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

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 a 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):