If every dog in the world could be given one toy, I think the Kong would be the way to go. A Kong toy is shaped somewhat like a rounded rubber pyramid with a hollow center. Kongs are durable, with three chewing “levels,” red for beginners, black for tough chewers, and blue Kongs which are the toughest level and are available only through veterinarians because they are radio opaque (which means it will show up on an x-ray if the dog swallows it).
Kong toys are extremely durable, which means they can go from the microwave to the freezer to the dishwasher and back again without breaking down. They stand up well to almost every dog, provided you choose the right size and hardness level for your dog’s tenacity of chewing. Kong toys bounce erratically when thrown and provide a great chew toy.
The thing that puts a Kong toy head and tails above the competition, though, is their hollow center. Kong toys can be stuffed with an amazing variety of food items. For dogs who are left home alone all day, I think food bowls should be banned and meals should come entirely from Kong toys.
Dogs who are fed kibble can have the kibble stuffed into a Kong toy which is hung from a tree branch or other sturdy object (have the bigger hole in the Kong facing upward), so that the dog must leap into the air and knock at the Kong to release his meal. Alternatively, kibble can be mixed with just a spoonful of canned food, yogurt, cottage cheese, or other healthy “wet” food and spooned into the Kong, then the entire Kong placed in the freezer. The dog must then work extra hard to remove her frozen meal when the Kong is delivered. Multiple Kong toys can be stuffed with the dog’s meal portions and hidden throughout the house, so that the dog must spend his day hunting down and “dissecting” his Kong-kills. Dogs who like to destroy or chew things can have their energy harnessed into a positive outlet by sealing Kong toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes, although you will have a shredded mess to clean up later on (and such dogs may be better served by crate training to prevent destruction, see below for details). A machine that dispenses four Kongs randomly during a period of four or eight hours was available for sale for a short period of time, and may still be found for sale by a diligent buyer.
Crated dogs especially need the mental enrichment provided by a Kong toy during their confinement. My dogs run into their crates in the morning and wait impatiently for me to leave, because they know their Kong goodies will not be delivered until I’m ready to head out for the day. Frozen Kongs make my dogs extra eager for me to go and make the crates into a positive place to spend the day. Dogs who are not yet entirely comfortable with the idea of a crate can be encouraged to spend time in an open crate by tying a stuffed Kong toy at the back of the crate (make sure to supervise your dog while doing this, but do not try to lock him or her in the crate: your goal is to create positive associations with the kennel, not trick your dog into getting trapped).
Dogs who are fed raw, home cooked, or canned diets can get even more enjoyment out of getting their food from a Kong. This is because these diets usually contain much more moisture which makes them ideal for freezing solid.
Melted cheese can be another great addition to a kong toy. A Kong can be filled with a small amount of cheese along with some kibble or other dry tidbits, placed in a microwave-safe cup, and heated in the microwave until the cheese melts. Allow plenty of time to cool before giving it to your dog, or place directly in the freezer for an especially tough-to-remove treat.
Many dogs are reluctant to work at a Kong toy at first, especially if the toys are packed in such a way that food is difficult to remove. For these dogs, try layering the Kong toy to make it especially rewarding to work on. Simply alternate layers of wet food with layers of dry tidbits, then freeze the kong or serve to the dog directly. After just a small amount of licking to swallow the wet layer of food, the dog will reach a dry layer. This will make a bunch of treats suddenly fall out of the Kong. Jackpot! Usually this dry layer jackpot is enough to renew the dog’s interest in the Kong, and he will soon begin licking and slurping at the next layer. After just a few moments, another dry layer will appear, and so on.
When using “wet” or moist food in the Kong toy, there are lots of options so be creative. For dogs who are not used to rich foods, use common sense in introducing new foods and start with small amounts to be sure the dog can tolerate the food. Some ideas to try include canned food (both dog and cat food), meat flavoured baby food, rice, potatoes, cream cheese (use low fat varieties for most dogs), cheese whiz, peanut butter, Braunschweiger (this is very rich so a little goes a long way), leftover cooked veggies (especially gooey veggies such as cooked spinach or squash), tuna, raw ground meat such as hamburger or ground pork, cooked ground meat, canned salmon, canned Jack Mackeral, gravy, beef or chicken broth, oatmeal, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Dry tidbits are even easier to experiment with. Try various types of dog or cat kibble and treats, small pieces of pepperoni or lunch meat, strings of string cheese, cheerios or other breakfast cereal, bread crumbs, croutons, beef sticks, or healthy leftovers from your meals.
For dogs who have become really talented at “destuffing” a Kong toy, try using a dry dog biscuit that is slightly bigger around than the large opening of your dog’s Kong toy. Bend the toy by squeezing it so that the hole lengthens in one directions, allowing you to slip the biscuit into the Kong. Once you stop squeezing the sides of the toy, the biscuit will be “stuck” inside the Kong and will not fall out easily. At this point the only way for your dog to get the biscuit loose will be to either break the biscuit into smaller pieces (which can be done by chomping down HARD on the Kong or by throwing the toy about the room), or by licking at the treat until it becomes soggy and crumples apart. Be prepared to help your dog remove the tightly lodged biscuit using a pair of pliers if it proves too difficult and is driving your dog nuts!
There are certainly other brands of toys that resemble Kongs available, but the Kong is the “original” toy and is the one that seems to work best for most dogs. There is one Kong knock-off on the market which may be of interest to some people though, and that is the “Squirrel Dude” toy manufactured by Premier. This tough purple toy (yes, it resembles a squirrel) improves on the Kong design by adding four small rubber prongs which line the inside of the toy’s hole. The reason these prongs are a nice feature is because they make it much harder to get food back out of a Kong toy once you’ve stuffed it in. A Squirrel Dude toy is not for a beginner to puzzle stuffing, but can provide a nice challenge to dogs for whom a Kong toy no longer gives any challenge. The Squirrel Dude toys can be further customized by lopping off one or more of the rubber prongs with a sharp pair of scissors, so that you can customize the toy’s level of difficulty.
To clean your dog’s Kongs out, use the cleaning brushes that can be used for baby bottles, or just scrub around inside the opening with your fingers. Kongs are dishwasher safe, but be warned that tightly lodged food can easily sneak through an entire dishwashing cycle. Make sure your dog’s Kongs are cleaned regularly to prevent food from spoiling. Now, go throw out your dog’s food bowls and start feeding from Kongs instead!