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Eat, Train, Love

How to use your dog’s meals to improve their behaviour and enhance your bond.

Written by Sarah Fulcher, Cert. CBST, CTDI

Edited by Barbara Medland

Every meal that we feed our dogs is an opportunity for us to improve our dogs’ behaviour, enhance our bond and enrich their lives. Unfortunately, this daily occurrence is often overlooked and is a missed opportunity to improve the lives of our pooches.

As easy as it is for us to just fill our dog’s dishes up on occasion and let them graze on their food, this approach is not successful at teaching your dog the needed skills such as good behaviour and reinforcing your role as the food provider. Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between behavioural issues with dogs who are free-fed. Allowing your dogs to eat whenever they want is a bad habit to have, especially if you are travelling with your dog or boarding him.


The Problems with being Free-Fed

  • Allowing your dog to eat whenever they want is a bad habit to get into if you are traveling with your dog or boarding him, as a grazing dog may be difficult to have on the road when there is only a specified period of time for him to eat.
  • It does not allow you to take notice if your dog is not feeling well, because their eating habits will change depending on their health. If your dog is trained to eat when their food is infront of them, you know immediately if you are dog is not well, as he will not want to eat.
  • It makes it really difficult to house train a puppy because you don’t know when they have eaten, and therefore cannot predict when they will need to eliminate as easily.


Missed Opportunity?

Our pooches love to work for their meals, by doing something that will reward them with food, or make them search for their food. You have to feed your dog everyday anyways, so why not use this time that is required as a training reward?

I suggest that you feed your dog’s daily portion of food the following three ways:

  • 1/3 of food in their bowl. Even though it is best for the majority of your dog’s daily food intake comes through training and enrichment, it is still appropriate to feed them from their bowl. I recommend feeding them this portion of their feed in the evening after a training session.
  • 1/3 of food given during training. The training sessions conducted can either be formal obedience or tricks training. A portion of their feed can be set aside to work on problem behaviours. For example, you could use the food portion to reward your dog for remaining quiet if he has a barking issue or if you are attempting to train him to stay on the mat while you prepare food to eliminate begging behaviour.
  • 1/3 of food given in enrichment activities. Enrichment activities can include using a food puzzle toy like a Kong or playing food seeking-hunting games with your dog. These types of activities allow your dog to use their head and work for their food. This technique allows your dog to satisfy their instinctual needs by using their nose, hunt and scavenge. My dogs enjoy when I hide their food throughout the house so they have to search for it. This not only gives them something to do, gets them fed, it tires them out.


Other Thoughts

An additional benefit of using a food toy such as a Kong is that it keeps your dog busy for several hours. Once your dog has figured out how to get dry kibble from their Kong, you can make it harder on them by mixing in liquid food, such as canned food, yogurt or pumpkin mush and then freezing it overnight. This technique of using the Kong as a frozen meal delight is a great option for when you want your dog to be occupied for a long period of time, such as when you are leaving your dog in the morning before going to work. This can also be a useful technique for when you come home from work and need some time to yourself.

While your dog’s regular food may make a great training reward inside the house where distractions are low, for more difficult tasks such as training outdoors a higher value food reward is more appropriate. Treats such a good quality commercial soft treats (Zukes, My Mighty Wolf, Wellness) are usually sufficient, or real meat rewards such as hot dogs, chicken, liver etc. for when you need to pull out the big guns.

The ratios of food can be adjusted depending on how busy you are. If you are quite busy on a given day, put more food in your Kong. If you have more time to spend with your dog, increase your ratio of food dedicated to training and enrichment with less that is given to them directly in their bowl. Whatever you decide to do in terms of the ratio of food distribution, feeding your dog is a great opportunity to use the time to enrich, train and bond with your dog without having to increase the amount of treats you give them and their caloric intake.