How you feed your dog is important for overall health including weight management, and digestion, as well as for training purposes. This article is meant to give some ideas on different ways to feed your dogs, and some general tips. It is not meant to be a discussion on type of diet – that’s a whole other ball of wax!
Once, twice, or three times a day?
In general, most adult dogs are fine with one or two meals a day. Puppies should be fed more frequently, typically three times a day. Your veterinarian can help you decide how often and how much to feed your puppy based on the puppy’s age, breed, and expected size at full maturity. Geriatric dogs who may need supplemental meals to maintain good body weight might also be fed three times a day. Dogs taking special medications may also need to be fed smaller, more frequent meals.
At our house, we feed two meals per day but we don’t have a strict time schedule for feeding. Some owners report that their dogs get “upset if dinner is late” – i.e. the meals have been so rigidly timed that their dogs expect food at certain times. Our dogs don’t tell us when it’s time to eat. We feed meals based on our schedule – which isn’t the same day to day. We tend to feed within two ranges of time – anywhere between 6 and 8 a.m., and again between 5 and 8 p.m. I don’t know if it’s a hunch, but I think this prevents dogs from clock watching. 🙂 I also may withhold a dog’s meal if he/she is going to be involved in training that day whether in a class environment or on a walk; this allows me to use food for training without overfeeding my dog.
Whether you feed a dry kibble food, wet canned food, or a raw diet, it’s a good idea to measure portions, especially if you are just switching to a scheduled feeding routine. Measuring can help you determine a baseline amount to start with, so that if you notice your dog is getting too heavy or too thin, you can scale back the amount or add accordingly. Also, keep in mind that dog food companies are in the business of selling dog food, so the recommended feeding amounts on the package may or may not be appropriate for your dog. I do not feed based on package recommendations; I go by how my dog looks and feels to me and I make adjustments as needed.
Your dog’s nutritional needs are as individual as your dog’s personality! How much food, what type of food, how often you should feed, are all dependent upon your dog’s age, his activity level, overall health, and individual metabolism. For example, you might find that in the spring and summer when your dog is probably getting more activity as the weather permits, that he may need to eat a bit more to maintain good body weight.
Free feeding or schedule feeding?
I surveyed about 40 dog owners and asked if they free fed or schedule fed, and why they chose one method over another. In addition, I asked the owners if they had a one-dog, or multiple-dog household. The majority of owners schedule fed their dogs, in fact, all but one owner used schedule feeding, and even that owner had switched to schedule feeding and had a very specific reason why she previously free fed one of her dogs. This owner had a dog who had an illness when he was young, and due to the illness, the dog was underweight. In order to promote weight gain, she free fed him but noted he was an only dog at the time. When she added a second dog to her home, she switched to schedule feeding. I realize this is a small population sample size, but in asking this question, I was given many potential benefits seen by the owners who schedule-fed which I’ve tried to summarize below.
Benefits to Schedule Feeding
There are many benefits to feeding your dog(s) on a schedule. These benefits are not listed in any particular order of importance.
- Scheduled input means scheduled output. To put it simply, if your dog eats on a regular schedule, he should eliminate on a regular schedule. This is a great benefit for dog owners in terms of regulating when your dog has to go potty, but it is especially important for puppy owners who are trying to house train their pups!
- Schedule feeders report that they know the minute a dog’s appetite is ‘off’ and this is important as lack of appetite can be one of the first signs of illness in your pet.
- Schedule feeding helps prevent conflicts over resources in a multi-dog household. Some owners report that separating their dogs by way of crates or use of baby gates during meal times can also help minimize the potential for conflicts over food.
- Scheduled feeding makes it easier to administer timed medications for dogs who need them.
- Scheduled feeding makes it easier to control a dog’s weight because the owner knows exactly how much food is being eaten and can make adjustments as needed.
- Food quality is ‘fresher’ since it is does not sit out all day in a bowl.
- Dogs who are schedule fed are more likely to work for food when food/treats are offered as part of a training program whereas dogs who are free fed typically will not work as hard or at all for food when it is used as a reward for training. It’s almost as if the dog thinks, “Well why should I work for that piece of food, when food is available to me all the time?” In my teaching experience as a trainer, I have often found that dogs who are not food motivated are frequently free-fed. This can be quickly remedied by switching to scheduled meals.
- A meal can be administered as part of training sessions throughout the day, or even fed in a puzzle toy such as a Kong, Tug-a-Jug, or Mazee Ball.
- Schedule feeding allows you to practice some important obedience cues or behaviors such as “wait” and release cues at meal times.
Free Feeding Benefits
In general, I do not recommend free feeding especially if you need to create value for food. However, some clients I have had over the years who free fed their dogs indicated the following reasons for using a free feeding system wherein food is left out for the dog to graze on throughout the day:
- Convenience for owner; some owners report that they work long days and feel badly about making a dog wait to eat so free feeding ensures that the dog doesn’t miss a meal.
- May be helpful for the dog who needs to eat more frequently due to a health condition or for a dog who is a picky eater, or anxious eater.
I am a big proponent of hand feeding some meals, especially with a young puppy or newly acquired adult dog. Hand feeding all, or a portion, of a meal is a great bonding activity with your dog. It is a quick and easy way to establish a relationship with a dog. It also allows you to teach the dog how to use a ‘soft mouth’ to accept food that is offered to him. I also like to use hand feeding to slow down a fast eater and to teach and reinforce some basic behaviors such as impulse control. If you haven’t hand-fed your dog before, try it! Take a bowl of food and sit with your dog. Feed a few pieces of food at a time. If your dog is too excited, jumps, barks at, or mouths you, just wait for some calm behavior that you can then reinforce with a few pieces of food. It need not be a directed activity; you don’t have to cue your dog to do anything specific like sit or down, just wait for calm behavior and four feet on the floor, and then feed. Your dog will start to understand that calm, patient behavior on his part earns the reward.
Another alternative to bowl feeding and hand feeding is feeding meals from a food-dispensing/puzzle toy. I use these intermittently for my dogs’ meals. Examples of food puzzle toys are Kongs, Kong Wobbler, Premier’s Tug-a-Jug, Linkables, and Planet Dog’s Mazee Ball to name a few. There are even more advanced puzzle toys such as those by the Nina Ottoson company. These are great for numerous reasons! Puzzle toys encourage your dog to think and problem solve. They can also be beneficial for slowing down consumption rate for dogs who eat too fast. I like to use food-dispensing puzzle toys for opportune training times. For example, if I have a puppy who is learning to be a little more independent in the home, I might gate the puppy in a safe, puppy-proofed zone such as the kitchen and give him a meal in a puzzle toy while I do some errands elsewhere within the house. By doing this, the pup is getting some alone time without being crated but has something to occupy him so he doesn’t engage in destructive chewing. I also like to use enrichment toys such as stuffed Kongs to occupy dogs while house guests come over. My dogs love eating their meals from Kongs and doing so can keep them busy for awhile in their crates, while I entertain dinner guests.
Give it a try!
Hopefully this article has given you some ‘food for thought!’ and you can experiment with some different ways to feed your dog. I have found that for my own personal dogs, they enjoy some variety to their feeding routine; sometimes I hand feed, sometimes I feed during training, sometimes from a bowl, and other times I feed from a puzzle toy. I think this keeps things interesting for your dog!
c2014 Andrea Kilkenny/Our Gang Pet Services, LLC