Feeding Your Dog: Help him Thrive & Learn

Controlling resources can help you make household rules clear for your dogs. Control the resources and you don’t have to control the dog. The easiest way to start training is to provide things a dog wants to reinforce the choices he makes. Feeding your dog involves providing an important resource for your dog; one that he wants and needs. You buy the food; it’s your choice where you store it and how you feed it to your dogs.

Using your dog’s food in training

Training your dog often involves reinforcing behavior with treats. Training in the quiet of your home may allow you to use your dog’s regular mealtime food to reinforce behavior. Save the higher value treats for training “out in the world” or for more challenging situations. But if there’s always a full bowl of food available, will your dog be willing to work for the same food as reinforcement?

Contrafreeloading: what?

It’s interesting to note that he might. There’s a concept called “contrafreeloading”. It’s when an animal makes the choice to work to get food, even when there’s a bowl of food available that requires no work. Get it? Contra = “the opposite”. Freeloading = “you don’t have to do anything to get the food.” It’s why a lion in a zoo goes after a frozen piece of meat hanging from a tree. Dogs are one species apt to choose contrafreeloading, or “working for their food.” That said, you have to be a good trainer. If you ask your dog to work for all his food and the jobs are too challenging, he’s more likely to go for the “freeloading” food in the bowl! You have to help your dog learn to work the puzzles that give him his food.

Teach your dog to work for his food

Kongs went on the market in 1976 and have been a staple enrichment puzzle ever since. But there are other options, too!

You can prepare your dog to work for his food from the moment you bring him home. Use a Kong or one of the many other food puzzles on the market to feed your puppy or new adult dog at least part of his meal. Let him have fun working out how to get to the food while reducing stress and keeping his little doggie brain occupied for a while. He’ll learn to use his mouth and paws to make the thing hold still while he gets the food out. He’ll engage the problem-solving part of his brain and learn what works to get to his goal. That’s a valuable behavioral asset! Calmly working through a puzzle to get food will prepare him to work through the puzzles you’ll provide for him in training. We call it “working for food”, but it might actually be “playing games for food”. Feeding your dog can be fun!

Make it easy at first

Don’t give your dog a fully stuffed Kong at first. Put a few treats in it and rub some peanut butter or soft cheese around the opening to start him licking. As he moves it around, the treats will fall out and he’ll begin to get the idea. Fill the appropriately-sized Kong loosely at first, so the food falls out easily. As your dog gets better at working the puzzle, he’ll also learn all the fun things he can do with his Kong. Licking, chewing, batting with his paws – it’s a learning process. If you’re making your own enrichment items, start by putting food in an open egg carton or an open box. As your dog learns, close them so they’re easy to open. When he gets more confident about the game, you can close them tightly. Start with a wide-mouthed bottle for your dog to hit with his paws to make food come out. Move toward one with a smaller mouth as he gets familiar with the game. [Supervise your dog with all enrichment items, especially until you understand his habits. If he chews pieces off of an item, it’s probably not the right enrichment for him.]

Stressed vs. “not food motivated”

Don’t misunderstand a stressed new dog not being comfortable enough to eat well. All dogs are food-motivated, though some more than others! After all, they have to eat to live. Stress puts “butterflies in your stomach” and it does the same for your dogs. A dog in a new home may not eat well at first because digestive issues and stress go hand-in-hand. Reduce stress and watch his appetite grow. When feeding your dog, show him that his behavior can make a food bowl appear, and the training game is on.

Why not free-feed your dog?

This is way too much food for any dog to eat in one meal, or even in a day. Al looks a little overwhelmed!

First, control over what and when your dog eats can keep you from being up a creek if he develops a health issue. Some health issues require dogs to eat certain foods or on a certain schedule. It’s not fun to think about your dog getting older or developing a health problem. But it is smart to think about what behaviors he needs to learn right now that can help him succeed in situations later in life. Your dog needs to learn to ride in cars, go to the vet, get a bath and have his nails trimmed. [Read our post on Life Skills and check out our ideas about preparing your dog for veterinary care and grooming.] He also needs to learn the routine of eating his food when it’s given to him.

Feeding your dog to prevent bad behavior

Second, dogs are born knowing how to eat, but they can also have their own ideas about food that is left sitting around. They may find it valuable enough to fight over, with other dogs or even with their owners. We call it “resource guarding”. Dogs may start guarding food when it’s available, if they don’t want it now but don’t want anyone else to have it. This makes sense to dogs, but it can be unpleasant for owners. Best to maintain your control over that food you bought, in order to help your dog maintain pleasant habits. Read our post on The Trading Protocol to help you understand why your dog might want to guard food. Feeding your dog according to a routine can help prevent resource guarding over food.

Feeding your dog for his health

Third, your dog might develop a weight problem. That not only makes it hard for him to fit into a swimsuit, but can also lead to health problems including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and joint stress leading to mobility challenges. Not all dogs gain weight with free-feeding, but some just can’t seem to get enough food. When food is always out and available, obesity can result. Feeding your dog scheduled, portioned meals can be healthier than free-feeding.

Feeding your dog to prevent unwanted “visitors”

Fourth, food sitting out can attract ants, roaches, and all kinds of other critters. ‘Nuff said.

Feeding your dog so you don’t miss opportunities

Finally, when you free-feed, you’re missing out on so many opportunities to help your dog learn that his choices of behavior make a big difference to you, and thus to him! Eating from purchased puzzles, Kongs, or fun enrichment items you can make yourself, is a valuable learning process. The better your dog is at working puzzles, the better he will be at learning new behaviors with you. Putting that brain to good use has lots of benefits! You’ll have a variety of busy-work choices to give him when he’s bored. They’re also helpful when you have to leave him home alone, or when you have things to do and need him out of the way. Feeding your dog in puzzles or enrichment toys is useful! [Supervise your dog with all enrichment items, especially until you understand his habits. If he chews pieces off of an item, it’s probably not the right enrichment for him.]

Transitioning from free-feeding your dog

If your dog is already conditioned to free-feeding, have a little patience as he learns his mealtime rituals are changing. Most veterinarians agree that dogs are best fed twice a day, morning and evening, so that’s a good goal to set. Chances are, your dog already has a routine. The first step is for you to recognize when he usually eats. Make a plan to feed your dog twice a day, but temporarily give one or two small midday meals if that’s what he’s used to. The important thing is to pick up the bowl after he has a chance to eat. Feeding your dog meals means there’s a start time and an end time to the meal.

Measure your dog’s food. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you need to know about how much he’s eating on a daily basis. If he is overweight, you can only decrease his food if you know how much he’s currently eating. You can start with the suggestions of daily amounts on the package, but beware the amounts suggested are often way too high.

Take a good look at your dog and be honest about how his body shape compares to the illustrations of too thin, too fat, and “just right” dogs.

Feel your dog’s body and decide whether he needs to decrease his eating. Make that change just a little at a time, coupled with exercise and your vet’s recommendation. Don’t try to decrease his food volume drastically. When you start to see weight loss, begin increasing just a bit so you level off at an amount that will work for maintenance. Better for your dog to lose weight slowly and in a healthy way than to create a different health problem like nutritional deficiency or chronic illness by losing weight too fast. Once your dog is at his ideal healthy weight, pay attention to any changes. Feel his ribs and pay attention to how his body looks and adjust how much food he’s getting if necessary.

Teaching your dog to eat

Why would a dog not want to eat? Refusing to eat may be related to illness or stress. You must first eliminate those possibilities. Get your dog a veterinary check-up to rule out physical problems. Start some stress reduction interventions, particularly if the dog is new to your home. Check out our video series on Stress and Your Dog.

Dogs in shelters are often free-fed. If you adopt a shelter dog, ask how he has been feed while in the shelter. Help him transition to a new routine. A dog used to free-feeding won’t understand the requirement to eat immediately when his food is given.

Sue Ailsby is a fantastic dog and llama trainer and a wonderful teacher of trainers. She’s been at this game for a long time, using science-based training with great skill. She developed an easy-to-use system of teaching dogs to eat when they start out not wanting to. If your dog has a clean bill of health but refuses to eat, refer to Sue Ailsby’s lesson on Teaching Your Dog to Eat. The technique makes sense and it works. [I recommend any training exercise or procedure Sue recommends in her books or on her website. You can be sure they are all science-based if Sue uses them.]

Additional benefits of feeding your dog individual meals

Mealtime can bring anticipation. Give your dog the chance to enjoy the odor of a quality dog food, to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs when the bell rang. Consider the process like your own anticipation of a great meal at a nice restaurant as you drive over, get seated, explore the menu, smell the aroma, and finally see the beautifully arranged plate served to you. As you ask your dog for some of the behaviors he’s learned, like “sit” or “down” or a trick, to have his food served, you build up the reinforcement process. Each cue to perform a behavior reinforces the previous behavior because your dog knows he’s getting closer to the food! [This is called the Premack Principle.] Feeding your dog is a process you can use to build behaviors you like. Your dog will learn to enjoy the whole process, culminating in the delivery of his food bowl. He’ll be much more likely to ravenously eat whatever you’ve served him because you’ve helped him to develop good habits.

Mealtime is training time!

If you only have time to train your dog twice a day at mealtime, you’ll be amazed at what he can learn in just those few minutes a day. In the time it takes for you to prepare his food, you can train your dog to sit, lie down, or do a simple trick. Practicing twice a day is enough to polish the behavior. Both you and your dog will be better off for it.

If you control your dog’s food, you’ll find that you can use his regular food for training around the house with minimal distractions. Make sure to subtract the amount you use for training from his mealtime ration so you don’t risk packing on the pounds.

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