Dogs, like any other living being, have a list of basic needs in order to survive; with food being towards the top. Pulling out their bowl and filling it up with kibble may be very easy and convenient, but is it really the best way for our furry friends to get their daily allotment of calories? Dogs originated as scavengers, and when left to their own devices, most likely they will either hunt or scavenge for food; even if you’ve already fed them! Our canine companions have keen senses of smell and finely honed problem-solving capabilities and when you pair that with boredom you usually end up with a mischievous doggy that finds itself in trouble on a regular basis. Domestication has made it possible for dogs to get their daily food without having to expend any time or energy to acquire it for themselves, but it’s still in their nature to feel the need to work for it. For years, aquariums and zoos have been using their animal’s meal times to provide enrichment and stimulation, and the benefits are immense. We can do the same thing with our dogs, and you better believe that there are many great reasons why it benefits them as well!
1.) It Can Help with Food Aggression:
Unfortunately, when it comes to feeding rituals, the internet is full of horrible advice. Most of it centers on the preposterous idea that somehow, humans need to be able to assert their dominance over their dog in order to maintain control in the household. Suggestions like making sure owners eat first while the dog watches, or randomly taking the food bowl away as the dogs eats in order to show the dog that its always your food and you as the owner are generous enough to share often perpetuate the guarding problem and make it worse. Training in this fashion usually teaches the dog that the food is provided by the bowl, not you, and causes them to guard it with a renewed vengeance from both owner and other dogs. Let's be honest, if I was really into eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake that my boyfriend gave and placed in front of me, then kept taking it away in order to “assert his dominance” I’d get mean and nasty too! I’d probably bite his hand.
As a dog owner, my goal is to teach my dog(s) how to handle themselves in the human world, not to achieve status. When my dog is motivated to eat, my dog is motivated to learn, and what better time than mealtime to condition a dog to enjoy an owner’s presence while eating? Dogs that come into my home that have food guarding issues get a different feeding ritual. I ditch the food bowl altogether and keep it fun. Some days I’ll hand feed, other’s I’ll give them food rewards on their walk, sometimes on sunny days I’ll toss kibble into the grass for my resource guarder, and turn it into a fun game of “find it.” By controlling the situation in when my food aggressive dog is allowed to eat, I can help change their perspective. It helps condition my dog to look to me for delicious food, and it only appears when good behavior is presented.
2.) Teach Your Dog to Like Things They Don’t:
Mealtime is the perfect time to help your dog become comfortable with something that they don’t like. If your dog doesn’t like wearing the gentle leader, “cone of shame,” booties, or a rain jacket, you can use mealtime to help them become more comfortable. Put the offending item on before mealtime, then hand feed your dog as if its meal are treats. When you’re out of food, immediately undress your dog, and repeat next mealtime. After a while, your dog should visibly brighten at the sight of the formerly unpleasant item, because now they’ve learned that it always predicts delicious food. Please note: if your dog really hates wearing something, you might have to up the ante by feeding really special treats in addition to their meal to help get them started.
3.) Puzzle it Out!
It kills me as a trainer to see people with excessively energetic (and usually super mischievous) dog(s) who get their meals just out of a plain ol’ dog bowl everyday. Why? Because mental stimulation (training) is just as, or even more so, tiring to a dog than physical exercise. People who feed out of a bowl are missing out on a great opportunity to TIRE OUT THEIR DOG!!!! We all know, a tired dog is a good dog.
I love puzzle toys, and, I’m not ashamed to say that I have a whole cabinet full of different ones. My dogs can’t wait till mealtime comes around so they can work for their food. Puzzle toys such as the bob-a-lot, buster cubes, kongs, and the foobler make mealtime so much more fun for dogs because they are allowed to use their problem solving abilities in order to retrieve their dinner, and it combines toys and food in a new, fun and interesting way. Make sure to make the puzzle toy easy for your dog in the beginning so that your dog is sure to be successful, then gradually increase the difficulty as he figures out how to make the toy work and to get the food. This insures that your dog doesn’t get bored too soon and make a bad association to the toy. You can feed an entire meal to your dog in this fashion and ditch the food bowl altogether! There are also SO many ideas/recipes on the internet to help give you some ideas -- I freeze oatmeal/pumpkin/wet dog food in kongs (which are designed to be a safe option to leave with your dog alone unsupervised) to give my dog’s cool treats when it’s hot or If I know it's going to be a day spent primarily inside (when it rains for days on end) I’ll stretch my dog's meals to 4-5 small meals that day instead of 2 so I have more opportunities to give my dogs something to do and break up the monotony of the day. Now I realize buying a plethora of puzzle toys can get expensive so if you’re looking for cheaper options you can also re-purpose old boxes/cardboard food containers and turn them into custom puzzle toys by cutting different holes in them and filling with food, or, spread your dogs meal onto a cookie sheet or muffin tin and have them lick up their food that way. The possibilities are endless! Just be sure to always supervise your dog while giving them a puzzle toy if it's not designed to be left with your dog alone, or if your dog is a super heavy chewer and will chew up and ingest non-food items.
4.) Train a Dog That's Not “Food Motivated”:
During a training consultation, a common conversation I have goes as thus:
Me: “Make sure to have treats on you so you can immediately reward any good behavior your dog offers.”
Client: “Oh I can’t use treats, s/he isn’t treat motivated.”
Me: “Ok. Is your dog alive?”
Client: “Uh, yeah.”
Me: “Well, then they’re food motivated, because they have to eat to survive.”
Ok, granted, I understand that every dog has their price point when it comes to food rewards, and some have a higher standard than others, but by giving your dog a meal out of a bowl can most likely kill any chance you have of getting them excited about food rewards for training. Why would your dog work for their food when it’s given daily for free? By using your dog’s meals throughout the day as rewards for good behavior, you get your dog excited about learning, and excited about figuring out what behaviors you want. I ration out my dogs food into sandwich baggies and use those throughout the day as rewards; on walks, during time in the yard, and during training sessions. If my dog is lying quietly on their bed, then here have some food. When my dog gets in their crate whether they’ve been asked or not, I toss some of their kibble in as a reward. If they check in with me in the yard, or come when I call, then kibble appears as a reward. This method is also very helpful if you have an overweight dog, and you’re restricting their daily caloric intake. By using their allotted mealtime food as training rewards you can still use food to reinforce good behavior and not have to worry about your dog getting a ton of extra calories during the day. Note: kibble can get boring, so to mix it up and keep my dog’s interested, I will randomly add a couple other types of treats in with the mix: sometimes cooked chicken, other dog cookies, or tid bits of cheese/hot dogs. My dogs are thrilled to get random bits of extra yumminess during training.
5.) Scavenger Hunts:
Most dogs really enjoy getting in touch with their roots with an old-fashioned game of “find-it.” After all, they evolved as scavengers. You can get creative and make mealtimes super fun without much effort. You can hide food around the house and have your dog “sniff it out;” have them “catch” their food by tossing it across the yard kibble by kibble or just toss the whole lot around the yard and have them search it all out.
There are really so many different reasons to make the most out of your dog's meals. Its fairly common for people to under-utilize this absolutely WONDERFUL gift that has been given to us as dog owners. If all the previous reasons I’ve listed haven’t convinced you yet to forgo the food bowl at your dog’s mealtime, perhaps this latest one will. By more effectively utilizing your dog’s food motivation you can build a stronger relationship with each other. Making mealtimes fun and productive gets your dog excited about learning new things, and it doesn’t hurt for you as the owner to see better results because of it!