Lisa Giroux, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada email@example.com
Feeding routines are the basic relationship builder. Whoever has control of the primary resource (food) is the master in the dog's eyes. Nearly every problem dog that I encounter is free-fed (owner puts food in bowl and food stays there until dog eats it, food sitting on floor all day long). Please read my article, Dominance, for more information on how feeding routines affect basic relationships.
Good feeding routines are necessary for health reasons, too. The first sign of many dangerous health problems is that the dog loses his appetite. Another sign of major health problems are changes in bowel and urination tendencies. These things are impossible to observe in a dog that is free-fed. By the time you see other symptoms, the problem can be much more serious than if you had noticed it earlier (such as a bowel blockage, which can be quickly fatal).
Most dogs that are free-fed end up obese. Please see my article on Dog Body Weight to find out if your dog is in ideal weight. Owners of obese dogs often say to me "he hardly eats, he just picks at his food." Well, let me give you a wake-up call. Dogs that are fat are eating too much. I personally am 30 pounds overweight because I am free-fed...I have constant access to the fridge and the cupboards and I love to eat. Dogs love to eat. They are genetically programmed to eat whenever they can, and have no self-regulation on food. If left free access to food, they will satiate themselves all day long and they WILL GET FAT.
Dogs that are obese usually experience early-onset arthritis which can be very painful and a reason to euthanize a dog. Lean dogs usually get arthritis of some sort with age...but a fat dog will get it at age 7-8 instead of age 11.
In addition (no offense intended to vets here) veterinarians often don't say anything unless the dog is GROSSLY obese. So even if you've had a recent vet visit, and nothing was mentioned, your dog might be fat.
IDEAL FEEDING ROUTINE: Dog in sit/stay. Owner puts down bowl, directs dog to food with "ok go eat." Dog goes to bowl and eats all the food immediately. Twice a day.
Here's how to get your dog from free-feeding to the ideal.
No More Buffet!
The first order of business is to pick up that food bowl. The water dish can stay down all the time, but the food bowl comes UP. Make sure that the dog has no other access to food such as cat food, other dog's food, etc.
Place food portion in bowl. Do not call dog or try to get his attention when you are doing so. Place food bowl on floor, again without any special recognition of the dog. Set your egg timer for 10 minutes.
If the dog goes to food, gets a few bites, then leaves, pick up food bowl immediately.
If dog does not approach food bowl (this is the more likely to happen), pick up food bowl after 10 minutes.
Next opportunity for eating is at the next meal. Period.
Your dog will likely miss 3-4 meals (that's two to three days total). You must not give in and feed the dog, attempt to get the dog to eat, try to hand-feed the dog, or let anyone else tell you that what you are doing is a sin! Soon your dog will realize that the buffet is closed and will become more interested in his food. Keep following the rules above until your dog is eating up his whole portion as soon as you put it down. You may have to play with amounts to discover how much food your dog actually needs. In general, you should not follow the portion advice on the dog food bag...they want to sell dog food and consistently tell you to feed too much. Trust me!
After your dog is eating his whole portion, you will begin asking the dog for a sit/stay while you put the food bowl down. Then, stand up and wait for your dog to make eye contact with you. Quickly then tell the dog to go eat. Do not allow the dog to "break" to his food.
Fun with Kongs
After your dog is doing well with this, you can begin doing the same thing with stuffed Kongs instead of his food bowl. Try to give at least 1 Kong per day for a few weeks, then taper it off to randomly. Stuffed Kongs allow the dog to work for his food, which provides much-needed mental stimulation.
What About Puppies?
Puppies under the age of 7 weeks should have free choice food. After that, feed three times a day until around 12 weeks of age, using the same techniques as above. If you have a toy breed, consult with your breeder on proper feeding routines for puppies as some tiny breeds can have blood sugar problems at young ages.