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Take Charge of Your Pup's Feeding Routine

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

chocolate lab licking his lips

At feeding time, don't just casually throw your dog's bowl on the floor. Instead, use this excellent opportunity for building that solid leader-follow relationship you should have with your dog.

One of the best ways to establish a good leader-follower relationship with your puppy is by controlling the resources  in his life.

Resources are things your pup views as important, such as food, toys, sleeping spots, even petting and belly rubs.

Most dogs view FOOD as the most important resource. So when you show your pup that you're in charge of the food, you're making the gentle but clear statement that you are the leader and he is the follower.

Your puppy finds this very reassuring.

How do you show him that you're in charge of the food? As with most leadership techniques, it's simply a matter of establishing the right routine that your pup can count on.

First, how often should you feed your pup?

Most puppies over 8 weeks old should eat three meals per day until 4 months old, then two meals per day thereafter.

Toy breed puppies (because they can have problems regulating their blood sugar) should eat four meals per day until 4 months old, then three meals per day until 6 months old, then two meals per day thereafter.

Adult dogs should eat twice a day unless they have health problems that require more meals.

Dogs who eat only once a day may experience an empty stomach, may even spit up white froth/bile. Think of how our own stomachs growl, and how we often feel irritable, when we've gone too long without eating.

Now, WHAT  to feed your puppy is a more complicated question that I address in my canine health book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy.

A good mealtime routine

whippet waiting politely for his food bowl

Structured routines always make dogs feel secure because they can predict what's going to happen next. No worries, no stress.

  • Cue your pup when you're ready to prepare his meal. "Are you hungry? Want your food?"  Exaggerate the key words.
  • Have him come with you to the kitchen. Get his bowl from the same cupboard and set it on the same counter every time. He should be right there watching you. You want him to see that YOU  are the source of his food.
  • If he's acting excitable, don't put his food down, else he'll learn that excitable behavior makes the food appear! If he's racing around, barking, or jumping, he should be on leash so you can control him. Corrections for barking or jumping are in another article that I haven't uploaded yet. Hopefully I remember to come back here and add the links!
  • When he is calm, the bowl is ready to go down. If he already knows how to sit (Chapter 31), have him sit first – another subtle and gentle leadership thing. Then.... "Okay!" and place the bowl on the floor, in the same spot every time. "Here's your food."
  • If you have multiple dogs, each should have his own eating spot away from the others. Place the bowls down in the same order each time, saying the dog's name as his bowl goes down. "Buffy... here's your food.  Kelly... food."
  • During mealtime, leaders protect followers. Don't let kids or other pets approach a dog who is eating. If one of your dogs is not well-behaved enough to obey this rule, he should be dragging his leash so you can get hold of him. If necessary, feed the dogs in separate crates or separate rooms. Stealing food is completely unacceptable.
  • Welsh TerrierIf a pup walks away from his bowl, pick it up; if there is still food left, make a mental or written note to monitor for any other symptoms that might suggest illness. After 10 minutes, all bowls, finished or not, should be picked up to avoid picky behavior or food guarding.

The final part of the routine is a potty break immediately after every meal. If you're still housebreaking, take the pup out on leash. If he's already 100%  housebroken and eliminates reliably when you send him out himself, that's fine.

In either case, announce the potty break: "Do you need to go OUT?  Time to go OUT."

Remember: the easiest way to raise and train your puppy is to establish choreographed routines – same things, same order, same words – with yourself as the director, the one in charge. Create good routines, stick to them, and your pup's behavior will be predictable and good.

No scheduled mealtimes? You leave kibble down all day?

Oops, that's not a good idea. You shouldn't even leave food down for an hour, let alone all day.

dog uninterested in food left down all the time

Here are 5 reasons "free feeding" is not a good idea:

  1. Free feeding can create picky eaters who feel entitled to food rather than appreciative of being given food.
  2. Free feeding makes your pup's digestive cycle unpredictable, which means you don't know when he will need to go to the bathroom.
  3. Your pup's appetite is a good barometer of his health, and it's easier to keep tabs on appetite when you're offering scheduled meals and watching him eat.
  4. If you have more than one dog, free feeding invites bullying and can create food guarding issues.
  5. Finally, as you've seen in this chapter, scheduled feeding is a prime opportunity to demonstrate that you are in charge of the food. You make the food appear, you require your pup to be calm and polite before you give it to him, you allow a certain amount of time for eating, then you pick up the bowl.

Scheduled, controlled feeding reinforces the subtle leader-follower relationship, whereas "free feeding" gives your puppy the impression that food is always magically available.

Should you pick up your pup's food bowl while he's eating, to teach him that you can take his food away?

dog staring into his bowl

On this issue, my fellow trainers are divided.

Some say, "Yes, you should teach your pup that you can take his food away. Someday you might need to do that to keep him safe."

Others say, "Taking your pup's bowl away can cause anxiety and food guarding. Let him eat in peace."

I see the merits of both views, and I do something in-between.

When I have a new puppy, I do accustom him to having my hand near his bowl. I do this by walking past him while he's eating and casually dropping something extra-yummy (chicken or cheese) into his bowl. I say, "Good food" as I do so.

I do this once or twice a week, then at some point while he's eating, I say, "Want some food?" and I pick up the bowl he's eating from. I only raise it a foot or two off the floor and I make sure that he sees me add a yummy treat. "Good food," I say as I give the bowl back.

I do this only once every couple of months, no more. This positive technique turns the removal of his food bowl into a good thing. Then if you should need to take it completely away, it's more likely that he won't react negatively. (More likely, but not guaranteed.)

If your dog is already guarding his food

If you approach your pup while he's eating and he...

  • stops eating and stares fixedly at you
  • dog guarding foodor drops his head close to his bowl and freezes his body
  • or braces his front legs on either side of the bowl as though claiming it
  • or maneuvers his body so it's between you and his bowl, making it more difficult for you to reach
  • or curls his lip or growls have a problem. It's called resource guarding and it's a potentially very dangerous behavior issue.

What should you do? Well, judgment is required here.

If your pup is large or if he has already snapped at someone, you should call a local balanced trainer who can evaluate the situation personally. If the pup is smallish and has never snapped at anyone, you might decide to try working with him on your own. The good news is that some resource guarding will stop simply by establishing the right leader-follower relationship.

Start immediately working through my training book: Respect Training for Puppies (2-18 months old). The pup should not be allowed on your bed or furniture. He should not be allowed to demand petting. He should Wait for your permission before going through any door or gate. Give only one toy, but take even that away if he makes any attempt to guard it.

French BulldogFeed the pup in his crate. Put the food in first, then move well away from the crate and send the pup in. When he's done, call the pup out and make sure he's well away from the crate before you remove the bowl.

Always think safety.

Alternatively, you can completely change the way you feed the pup. Put away his bowl. Feed him by offering one small scoop at a time from a long-handled spoon. Before each bite, have him Sit or Down or Come or any other word that he knows. In other words, he must work for his food.

If you do all that but see no improvement, I strongly urge you to find a local balanced trainer who can (safely) teach the pup to move away from the bowl when told to.

This is a serious issue. Many dogs get dropped off at shelters or offered free to good home because they're resource guarders. Many biting dogs started out as resource guarders of food or toys or sleeping spots. Some dogs even view their owner's lap as a resource to be guarded against all comers (animal or human!)

P.S.... I would not allow a child around a dog who is a resource guarder.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.