5 Reasons Why Free Feeding May Not Be Right for Your Dog


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I’ve talked before about ways of feeding your dog, particularly in Step Away From the Dish, Doggie, You are Way Too Fat! Regular readers know that I favor free feeding for my dogs, and I also know many other dog people who insist that this is the way to go if you want to avoid making a huge issue out of mealtime. My belief is that it largely prevents weight problems, since eating is something a dog either partakes of or not, depending on his level of hunger, and most dogs won’t consume more than they need.

That said, though, I know that there are generally at least two sides to every story, and those who are against free feeding have their reasons. With that in mind, I’ll present the case against free feeding.

Why Do People Free Feed Their Dogs

My only reason for free feeding is that I believe it works.to prevent excess weight. Other dog people cite reasons like convenience (although I think it’s a pretty pathetic person who prizes convenience over what is best for their dog), and the belief that it prevents food aggression and guarding, particularly in multi-dog homes. Certainly if food is always available, there is little reason to guard it.

My vet, Dr. Stephen, though, is firmly on the side of providing regular meals at regular times, and tells me that most vets favor this approach. Stephen and I are in agreement on most things, so we’ve simply agreed to disagree on this one, since he does admit that in most cases, choosing free feeding over scheduled meals is not something that is likely to compromise your dog’s health.

There are five main reasons that advocates of controlled feeding cite for preferring their approach.

1. It Makes House Training Easier

There is definitely logic in this. After all, if you don’t know when your dog is eating, you are not likely to have much of a handle on the times when he is most likely to need to go outside. For this reason, some people opt to go with regular meals for a puppy, and then switch over to free feeding as the dog matures and gains more control over his bodily functions.

The flip side to this, though, is that if you insist on feeding your dog at, say 8 am and 6 pm on the dot, and you deviate from that schedule, the dog can end up being stressed. So if you are going to adhere to a feeding schedule, the better approach would be to decide that you’ll feed your dog, for example, between 8 am and 9 am, and then again between 6 pm and 7 pm. That way, the dog isn’t going to stress out wondering if you’ve forgotten to feed him, or if you’re ever going to feed him again! As a result, you’ll still have a pretty good handle on his elimination patterns, but his world won’t come to an end if, for some reason, you are not able to feed him right on time.

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2. You’ll Have a Better Grasp on Your Dog’s Appetite

Often, the first indication that a dog is feeling unwell is a loss of appetite. If your dog is in the habit of just wandering over to a big basin of food, and eating when he feels so inclined (as my Janice and Leroy do), you might not notice right away that his appetite is off. However, if you feed at regularly scheduled intervals, you’ll get a very early heads-up if anything is wrong. You’ll be alert to other signs of ill health, and can make the decision whether or not you should take him to the vet. And, if a vet trip does turn out to be warranted, then you’ll be able to let the vet know exactly when the dog lost his appetite. This can help the vet to determine what diagnostic tools to use.

Also, if you have more than one dog in your home, free feeding makes it virtually impossible to accurately estimate each dog’s food consumption. Additionally, although food guarding isn’t usually an issue when there’s plenty for everyone, very assertive dogs may sometimes try to keep more submissive dogs away from food, simply as a way of expressing their dominance. If you’re free feeding, you might not even become aware of this behavior until a submissive dog has lost enough weight that it’s noticeable. And, as I have pointed out in 5 Ways of Dealing With Aggression When You Have More Than One Dog, once aggressive behavior sets in, it can be very difficult to change.

3. It Makes for More Mannerly Dogs

In a multi-dog home, if you’re feeding on a schedule, it’s important that each dog knows which bowl belongs to him. You don’t want to just place two or more bowls on the floor, and leave the dogs to work out who gets which bowl. Granted, if you did, they might work things out just fine on their own, with one dog simply switching over to another bowl if another dog is fixated on having the bowl he had to begin with. Again, though, you’ll have trouble determining the individual dogs’ intake, and you could also be setting yourself up for a nasty situation – what happens if one dog tries to use another’s bowl on a day when that dog is feeling stressed? You could end up with a multi-dog fight on your hands.

There may also come a time when it’s necessary for one dog to have a special diet (post-surgery, perhaps), and you want to make sure that he gets what he’s supposed to have without other dogs interfering. If you start early on making sure that everyone stays at their own dish, then this won’t be a problem. Your dogs will have good table manners, and will also probably be more mannerly in general with one another.

4. It’s Cleaner

Provided you’re vigilant about cleaning up spills and dropped food after meals, feeding on a schedule can be more hygienic. Also, open containers of food can be very attractive to pests like ants, or even rodents.

5. Mealtime Is a Great Training Opportunity

The first thing you should begin training your dog to do if you are going to feed on a schedule is allow you to handle his food. Some will tell you that if you take your dog’s food away from time to time, you’re creating trust issues, and could actually end up causing food aggression instead of preventing it. I totally disagree. It might not be overly important for you to be able to remove food from your dog, but you might not always be the only person in the home at feeding time, and many a child (many an adult too, for that matter), has been bitten thanks to getting a bit too close to a strange dog’s food dish. So, if you’re feeding on a schedule, first work on removing the food from time to time, and then giving it back. As long as the dog knows he’ll get the food back, he’s not going to be perturbed if someone moves too close to the dish.

You can also use mealtime to teach your dog other things:

1. Come

One of the most important things your dog needs to know is to come when you call him. In fact, it could save his life. Imagine that he’s about to run into traffic, and doesn’t know to come when called, for instance. There are a lot of ways you can use to teach your dog to come, but the best way is to teach him that something good will happen if he responds to your command. So, use the command, “Come” before you put his dish on the floor. Do this with treats, too. Once the dog gets the idea that the command is associated with a reward, he’ll respond to it.

2. Sit and Stay

You can also use mealtime to reinforce sit/stay. You don’t have to demand a whole lot to begin with – just a few seconds of holding the position before jumping into a meal is sufficient. So, put the bowl of food on the floor, and place the dog in a sit/stay. If the dog breaks position, take the food away and ignore him for about half a minute (this is where it’s very important that you have already worked on making sure that your dog understands that you have the right to take his food away). You don’t need to correct him – all you’re trying to do is convey to him that what he did (breaking position) caused you to withhold the food.

Now, put the bowl back on the floor, and put the dog back in the sit/stay. If he breaks, take the food away and give it another half minute to a minute. Repeat as needed. Usually, you won’t have to do this too many times before your dog connects withholding the food with his failure to sit and stay. Once he’s got the concept, increase the length of time that you expect him to hold the position. Then, switch it up a bit, randomly asking him to hold the sit/stay for fairly long periods, and then introducing a brief sit/stay. Make sure to always use a release word or phrase like “Okay,” or “Exercise over.” In very little time, you’ll have your dog sitting and staying flawlessly.

3. Better Impulse Control

One of the biggest problems with scheduled feedings is, as I have suggested before, that it makes mealtime a huge event. I’ve seen far too many dogs spin, jump, and bark uncontrollably at mealtime. Then, the hapless owner ends up tossing the bowl on the floor in a panic, just to get the dog to calm down.

So, what’s the problem here? The problem is that the owner is rewarding the dog’s seemingly out-of-control behavior. The fact is, though, that the dog is very much in control. It’s the owner who isn’t. If you’re working toward calming your dog by giving him what he wants, the minute he wants it, then you are most definitely not in control of the situation. This type of owner probably takes the easy way out in other situations as well, and they’re not doing their dogs any favors by teaching them that bratty behavior gets them what they want.

So, how do you correct the problem? Simple. Again, withhold the food. Put away that can opener, or fold up that dog food bag, put it away, and leave for a few minutes. Work on the sit/stay. Once the dog learns that there is nothing to be gained by making a fuss at mealtime, he’ll stop doing it.

4. No Guarding

We’ve already touched on this, and I’m standing by my position that free feeding works to prevent guarding. However, since I’ve promised to offer the other side, there are ways that you can work to prevent food guarding even if you are feeding on a schedule.

Food guarders are often also very fast eaters; they’re scared to death that if they don’t inhale their food, they might not get everything that is on offer. In fact, rapid eating is often an early indication that a food guarding problem could be about to develop. So, start by trying to prevent the behavior in the first place.

The best way to do this is to make it just a little bit difficult for your dog to get all his food at once. You could, for instance, spread the food over a large cookie sheet, or place a small bowl upside down in the middle of a large bowl, and arrange the food around it. The goal for both strategies is to make it difficult for the dog to take in large quantities of food all at once.

You can also use treats to slow down eating. I know; that sounds funny! Kind of like trying to cure a raging alcoholic who drinks a fifth of vodka every day by giving them a beer from time to time, right? Trust me, though, it works. While your dog is eating, throw something that he really loves on the floor near his dish. Just walk past him, and drop the treat. Repeat this at each meal. Soon, the dog will get the idea that something good is likely to come from you. Switch it up a bit, leaving treats sometimes, and sometimes just walking by without giving him anything. Eventually, whenever you walk by, he’ll pause, because he won’t want to take the chance that this might be one of those times that he’ll get something better than what is in his dinner dish.

Once he’s pausing in his eating, you can work on the sit/stay as well. By getting him to pause, and also asking him to sit and stay, you are reinforcing the concept that he really doesn’t have to wolf down his food all at once. It will still be there when he’s had his treat, when you’ve walked by, or when he’s waited patiently to be allowed to eat. He’ll be far less likely to eat quickly, and also less likely to escalate into food guarding behavior.

Switching Over from Free Feeding to Scheduled Meals

You can transform a “grazer” into a “regular mealtime” dog if that’s what you want. It’s going to mean sacrificing convenience, though. First of all, you’re going to have to know how much food your dog needs for the day. Relying on the printed information on the side of the dog food bag is not likely to be overly helpful, since it isn’t specific to your dog. A lazy English Mastiff, for instance, could weigh 200 or more pounds, and require no more food than a very active 130-pound Rottweiler. They have different metabolisms, and different needs.

Once you have determined how much food your dog is likely to require, you’ll need to divide it into meal portions. Puppies should be fed at least three times a day, preferably four. Once they reach the age of four months, you can put them on an adult feeding schedule of two meals a day. Some people feed their adult dogs once a day, and this is not harmful in terms of health. However, a single feeding does reinforce the concept that mealtime is a very special event, and could raise the dreaded specter of food guarding.

Now, when it’s feeding time, take a look at the clock. I’ve already stated that you don’t want your dog to inhale his food, but at the same time, you don’t want him to linger. If he does, then you might as well just be free feeding. Give your dog five minutes to eat. If he’s not finished in five minutes, he’s probably not all that hungry. What you’re doing is giving him a window of opportunity – he doesn’t have to rush, but he needs to know that at a certain point, the kitchen is closed.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. If you are dealing with a puppy, or an adult dog who is underweight, offer the food again in about an hour’s time. Again, though, do it only for five minutes. If you are dealing with an adult dog of normal weight, you do not have to re-offer the food. You can assume that the dog simply is not hungry. You have probably foregone meals from time to time as well, and this is not a problem unless is happens frequently. If your dog does seem to be rejecting food more often than not, then likely a trip to the vet is in order.

Dealing with Picky Eaters

If your mother was anything like mine, you were called to supper at a certain time, and you ate what was put in front of you, or you didn’t eat at all. I wasn’t allowed to say “I hate macaroni casserole; can’t I just have corn flakes?” and yet somehow I still grew up carrying a bit of extra poundage.

There’s nothing wrong with taking this same approach with your picky dog. I know that it can be very tempting to try to humor the picky eater, perhaps by mixing dry dog food with canned (and I really don’t recommend canned dog food at all), or by “top dressing” the meal with special treats. The fact is, if you’re switching over from free feeding to regular mealtimes, your dog may have his nose a bit out of joint, and may be reacting the same way I did as a child – “All I’m getting is this crappy stuff, on your schedule, and can’t I just have something nice for a change? Maybe I just won’t eat at all!”

Don’t give in. The reality is that no healthy dog is ever going to starve just because you’ve changed the way you’re feeding him. He’ll learn to eat at regular intervals. After all, when I had to be at the table at 6 pm, and knew that all I’d be offered was macaroni casserole until breakfast the next morning, I ate it.

Oh, by the way, don’t give your dog macaroni casserole. It usually has nasty, slimy canned tomatoes in it (Mom, are you reading this?), and tomatoes are bad for dogs. You know what I’m getting at here, though – give it time, and your picky eater will adapt to your new feeding method, usually in a matter of a few days.

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Once your dog is used to the new way of feeding, you can start to observe more closely how much he is eating, and how much he actually needs, and you can make adjustments. If he’s consistently leaving food in his bowl, then you’re giving him too much. If he is eating slowly, but still seems to want more, you can add a bit. Ultimately, you’ll get the portions right. For that matter, you’ll have to, because you will have just made the choice to make mealtime a very important event in your dog’s life.

For my part, I am going to continue to free feed Janice and Leroy, simply because I believe it’s best for them. And that’s what being a responsible dog person is all about – determining what is best for your individual dog, and sticking with it, regardless of what’s convenient. Free feeding is indisputably convenient, but that’s not why I do it. And as long as you’re sure that regular mealtimes are what’s best for your dog, I’m not going to argue with you. In fact, many veterinarians are in full agreement with you.

So, now that you know why many dog people and veterinarians prefer regular mealtimes, make the choice that is right for you and your d