this thing's incredible

My Dog’s Favorite Toy Looks Like a Salad Bowl (and Costs Less Than Sweetgreen)

Photo: Peter with his salad bowl

My dog is obsessed with sniffing. Every inch of pavement is interesting to him; every leaf needs an in-depth investigation. Because I’m a sucker and he knows it, he’ll frequently coax me into letting him linger on walks, taking his time sniffing, searching, and obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic in a way that I do understand is obnoxious and I apologize. But I love to see my little sleuth at work.

Regrettably, I cannot carry the sidewalk into my apartment for dog entertainment purposes, and please believe me that I would if I could. But I have found another, more attainable way to let my dog sniff and search. Another way to let him indulge his great, powerful doggy nose. Another way to allow him, and in turn me, to feel a brief bit of joy in the darkness that is the modern era. And that is … by letting him play with this thing that looks like a big felt salad bowl. It’s called a snuffle mat.

Peter (yes, my dog’s name is Peter) and I were turned onto the snuffle while researching dog sports for my forthcoming book. We took a scent work (otherwise known as nosework) class at a local dog-training center. It’s a sport that turns a dog’s excellent nose and love of sniffing into a scent-finding game, and Peter was absolutely batshit crazy about it. He’d completely flip out every time it was his turn to search through a series of plastic containers for a treat. Between turns, our instructor told us to break up a treat and hide it in the folds of a towel, to keep the dogs actively sniffing and occupied while they waited. The towel, she explained, would function as sort of a makeshift snuffle mat. “A makeshift what?” I asked.

A snuffle mat is a mat with a bunch of fabric tied to it. (More or less.) Yes, the key to allowing your dog to feel happiness is truly that simple. You, the human, hide kibble or treats in the mat’s fabric strips, before letting your dog loose in search of them. Then they sniff and chomp, sniff and chomp, immediately rewarded for their food-finding efforts. Its main use in our house is fun and mental stimulation, particularly during these cooped-up pandemic times, but the mats can also keep fast-scarfing dogs from eating their food too quickly, which aids in digestion. They’re sort of like a puzzle, but not a puzzle that seems like it’s taunting you with how annoying and difficult it is — a puzzle that is fun.

What I have is technically a snuffle bowl, a twist on the more common flat-lying snuffle mat. I do not know why it looks like a salad, but I will say that I chose it specifically because it does. “Now we can both have salad,” I thought. After I prepare the snuffle bowl for Peter’s enjoyment, usually with a mix of kibble and pieces of a broken-up treat, I say, “Wait. Wait.” He waits and waits. He’s very patient. And when it is time for him to search I give the command, “Search!,” which leaves him scrambling like a cartoon, a puff of smoke behind him, eager to get his sweet little snout right in that salad-looking bowl.

Then he is occupied, having fun, wagging his tail, searching in his felt bowl, sometimes for as many as ten minutes! It is a dream. After he finds all of his kibble and treats, he bounds over to me, his little mouth encrusted with dog-food dust, and looks up at me with eyes that can one mean one thing: “CAN YOU PLEASE FILL UP THE SALAD AGAIN?????”

And the answer, of course, is yes.

Some (non-salad bowl) snuffle mats

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My Dog’s Favorite Toy Looks Like a Salad Bowl