second-hand Innopet brand but the Princess didn’t like it, she wanted to jump out of it, it was too high above the ground I thought. So I searched for a children’s stroller and removed the seat and build a seat low to the ground and yay she liked it and stayed in it until she had rested enough so she could do some walking again. Because of the stroller, she can come with us everywhere—we went for 2 weeks to France last month, an 11-hour drive but we drove only at night so the dogs could sleep. This stroller is her second pair of legs…. She is with us, with the gang and sees what is happening being comfortable at the same time and smells the grass beneath her feet. Suus is a very nice and gentle dog and she likes everyone who enters our house and she has a lot of fans on my Facebook and in real life.

She still sleeps on our bed with our two male cats, Walter and Woodstock, and when she has to do potty she wakes me up by pushing her nose in my ear or licks my face so I have to carry her down the stairs into the yard and back. The other dogs sleep downstairs cause they don’t like cats and our living room is upstairs and they have their own entrance so they are separated and everyone is happy. There is also Luis, a mix Jack Russell/Podenco, an only male adopted and reactive to bikers, people he doesn’t know, cars, horses etc. But he likes his older dog sisters.

We go to a behavior therapist and take courses in tricks and agility with him. Last year we adopted a Cairn terrier, Ruby-Mae, a 12-year-old lovely girl but for more than 5 years left unattended. That is another story of mistreatment. They all get along very well. Every day we go for walks in the woods, in the country ’cause I’m fond of nature and trees. I work as an educator-nurse ( in a home for disabled people due to trauma, degenerative diseases– like for example Huntington’s chorea, and other muscle diseases and people who had acquired brain injury) and work only night shifts for 60%. This means only 2 or max 3 nights a week do I have time for the gang. My wife does the same job but with mentally disabled people during the day. Suus doesn’t have signs of dementia yet, or not that it is known or visible to us. She is deaf for more than a year now but still has some of her sight and knows some hand signals. She was never a barker but she has a great bark which she only uses when she doesn’t find us or is locked into a room by accident….

Mill dogs… We saw lots of mill dogs ending up in the shelters, some of them in very very bad shape, some couldn’t walk, had never seen grass or the sun, completely unsocialized… very sad. It is the government that allows the major dog breeders and though there were protest marches, petitions to stop this criminal and inhumane behaviour there still are a lot of puppy mills in our country. I could write a book about what I’ve seen in shelters in those 15 years. Nothing will ever stop us from adopting dogs or it has to be that we get too old ourselves… Every dog deserves a happy life !!

front view of dachshund in her custom dog stroller

Suus looking like a biker in her stroller

Photos and text copyright 2017 Nadia Hermans

Loving Enrichment for a Dog with Dementia

Jennifer and Yoda

Jennifer Fearing and Yoda

Enrichment is a win/win situation. Studies say that we **may** be able to slow the onset and progress of canine cognitive dysfunction by enriching our dogs’ lives. But even if we don’t, we certainly are helping them in the moment.

I have gotten to know Jennifer Fearing and her lovely dog Yoda through my book and this page. She read my book and prompted the Sacramento Bee to mention it in an feature article about aging pets. I’ve linked the article below.

What I want to highlight from the article is the movie Sue Morrow of the Sacramento Bee created of Jennifer and Yoda. It is a beautiful example of caring for a dog with cognitive dysfunction and keeping him active and engaged. It shows the power of enrichment.

Our pets are living longer than ever before–Sue Morrow, The Sacramento Bee

Jennifer has loved and cared for Yoda since he was an abandoned pup, four weeks old. Even with the slight standoffishness that has accompanied his dementia, you can see how strong the bond is between them. The movie gives me goosebumps. Jennifer speaks so frankly of their relationship, the ways she helps him. Jennifer is working with board certified veterinary behaviorists at U.C. Davis to give Yoda the best life possible for his remaining time, and speaks about the importance of recordkeeping to track his condition and quality of life.

Jennifer told me that Yoda has had no small part in shaping the person she has become., and that she feels it is her privilege to care for Yoda. We should all be so lucky as he.

Related Articles

Teaching an Old Dog How to Play with a Food Toy

A brown and white rat terrier is nudging a purple oval food toy with holes in it, to get the food to come out.

15-year-old Kaci learning to roll a food toy around and access the goodies inside

You can teach an old dog a new trick, and you might be surprised how much she enjoys it!

Research studies suggest that one thing that can slow the course of dementia is for senior dogs to have a lot of enrichment in their lives. In the laboratory studies, the enrichment consisted of getting exercise, social time with another dog, toys to play with (they were rotated every week or two), and training. The training was done with positive reinforcement (food rewards for correct actions), and was actually quite a challenging task.

Dogs with early stage dementia who got these forms of enrichment had less cognitive decline than those who didn’t.

Do Try This At Home

Most of us would want to stave off dementia in our dogs if at all possible. One thing you can do that combines two of the above interventions, toys and food, is to teach your old dog to play with food toys.

Food toys are specially made objects, usually made from wood, rubber, or food-safe plastic, that hold food for dogs. They are designed so that the dog has to move the toy in certain ways to get the food to come out. They range from extremely easy to very complex.

I have a selection of easy toys on the Enrichment Toys for Senior Dogs page with links where you can purchase the toys.

You might think it’s unkind to ask a dog to work for some of his or her food. But you would be surprised at the enjoyment dogs usually get out of these types of toys. It certainly appears that they get a sense of accomplishment out of solving the puzzle and getting the goodies that are inside.

The key, though, is to start slow. Otherwise the dog can get frustrated or lose interest very quickly.

How to Start

Choose a toy that they dog will need to barely nudge to get the food out. Put good treats in there: something your dog really likes and that also will readily fall out of the toy. I.e., not anything too wet or sticky.

(If you leave food out for your dog all the time, it will be harder to get him interested in a food toy. If you want to try it, start feeding your dog meals instead of free feeding, and/or put more exciting food in the toy. That’s a good idea anyway; some pieces of cheese or beef jerky for example will generally serve to get your dog very interested in the toy.)

Cricket with foot on Kong

Cricket knew how to roll around a food toy too!

Put the toy where your dog can see or find it (the dog in my movie is almost blind, but has been taught to seek out goodies with her nose). When the dog starts to interact with the toy, refrain from “helping” or even talking to her very much. The goal is for her to discover for herself that she can get food out of the toy.

You can see in the movie that the first toy I chose for Kaci was just a little too hard. Rather than sitting down and doing it “for” her, we quit with that one and I found an easier toy so she could do every step by herself.

Once your dog gets the hang of one toy, the next one will be a little easier even if it’s a little harder, if you get my meaning. Your dog will understand the concept better and be ready to try things. She learned some persistence and different behaviors to get the food out of the first toy; she can do more this time.

The Movie

The star of the movie, Kaci, is 15 years old, diabetic, and almost completely blind. She has a very small amount of early stage canine cognitive dysfunction. Yet she is currently learning how to get food out of different toys and also how to find hidden food by smell (nosework).

The movie shows how I introduced a couple different food toys.

Keep in mind: the idea at this stage is not to “challenge” your dog. Make it fun: use tasty food and make sure it’s easy to get out. That way your dog will be thrilled next time you get a toy out. You have plenty of time to add difficulty later.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

No Down Side

As I say on the treatment page, there is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction. There are no silver bullets. The beneficial effects shown by some interventions have not been dramatic, including the effects of enrichment. However, there is no down side to enriching your dog’s life with food toys and other stimulation, as long as the activities are safe and supervised. Even if they don’t slow down dementia one bit, your dog is getting to do something interesting and fun in the moment.

Related Resources

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Other movies starring Kaci when she was younger (just because she’s so cute):