“But he never finishes all of his food, so I just leave it out so he can eat whenever he wants.” There are many reasons why I don’t agree with free-feeding:
- If my dog ever has a health problem, I cannot accurately say what kind of eating history he has had recently.
- If you have more than one dog (or even cats, for that matter – I have seen cats eat dog food) you cannot regulate who is eating what.
- For puppies, good potty training cannot happen with a pup who eats whatever/whenever s/he wants.
- Dogs who have free feed never realize where their food comes from.
The first three reasons are fairly self-explanatory. It is reason number 4 we will discuss here.
Part of good leadership and respect habits branch from the control of resources: food, water, rest areas, and access to outside. A good leader provides an adequate amount of each; not too much, and definately not too little. Leaders in the canine pack let the others know when they can eat, drink and sleep. We, as human leaders of dogs, don’t need to be so strict, but letting dogs know where the food comes from does help with leadership symbolism. As you will discover through reading these leadership articles (yes, there are more to come) a lot of what dogs know and understand is through many symbolic actions.
By starting to feed a puppy 3 times daily for a specific time period (usually 20 minutes or so) and then removing the food, we are setting a pattern for both:
- You need to eat when it is offered to you and
- You cannot have any more until next time.
Soon, the puppy will understand the concept of mealtimes and look to you at feeding time.
Dogs Don’t Need A Set Mealtime
Contrary to what you may think, dogs do NOT need a set mealtime. This may actually be a blessing to those busy owners with erratic schedules. Dogs do appreciate routine, so feeding within a certain block of time is best (in other words, although you don’t need to feed your dog precisely at 5pm, s/he should be fed somewhere between 4 and 8pm). NOT feeding at a specific time will benefit owners of “pushy” dogs – those who insist by pacing, getting underfoot, nudging, or perhaps barking to you that “It is time to EAT! FEED ME NOW!”. You, as the benevolent leader, stop the pushy pattern of pacing, etc. by telling Spot to go to his place and “chill out” (all dogs should have a place they can go to – more on that later). You can offer Spot a chew, or better yet, teach him to find it for himself – “Where’s your bone?! Go find your bone!”
Many trainers feel owners should eat FIRST (remember, leaders get to do everything first) before the dog(s) are fed. This is a good time to work with “no begging”. Dogs are opportunists, and pushy dogs will insist you feed them from the table.
“Spot, NO – go lie down!” – or crate him during your meal.
Since you, as leader, now control the food resource, you also control the food bowl itself. The food bowl is on loan to your dog. This means you can set down or pick up the bowl whenever you want – without a quarrel from your dog. In some instances, this may be easier said than done. Some puppies and dogs are naturally very protective around their food and will guard it from other dogs, animals and humans. This can be a potentially BIG problem. If you, a child, or another dog invade this dog’s “personal space” around the food bowl (perhaps, just by walking by) the dog may attack. Some people believe a dog should be fed by itself in a separate room. This is fine, unless the routine is broken (“I forgot! I was supposed to fast the dog before surgery tomorrow!”) and someone attempts to take away the bowl.
The biggest rule in my house is; a dog is NEVER allowed to growl at me, let alone snap or bite – under ANY circumstances! I don’t care if I am standing with all my weight on his foot – NEVER allowed to bite!
How do you achieve this with the food bowl?
Start with an empty bowl in your lap, or on the floor by you. (If your dog won’t tolerate even that without a growl or a snap, then STOP reading this and get your dog to a behaviorist FAST!) Have the dog food in another container that only you can reach. If the dog is pushy or unruly, then have another person enforce a “SIT”, so the dog isn’t jumping on you. Dribble a few kibbles into the bowl, remove your hand, and let him eat. If he growls or stares hard during this stage, please stop and see a behaviorist. Dribble a few more kibbles into the bowl and let the dog eat. Then add more, until he has eaten his whole meal – provided by you. Do this for the next several days, or up to a week or more, before moving to the next step. With the next step, you let your hand linger in the bowl a little longer after putting in the food, then longer still after a few days, until your hand is in the bowl while the dog is eating. You can even modify your approach by feeding the kibble from you hand – near, in or over the bowl – until you are feeding kibble from the bowl. At any time during these excercises, if the dogs growls or snaps, take a step backward in the feeding process and work on it for several more days before moving forward again.
The above training is BEST done while the dog is still a puppy! Older dogs can be MUCH more protective and have a lot less inhibition about protecting what they feel is theirs. CAUTION ALWAYS is key when working an excercise like this with an older dog. You may even need help in starting. If so, a professional trainer can guide you through the process.