The unexpected biscuits

by Gautam Raja

When I was young I would often have the pleasant task of giving our dogs their biscuits before we retired for the night. These guard-cum-companion dogs had a farm to protect, but they hated to be turned out of the house, hence the biscuit ritual on the porch.

Rather than just tossing them their treats, I’d often make it a game. I’d hide a biscuit under a rug or bowl, or put it high up on a window grille, and watch as they figured out how to get their beloved snack. I would feel a little guilty though, because I’d been taught that to not give a dog food directly was teasing. That it was cruel.

But part of me could see that the dogs loved this game of Hunt the Biscuit. Their ears would prick, their eyes dance, and every fibre of their bodies seemed to join in the hunt. Caeser would look to me, then the biscuit, and when he realised I wasn’t going to help, would run over to explore, figuring out the best way to get it. If this was cruel, he didn’t seem to know it.

Many years later, I know I had the right idea. Making dogs “work” for food is considered an important part of their enrichment. There’s a big market for dog toys and puzzles based on the idea of hiding the food, preferably in plain sight, and letting the dog figure out a way to get it.

Some toys have holes in them that dispense treats as they are rolled. Others have little sliding doors the dog must manipulate. Chew toys can be filled with peanut butter or cream cheese. It’s not teasing since struggling to get at food is natural. In the wild, creatures don’t willingly offer themselves up as meals, and the best parts such as liver, marrow and brain, are the hardest to get to. Food puzzle toys are the domestic equivalents of prey carcass.

Though our dog has several such toys, I rarely let an unwanted cardboard box go without serving as an impromptu puzzle. I put a treat inside, tape it shut and toss it to him. Recently, he got into the box quickly, but because the treats were stuck under the flaps, he couldn’t retrieve them for a long time. Watching him push and shake and tear at the box, it struck me that he never got angry or irritated as a human might have if he tried for so long without apparent progress.

There was no sense in him that he must be an unworthy dog because he couldn’t accomplish such a simple task, and none of the “toxic shame” that follows that thought, none of the anger that’s transferred to the box to distract from that shame. He never needed to explain, ask permission or apologise for his essential doggyness—this was him and he didn’t think there was any other way to be.

And though I had the right idea all those years ago, I didn’t have the confidence to challenge what I was told and make those biscuits even harder to get to. After all, our dogs were German shepherds: animals bred to solve far more complex puzzles involving fields, fences and flocks of sheep.

This is but one of the many beliefs I examine, travelling back and acknowledging the circumstances in which they were forged, and then being unashamed enough to reforge, revalue or reset. The path forwards, it seems, is to unwrap the puzzle inside to find one’s inner “doggyness”, and that, my friends, is like stumbling upon an unexpected biscuit.

First published in Gulf News, December 9, 2014