I want to start by saying that the following does not apply if your veterinarian has given you other instructions based on your dog’s health, age and/or size. This article applies to the average, healthy, house-dog.
While you may have heard different things regarding feeding, I find it is very important to feed your dog on a set schedule, usually two feedings a day, and do not leave the food out for your dog to “free feed” or graze as she chooses. Some may tell you to feed your dog on a schedule to help prevent resource guarding, and to show that you bring the food, so you are the “boss,” or “in charge,” but the truth is those are not the best reasons for a feeding schedule.
The first reason most closely relates to my previous blog about Separation Anxiety. Again separation anxiety is probably the hardest behavioral problem to correct in dogs. Feeding on a schedule will allow you to know when your dog is most hungry. If your dog can eat all day and just eat three pieces of kibble here, and three pieces of kibble there, it will be much more difficult to pin point a time when she is hungry. If we know when our dog is hungry we can use this to our advantage in so many ways. For separation purposes we can feed our dog before we leave so she has something to look forward to, instead of something to worry about. If your dog free feeds she will likely just not eat while you are not home. Feed your dog her food, and leave your house for a little while; five minutes, and then come back in, and take the food away, even if your dog has not finished. This way she is learning that she should work on that food while you are gone, because it isn’t always around! This is a good activity for the weekends when owners tend to have more time, it is not necessary to leave each time you feed your dog.
If you are trying to house train your puppy or adult dog, having them eat on a schedule will make this process so much easier! Your dog will be on a more regular potty schedule if she is on a regular feeding schedule. Most dogs will got to the bathroom in a certain amount of time after they eat or drink, and if you are consistent with this, then your dog will be too!
When training your dog it is important to be reinforcing the training with rewards that your dog sees as high value. If your dog is eating on a schedule, you could delay the meal prior to a training session to ensure that food is an even higher reward. You can feed your dog dinner after the training is over.
If you plan to, or already have, young children, feeding on a schedule will also help during that “exploring” phase that most toddlers have. If you leave your dog’s food out all the time, then your crawling baby will likely find his way to the bowl at some point, and what he will do with it… well I won’t even try to think of all of the fun things a toddler could do with dog food, not to mention eating it—gross! If your dog eats on a schedule you can more easily monitor her while she eats so the food does not become a toy for your child.
If you have a dog that may be getting up there in years, skipping a meal can be a sign of a serious health issue, if you aren’t really sure when your dog eats, or even how much because there is always a full bowl, how will you know if she has stopped eating? It won’t be clear to you as quickly as a person who knows when their dog eats; this will make it easier to tell a vet exactly when the last time her appetite seemed normal. This could save your dog’s life! When a dog has an obstructions she often will stop eating because she is uncomfortable, and the sooner you realize this, the better the prognosis.
If you are already free feeding your dog I would recommend a gradual change over the course of a week. Choose the times you will be feeding your dog, and take away her kibble the night before you will begin. The next morning give your dog her food at the set time and let her have it for 10/15 minutes. After that time take the food away, but don’t throw it away yet. Put it somewhere she won’t smell it like the fridge. Wait another 5/10 minutes and give it back to her for 5/10 minutes. After this second try you can throw the food away. Your dog will eat when she is hungry, she may just need to build an appetite and get used to the new schedule. Repeat these steps for your dog’s second meal of the day, and as needed throughout the week.
I hope that I have convinced you, because just like it would not be good for us to eat all day long, it is not good for your dog, and feeding her on a schedule will help improve her house training, behavior and even health!