Why I don't recommend the "Carrot Game"
There are many videos doing the rounds at the moment of people playing "catch the carrot" with their dogs. This "game" where a carrot (or a Vienna sausage) is poked through one of multiple holes in a cardboard box to entice the dog to grab it, before it is snatched back again, only to appear out another hole, is being suggested as a good lock-down boredom buster.
While I understand that the vast majority of people playing this game are doing so with the best of intentions, I have to say that my gut recoiled at the very first video I saw of it a while back and every one I have seen since has only confirmed my initial reaction.
If you are wondering why, it is because my job is to observe body language and understanding what it says about a dog's emotional state. What I see in most videos is one of two responses from dogs:
1. Frustration, escalating to irritation and anger
2. Discontent, resulting in giving up (temporary depression)
This is not unexpected, because these are the two emotional pathways triggered (depending on individual temperament and past experience) when an expected reward is denied or removed (negative punishment). Tempting a dog with food and then snatching it away, is offering an expected reward and then removing it. The dog is negatively punished for trying to get the food and eventually becomes despondent and gives up or gets frustrated and escalates their behaviour (snatching, grabbing the box etc.). These are not emotions that we want to create in our dogs and they are certainly not healthy emotions for dogs to have around food. Yes, in most cases, the dog is eventually rewarded for grabbing at the carrot by catching it, but do we really want to teach our dogs that the best way to get food is to snatch it as fast as possible?
Perhaps this game was originally thought up for cats and for cats and it could be very different. Firstly, cats don't regard carrots as food and secondly, cats are designed to hunt and fail repeatedly, yet still enjoy the process. Hunting (and missing) games are far more suitable for cats. Dogs, on the other hand, are primarily scavengers and their tolerance for frustration around food acquisition is not in any way comparable to that of cats.
If what I am saying sounds a bit odd, try to picture this game without the box. Picture it just with someone offering a food item to a dog and then pulling it away. Picture them offering food in their hand and then closing their hand when the dog tried to take it. Would that be okay? I would guess most people would call that "teasing" the dog - something we all know not to do. Is adding a box to the equation really changing what is actually going on? I don't believe so.
We are all trying to do our best for our dogs at this time and I don't believe that anyone is intentionally trying to be mean or tease their dogs. I do think that we can find better ways of entertaining them though - ways that encourage good emotions through positive reinforcement training, feeding enrichment and playing with toys - where we can reduce frustration, rather than create it.