Stimulating the dog's brain - with a "Chinese Treat Box"


Here is what it takes to keep your dog busy, working at a task that makes tremendous sense for it: figuring out how to get treats out of a cardboard box!

Get a cardboard box of a reasonable size. It is best if the box is too big for the dog to grab and carry, but be also aware that a fairly big box is also quite easy for the dog to destroy.

Notice the holes. 4-6 of them will be adequate for start - and their size should be about twice the size of the 10-15 treats you put into the box. If you put them in through the holes after closing the box with tape, you can easily test also if they come out as they should. Holes closer to the corners and edges of the box have a much greater chance of being "found" by a treat inside that is thrown around by the box moving. Holes close to the center of the side of the box will not let treats escape very easily.

Before you give the box to the dog, you should test that the treats actually do come out when you roll the box on the kitchen counter... One treat for every 5-10 seconds will be fine for most dogs, but you are better off with them coming out a bit faster, compared to too slowly.

If the treats take too long to get out, you simply adjust the size of the holes. Cut them bigger. If if goes too fast, cover them partially with strong tape.

When you tested your box and have it "charged" with some 10-15 treats, you get the dog's attention, and then give it the command to get the treats as you hand it the box.

Watching Bettemuir get the treats from the box

Bettemuir got her command (= permission to go for her treats) and now checks the box for any easy access to the treats. She knows the smell of baked liver treats, and she knows that those treats are hers - if she can find a way to get them out...

For a first time experience, you might have to help your dog get started on rolling the box, particularly if it gives up without getting any treats. If the treats are truly delicious and the dog is fairly hungry, you should not have to help it with more than 3-5 treats - then it should figure out how to do this on its own. All you really need to do is to roll the box for the dog, so some treats will come out. The dog is smart enough to figure out the rest from there...

For the purpose of mental activation, it really does not matter how the dog will get the box to deliver its treats. Some dogs will push the box around with the nose. Other dogs will use the paws to roll it. Some will try to tear it apart with their teeth. (Some might bark at the box - but since that reaction will not give results, it will soon get eliminated again, so don't worry if it happens.)

The box is moving for Bettemuir now, and she spotted the first treat, so she is strongly encouraged to continue!

Realizing that the treats don't come out voluntarily, Bettemuir starts to work on the box. She already figured that treats come from underneath it, so she better check that again... She has been trained first with a ball, so she has learned to use her paws to roll the ball towards herself when it comes underneath a piece of furniture where she can no longer push it. You can see how she tries to use that same successful technique her on the box too when it is too slow to release the treats. It is not quite as simple with a box like this, though! Balls move at the slightest touch, but this thing is far more stubborn than a ball.

This is not easy! And the dog has no clue what exactly it takes to get the treats out. After pushing the box a few times with the nose across the floor, she is taking a break to contemplate her next move. You can see how she is putting some very serious thought into a plan for getting those treats out of the box...

With her usual treat ball, things were much simpler - it was just a matter of pushing the ball around with the nose! But that technique obviously does not work with this box, so she has to figure a different way of solving the problem...

Going back to her "paw-pull" technique that so often has made her ball "behave" again, she tried to roll the box with her paws once again - and got another treat, so she is convinced now! This was what it took to make her believe that she can get more by rolling the box with her paws, so she is motivated now!

She repeatedly grabs the box with a paw as you see on the picture, and pulls the paw vigorously towards herself, sometimes even making the box spin in the air or roll several meters along the floor. But with only two holes, she has to do this 10-15 times before a treat is lucky enough to be thrown out of one of the holes...

The technique nevertheless worked - she was soon rewarded with another treat. And from there, thing went pretty wild... She was excited!

Sometimes, the box did not roll very far - she just hit herself with it. But you don't need to win all the time. A "jackpot" once in a while will do for your continuing the game! Liver treats obviously count as "jackpots".

You can see how focussed she is on the task, paying no attention to me being close with the camera. She is definitely enjoying this!

The ears clearly indicate that she is puzzled, regardless her success and determination. Her brain is working hard! The ears are not standing right up but are pushed a little down and out to the side. This tells that she does not really feel fully in control of the situation - which is exactly what I wanted: she is working with her brain to solve this problem, and her ears are showing that she is indeed working.

The entire point of this exercise is to give the dog a challenge. I think the pictures tell quite clearly how much more value you get out of a few treats given to the dog this way instead of just giving them to the dog for it being cute...

Here is the result after half an hour's workout. Even her old treat ball could not tempt her to get back to work, so we talk about some serious mental exhaustion here.... (the treat ball still contained a few treats!)

Just for comparison, you can see her normal ear position when she is relaxed: the tips are pointing almost straight up, only slightly slanted, but certainly not out to the side as they did when she was working.

Give it a try with your own dog - you will both have fun!

More pictures - 2 months later...

If you want to learn more about teaching your dog fun stuff to stimulate its brain, you should join me on a camp course!

Or maybe you would like me to come to your place and do a seminar or some workshops for your association? My seminar/workshop "Mental Activation for Smart Dogs" would not only give you all the knowledge, but also have you try out meaningful exercises with your own dog, so you can learn how to get the most out of your knowledge.

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