Teaching your fearful dog to use puzzle toys

If you’ve ever taken a training class or read an article on dog behavior, you’ve probably heard about the importance of work-for-food toys, otherwise known as puzzle toys. Excellent for dogs of all ages, toys that require dogs to work through puzzles to get their food provide both mental and physical stimulation, which are critical for a dog’s emotional health.

However, for fearful, shy dogs, engaging with a puzzle toy may seem intimidating. They may startle at noises the toy makes or be too afraid to investigate something like a treat hidden in a box or egg carton. Fortunately, training these dogs to work for their food not only helps them become pros at puzzle toys, but also teaches them confidence and exploratory skills that will bleed into other parts of a force-free training protocol.

As with any training plan, it’s important to start small. In the following video, I teach Hollie how to interact with a Kong, in addition to helping reduce her startle response and improve her recovery time when something changes in her environment.

A bit of backstory on Hollie: She’s a very fearful pup who is hesitant to investigate things in her environment. Training games like placing treats under boxes, plastic cups or even basic puzzle toys is too scary for her. Her training plan focuses on helping her feel safe in her environment and teaching her coping skills to navigate potentially scary situations. Starting with simple puzzle toys games is an excellent building block.

In the video, you’ll see the following steps:

  1. I desensitize her to the puzzle toy itself (I chose a Kong, which makes minimal noise and is relatively simple to use).
  2. Once she’s comfortable approaching the toy, I place a treat underneath the Kong so she has to knock it over to get her reward. Note that we’re practicing on a soft rubber mat to minimize noise. I repeat this step until she is confident toppling over the Kong.
  3. Next, I place a piece of rawhide on top of the Kong, in addition to the treat underneath the Kong, so she has to create a little more noise and movement to get her reward. This helps her confidence exploring strange looking objects and also improves her startle response/recovery time when the objects topple over.
  4. I add another bone to the puzzle mix. When I notice the puzzle is too scary for her, I make it slightly easier before pushing ahead (what’s known as a “split” in a training plan).
  5. By the end, she’s knocking over a heavy bone and her Kong to get a treat.


Taking the time to teach fearful dogs how to interact with their environment will not only give them a way to burn mental and physical energy – it will give them coping skills for navigating their lives with less stress, too.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog