Contrafreeloading: Why Dogs Often Prefer to Work for Food | Pupford
August 11th, 2023
Filed under Pet Parenting
Most dog parents are very well aware that their dogs are highly food motivated. In fact, a good amount would probably say their dog goes out of their way to gobble up any food in sight.
This 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. This concept is referred to as contrafreeloading.
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 repeatedly.
Let's look at contrafreeloading in detail below. 👇
WHAT IS CONTRAFREELOADING?
Let’s 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 regarding 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.
WHY DOGS CHOOSE TO WORK FOR THEIR FOOD
It may sound out of character, and frankly just a little weird, for dogs to prefer working for their food. But it makes sense when you take a deeper look at dogs instinctually.
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 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.
CONTRAFREELOADING AND ENRICHMENT
Knowing that contrafreeloading is an innate behavior for our dogs, makes a lot of other behaviors and tendencies make sense.
Take enrichment, for example.
Food puzzles, hand feeding, and enrichment tools are exceptional for our dogs’ . 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 activate the pleasure center in your dog’s brain responsible for releasing dopamine.
In other words, dogs given regular enrichment opportunities are happier, get more stimulation, and feel better overall.
ENRICHMENT TOYS AND ACTIVITIES FOR YOUR DOG
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 find one that fits your dog’s size, breed, and personality.
Here are some of our favorites:
- – 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 as an alternative to bowls for giving full meals, too!
- Lick mats – are not only a great distraction for grooming and bathing but 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 , so your dog will never get bored.
- Puzzle feeders and stuffable toys – There are so many 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 requiring a lot of training repetitions, but there are that apply to all dogs.
- DIY – You can turn almost anything into an enrichment tool for your dog. Towels, paper towel rolls, , and more can all be turned into brain games for your dog. Check out our 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, , that unlock step-by-step instructions for 22 activities designed to get your dog’s brain working. Check it out !
Contrafreeloading in the context of dogs helps us understand why enrichment and foraging are so important.
Finding ways to allow your dog to work their mind each day benefits you and your pup! As our dogs exert more mental energy, they're typically calmer and happier overall.
How do you usually give your dog mental exercise? Tell us in the comments.
🐶 Don't miss out, shop our full line of enrichment toys, feeders, and mats. 🐶