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Contra freeloading may seem like a complicated term, when all it really means is working for food. No, this doesn't mean your dog should start working for a fast-food chain to earn a living nor does it mean that you'll have to put your dog on a strict no-free lunch program where he will have to work for you to earn every single piece of kibble. 

What is Contra Freeloading?

Contra freeloading is a term that was first coined by animal psychologist Glen Jensen in 1963.  This term is used to depict the phenomenon of animals choosing food that requires some effort to obtain versus food that is offered freely. 

Jensen conducted a study involving 200 rats where they were given the choice between food offered freely in a bowl and food offered in a food dispenser which required the rats to step on a metal bar several times for the food to be dispensed. 

Interestingly, the rats preferred the food dispenser option over the food easily obtained through the food bowl. 

Jensens' studies were backed up by several other experiments which obtained similar results. The choice of working for the food was also observed across a variety of species including rats, birds, fish, monkeys and even dogs. 

Surprisingly, only one animal went against the trend and that was the domesticated cat! This suggests that cats rather be served than work for their food. 

Possibly, the fact of being venerated by the Egyptians many centuries ago where they were dressed in jewels and fed goodies fit for royalty, caused cats to feel just a level above. Cats therefore earn the title of "nature’s freeloaders."

Contra Freeloading in Wild Versus Captive Animals

The interesting fact about contra freeloading is that it contradicts the belief that, given the choice, an animal chooses the path of least resistance.

 This ‘principle of least effort’ makes sense in the wild as it demonstrates a drive to minimize energy expenditure, as often observed when predators decide to hunt for the weakest and most vulnerable.

However, things change in a captive setting. Captive animals find contra freeloading helpful because it it allows them carry out species-specific behaviors and it fills a behavior vacuum due to the lack of stimulation in their non-natural environments. 

In a zoo environment, therefore, offering food dispensers helps satisfy the captive animals' natural desire to forage. Contra freeloading therefore helps improve the animal welfare in zoos, providing them with the environmental enrichment they need. 

This allows animals to burn physical energy in positive, productive ways reducing boredom, and therefore, reducing the development of abnormal, stereotypical behaviors.

Food-Seeking Behaviors in Dogs 

While dogs are no longer wild animals nor are they captive animals, we must admit that domestication has caused significant changes in their lives. 

 Enclosed within four walls or in a small yard for most of their day, and fed food readily available from a bag, dogs receive less mental stimulation and enrichment in their modern-day lives.

This is in great contrast with their past as hunters and scavengers, when most of their time was spent in time consuming food-seeking behaviors. These food-seeking behaviors involved several components such as searching, sniffing, stalking, pouncing, chasing, digging, dissecting, and of course, eating. 

The Power of the Pursuit

Did you know? Researchers have have found two main motives at play when animals are working for a reward like food. 

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The first one is the extrinsic motivation — that is, the motivation to gain the actual reward, and the second is intrinsic motivation, that is, the satisfied feeling of achievement animals feel when they're working for that reward.

The effort in pursuing food is intrinsically rewarding because it creates positive feelings in dogs as the reward centers in their brains are activated.

"Just as animals may find work or effort rewarding, they may find lack of meaningful work or activity to be stressful or boring," point out Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce in their book: "Unleashing Your Dog, A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible."

Working for food is therefore reinforcing at many levels. Animal studies have indeed found that increased dopamine levels in the brain occur in anticipation of a reward. 

"Dopamine is about the anticipation of pleasure, it's about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself" says Robert Sapolsky in a presentation. So turns out it's more about the "thrill of the hunt". 

Careful in providing your dog with weak, flimsy food-dispensing dogs which may be broken apart and eaten. 

Careful in providing your dog with weak, flimsy food-dispensing dogs which may be broken apart and eaten. 

How Contra Freeloading Can Benefit Your Dog

Contra freeloading offers several benefits for dogs. Following are jus a few examples of how your dog may benefit from working for his food. 

Firstly, it's self-reinforcing, considering that, when dogs work for their food, they get a hit of dopamine, the "feel good neurotransmitter," that is released from the pleasure center of the brain. 

Secondly, contra freeloading helps alleviate boredom and keeps the brain stimulated. When the brain is stimulated and the dog is entertained, there are less chances for the dog to engage in undesirable behaviors. 

Thirdly, working for food can help insecure dogs feel like they need to have some sense of control over their own environment. Studies have revealed that animal who were able to obtain food through pushing a lever, grew up to be more self-confident, more exploratory, and less anxious. 

Troubleshooting Contra Freeloading Problems

Contra freeloading is at the opposite spectrum of free-feeding, the practice of leaving out food for the dog at all times. Free-feeding is known for decreasing the value of food.

However, in some cases, dogs may not welcome contra freeloading as readily as thought. Why is that? In this case, it helps to troubleshoot the issue and try to find the underlying cause. Here is a cheat sheet. 

Is the food puzzle too hard to solve? Some dogs have always been fed from food bowls so they have no idea what to do with a food-dispensing toy such as a Kong or Kong Wobbler.  It may help to make getting the food out easier by filling the Kong loosely so that food comes out readily when moved, while filling a Kong Wobbler to full capacity can help kibble come out more easily when gently tipped. A Toppl treat toy by West Paw can be used as an introductory puzzle since it's much easy to empty.  

Is the dog afraid of the food-dispensing toy? Sometimes some fearful, sensitive dogs may  react to the puzzles with fear. In these cases, enrichment needs to be introduced gradually, in a safe manner. For instance, with a Kong Wobbler, it may help to place treats around it at first without moving it. Then, we can move the toy gently and give treats, then move the toy more where it disperses some treats and then see if the dog will move it on his own. 

Is the dog bored of the food -dispensing toy? Research by Taylor and Mills 2007, has revealed that dogs have a tendency to lose interest in or habituate to enrichment toys over time. Rotating toys on a routine basis helps maintain interest alive. You can feed food in Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Toppl treat toys, hidden in snuffle mats, inside plastic bottles (with no lid on or labels) and offered in frozen ice cubes or metal muffin tins.

Is the dog breaking the food-dispensing toy? Avoid food-dispensing toys that are weak and flimsy as they can be easily torn apart and ingested. Kongs and Kong Wobblers are generally rather sturdy toys. The black Kong Xtreme is specifically designed for powerful chewers.

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