Contrafreeloading: Why Dogs May Actually Prefer to Work for Their Food | Pupford

April 5th, 2023

Filed under Pet Parenting

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Most dog parents are very well aware that their dogs are highly foot motivated. In fact, a good amount would probably say their dog goes out of their way to gobble up any food in sight.

Which is why a lot of people are surprised when we drop this fun fact on them: dogs would rather work for their food than not.

Don’t believe us? See for yourself.

Give your dog a choice between easily accessible food (ex: in a bowl) and food that requires work (ex: a puzzle feeder) and see what happens. Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Welcome back. Were we right?

It’s not that we’re mindreaders over here, it’s just that this behavior is backed by research and has proven to be true over and over again.

And it has a name – contrafreeloading.


dog ready to eat food

Let’s take a look at the term “contrafreeloading” from a linguistics standpoint.

Contra = against

Freeloading = to take without doing anything in return

Makes sense right? Now let’s apply it in a behavioral sense, specifically when it comes to feeding.

Contrafreeloading, put simply, is the behavior where an animal chooses food that requires effort over identical food that doesn’t require effort.

This concept was first explored in 1963 by Glen Jensen, who looked at the behavior across different animal species. His research and related studies found that dogs tend to display contrafreeloading behaviors consistently.

Interested in learning more about Glen Jensen’s theories? You can read the full study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.


dog puzzle to eat food

It may sound out of character, and frankly just a little weird, for dogs to prefer working for their food. But it starts to make sense when you take a deeper look at dogs on an instinctual level.

While domesticated dogs may have food readily available to them, that was not always the case with wild dogs. That’s why dogs have it ingrained in their DNA to look for food – a term we call “foraging.”

Because foraging is an instinct for dogs, their brains are actually wired to enjoy it. That’s what would keep them motivated to continue searching for food in tough conditions or when food has been hard to find.

So, believe it or not, this brain-wiring allows dogs to enjoy the act of searching for food more than the food itself. This was further backed by a study by Professor Robert Sapolsky who measured dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) levels in animals when searching for a reward.

His experiments found that dopamine levels were actually higher when the subjects were searching for the reward rather than obtaining the reward. The anticipation was causing the excitement more so than the reward itself.

So while it may seem like your dog gets really happy and excited over their food, most of the excitement isn’t just coming from the food itself.


dog eating food out of kong because they like to work for their food

Knowing that contrafreeloading is an innate behavior for our dogs, makes a lot of other behaviors and tendencies make sense.

Take enrichment, for example.

If you’re not familiar with dog enrichment, take a moment to check out our article A-Z Guide to Mental Enrichment for Dogs.

We know that food puzzles, hand feeding, and enrichment tools are exceptional for our dogs’ physical and mental health. But understanding the science behind why they are so great allows you to be more intentional with your enrichment offerings.

Enrichment activities aren’t just amusing for your dog, or a way for them to get treats, they actually activate the pleasure center in your dog’s brain that’s responsible for releasing dopamine.

In other words, dogs who are given regular enrichment opportunities are happier, get more stimulation, and literally feel better overall.


dog eating their dinner out of a snuffle mat

So how can we apply the principles of contrafreeloading through enrichment activities with our dogs?

There are plenty of great options for enrichment toys and activities, so you can definitely find one that fits your dog’s size, breed, and personality.

Here are some of our favorites:

  • Snuffle mats – These mats have soft strips and folds to hide treats or food, so dogs have to sniff and search for their reward. They are fantastic for working with your dog’s natural sniffing and foraging instincts. We love snuffle mats as an alternative to bowls for giving full meals, too!
  • Lick mats – Lick mats are not only a great distraction for grooming and bathing, but they're also great enrichment tools. Simply spread your dog’s favorite treat, freeze for an added challenge, and let them lick through the bumps and grooves to get their goodies. There are so many tasty and nutritious lick mat recipes out there, so your dog will never get bored.
  • Puzzle feeders and stuffable toys – There are so many enrichment toys that provide safe yet challenging ways for your dog to sniff, lick, paw, and nudge their way to treats. We recommend having a variety of toys on hand to keep your dog stimulated with a new challenge.
  • Treat hide and seek – No toys on hand, no problem! You can play treat hide and seek with what you have in your environment. Take your dog out of the room, hide a few treats among toys, in their crate, under their favorite blanket, etc., and let their nose guide them to the goods.
  • Hand feeding – Ditch the bowl! Use your dog’s dinner as a reward during a training session or a walk so they have to work for every bite. This is a great option for dogs who require a lot of training repetitions, but there are benefits of hand feeding that apply to all dogs.
  • DIY – You can turn almost anything into an enrichment tool for your dog. Towels, paper towel rolls, muffin tins, and more can all be turned into brain games for your dog. Check out our mental enrichment guide for DIY mental enrichment games that use things you likely have within arm’s reach right now!

Want to unlock even more enrichment activities for your dog? We have an entire course in the Pupford Academy, Enrichment Activities, that unlock step-by-step instructions for 22 activities designed to get your dog’s brain working. Check it out here!


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