Contrafreeloading: What It Is & Why Dogs Love It

There is a scientific reason behind why dogs find food puzzles and treat dispensers so enjoyable. It’s called contra-freeloading, and it’s the driving force behind animal enrichment.

Contrafreeloading is when an animal has a choice of putting in the effort to get food or helping itself to freely available food, it will choose to work for the food reward.

For example, animal psychologist Glen Jenson gave 200 rats the choice between food in a bowl and identical food that they could get from pressing a metal bar. Nearly every single rat chose to get the food by bar pressing.

The 1963 study found that animals preferred to work for food even when more accessible food sources were present. As such, earned food was a greater reward than freely available food.

Another study published in the 1969 issue of Science titled, “Animals respond for food in the presence of free food” got the same result using pigeons. This behavior has been also observed in rats, giraffes, gerbils, pigs, chickens, parrots, bears, starlings, chimpanzees, wolves, and, of course, dogs!

Why choose the option that requires more effort?

dog using dog puzzle. contrafreeloading

The contrafreeloading phenomenon is primarily seen in captive animals and domesticated animals in homes (with the exception of domesticated cats — go figure). They are acting on species-specific animal behaviours that their wild counterparts rely on.

There is a relatively sad reason behind this. Zoo animals in captivity and housepets don’t always get adequate environmental enrichment, so when presented with stimuli — aka something to do — it makes sense that they would choose the more fulfilling action over the “principle of least effort” (the easy option).

It goes to show just how important enrichment is for overall animal welfare.

Bottom line: Ditch the bowl

puzzle race

Nina Ottosson’s philosophy is that dogs have four legs and one head, and all five need exercise in different ways daily, both physically and mentally. A traditional food bowl won’t get those mental wheels turning. Dog puzzles and enrichment games accomplish just that, keeping your pup happy, healthy, and sufficiently stimulated.

A little dopamine goes a long way. The anticipation of food dogs get while using natural food-seeking behaviors triggers that positive reward center in their brains. Loving pet parents give them that outlet with enrichment games and food puzzles.

Take a look at the zoo animals that use our puzzles, too!

Puzzles for your dog (or bird, gerbil, chicken, or pig!) to get its forage on

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