Using Snuffle Mats
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a professional dog trainer. Any comments or observations below come from personal experience in training my own dog and receiving input from various professional, reputable dog trainers. Please feel free to do your own research on line or contact dog trainers for their input. Snuffle mats are not a cure for all bad behaviors and may not be effective with every dog.
Snuffle mats are a great brain engagement tool for dogs. They are not toys but can be used as rewards. Many trainers use snuffle mats to calm and focus a dog. Some use them to slow down a dog who gobbles food too quickly. Brain-work can be just as physically demanding as going on a long walk or play time so snuffle mats are an excellent way to keep a dog on physical restrictions, such as after surgery or injury, from going stir crazy.
Most dogs will get the idea of using a snuffle mat quickly, but if you have a dog who likes to pull things apart (which is one indication of boredom, keep reading below) then a brief introductory period may be in order. To start, sprinkle a few treats on top of the mat and don’t shake them down into the fluff. Let the dog get the treats, praise him and remove the mat before any destruction starts. Repeat this a few times, testing to see how long you can leave the mat down before the dog attempts to start pulling at the fleece. Once it appears that the dog is learning that the mat is the delivery device for the treats and is not attempting to tear apart the fleece, you can start burying the treats farther into the mat. You can add a “search” or similar verbal cue to the snuffle mat as well.
While I have not yet heard of any dog completely tearing apart the mat when introduce properly, any dog is capable of it so it is not recommended that the mat be left down all the time, especially with no treats in it.
My own dog, a Belgian Tervuren, strikes fear in the heart of squeaky toys everywhere and I don’t even bother to buy him toys with appendages because they don’t last any longer than it takes me to remove the price tag. Yet with his snuffle mat, once he has thoroughly cleaned out all the treats, he lays down with his head on it and goes to sleep.
At a recent agility trial, I donated a snuffle mat for the volunteer raffle. The winner of my mat had never heard of snuffle mats before and carried away her prize with a little bit of skepticism. The next afternoon she came to my booth, all smiles. She said her dog has never been quiet in the staging area, but “screams” the whole time in her kennel. She used the mat that morning with some of her dog’s favorite treats and her dog was totally quiet the whole time they waited for their run. She was so happy and said she wished she had known about snuffle mats long ago! I have had many agility trainers make bulk purchases for their students, recommending them strongly for focusing and calming dogs in the high stimulus situations of agility trials.
Food aggression is always a question with multiple dogs using one snuffle mat. Please use your best judgement or seek the advice of a reputable trainer if you have (or suspect you have) a dog capable of food aggression before using one mat with multiple dogs. If they all get along though, having one mat for several dogs can be fun to watch. I’ve had some people tell me their dogs all circle the mat in unison trying to find the treats first. The funniest multiple dog story I’ve heard so far is from a friend who owns my dog’s sister (a Belgian Tervuren), as well as a Belgian Malinois and an aging Border Collie. She placed the mat full of treats on the floor and let them all go at it. They started figuring out that there were treats in the mat and all of sudden the Malinois grabbed the mat and took off with it! She called me up shortly thereafter and ordered another mat…
Boredom is a problem in a lot of dogs that seems to go unrecognized. It is obvious that high-energy, high-drive dogs such as herding breeds or hunting breeds need a job to do otherwise they will turn destructive or develop bad behaviors. Even the companion breed dogs however need something to do. Walks are great, but what about when it is too hot in summer or knee-deep in snow in winter? Chew toys can help, but they don’t work the brain. All that excess brain energy turns into chewing furniture, chewing walls, marking inappropriately, obsessive behaviors, anything they can find to do. Interactive toys and games are a great way to dissipate that excess brain energy. Snuffle mats are just another interactive game to use that brain energy with the added plus that they are quiet and pretty to look at! Dogs on physical restriction due to age, injury or surgery especially need that kind of outlet for the energy that they have, particularly if they were active dogs to begin with. I’ve had many trainers tell me that for dogs, a good brain workout is just as effective as a long, physically exhausting walk.