The Root of the Behavior
When a dog in the wild made a "kill" or a discovery of a left behind meal, he would eat his fill. But often there was more food than he could eat in one sitting. Out of logical necessity, the dog would often bury the remaining food in a secret location, so he could return and finish it at a later date. Though our modern dogs have no need to fear hunger or to bury their food, this instinct remains powerfully strong within them. It may be that at the time you place Fido's food in front of him, he's just not hungry. But he smells all of that delicious goodness that you lovingly selected just for him, and he definitely wants to enjoy it at a later date. Nosing the food around is your dog's attempt to "hide" or store the food away for consumption at a later time. This seems confusing to us because often Fido's attempts at hiding his food are pathetically poor from our perspective!
Encouraging the Behavior
Of course, a hungry dog always eats when presented with food. It is possible if your dog is consistently playing with his food at meal times that he is receiving too many treats throughout the day or is overfed in general. Consult the feeding guidelines listed on your bag of dog food to ensure you are feeding Fido the correct amount for his age, weight, and activity level. When your dog is seemingly disinterested at meal times on a consistent basis, it is also wise to consider if there have been any recent changes to his health. Loss of appetite is a symptom of many more serious illnesses, and it could be time for a trip to your veterinarian for a thorough examination to rule out any medical issues. Some experts suggest that vision may play a role in food play. As dogs age and their sight begins to deteriorate, they have a harder time being able to see their food. Rooting around in their dish allows them to locate it and rearrange it, so that is more easily accessible to them.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Limiting Fido's access to food to a restricted amount of time before removing it for another time will help him to realize that he has a job to do, and his job is to eat when his food is put in front of him. Free feeding may also be a contributing factor to this problem. A structured, consistent mealtime schedule will be very helpful in establishing what is expected at meal times. For most families, food play is simply a funny little quirk that helps make Fido who he is! Our dogs do have personalities all their own. It's one of the great joys of dog ownership!