By Stephanie Colman

Taking responsibility for sharing your life with a dog brings many choices: How to train, what equipment to use, what are the best toys? When it comes to feeding a dog, the options are just as varied: Kibble or raw, with grain or without, meals in a crate or loose in the kitchen, free feed or meals served only at a certain time? In my years of teaching manners classes, the last question has come up a lot.

Free feeding is the practice of making food available to your dog at all times. Some people who free feed offer the dog’s full daily ration at the start of the day, while others make sure the bowl is never empty, adding more food whenever it starts to look low. It’s the canine version of a Vegas buffet – there is always something being served, at any time of day or night, and the dog can eat whenever he chooses.

Convenience is typically cited as the reason some owners choose the free-feeding method. Others believe that constant access to food can prevent food guarding, particularly with adopted dogs who might have come from a situation where food was limited. In reality, constant access to food can create ongoing stress in a guarding-prone dog, as he potentially feels he must always be “on guard” to protect his buffet.

It’s often easier to teach a new dog to use self control around dogs who are already very good at controlling their impulses. Mealtime can be a great time to practice as a group! Choosing to be a responsible dog owner means doing what’s best for your dog, even if it’s not always the most convenient option. Most animal professionals agree that meals versus free-feeding is the better option for our dogs, for many reasons, most importantly, the following:

1. Meals help teach and maintain clean house habits.

Simply put, if you don’t know when food is going into the dog, it’s much harder to know when it will need to come out of the dog! This is especially important when initially housetraining a puppy or newly adopted dog, but it holds true throughout the dog’s life.

When a dog is fed on a reasonably consistent schedule, it’s easy to determine his bathroom needs and develop a routine that is easy to follow. Even better than a set routine is to feed your dog in a “window of time.” This helps prevent stressing an anxious dog when life throws a curve ball and he can’t be fed at the exact time he’s used to; it also helps prevent the creation of a clock-watching, demanding, reminding dog.

2. Appetite is an important indicator of health.

Lack of appetite is often the first sign that a dog is not feeling well. If your dog has a habit of grazing throughout the day, it’s harder to know if he hasn’t eaten yet because he’s preoccupied by life or his stomach is bothering him.

In contrast, if your dog has been conditioned to exhibit signs of being hungry within a certain time frame, and readily eats when his meal is presented, you’ll have a reliable sign that he’s not feeling well if he turns up his nose at the bowl. At that point, the owner knows to be on the lookout for other signs of illness, and can decide if a vet appointment is warranted. Plus, if you do visit the vet, you’ll be able to accurately report how long your dog has been off his food.

3. Meal manners for multi-dog households.

In homes with multiple dogs, free feeding can make it nearly impossible to monitor each individual dog’s daily intake. It can also create situations where more assertive dogs are allowed to intimidate housemates into surrendering their portions. This often happens without the owners realizing. They may not intervene until the problem has persisted long enough that it’s noticeable due to a change in the dog’s weight. The longer a dog rehearses an unwanted behavior, the more challenging it can be to modify.

When feeding multiple dogs, it’s wise to teach them to mind their own business when it comes to food bowls. We all deserve to eat in peace. Even when a dog doesn’t seem to mind the intrusion of a visiting housemate under normal circumstances (say he responds by calmly switching to the un-manned bowl, instead), the stress of the other dog invading his territory may lead to snarky behavior – especially if the intrusion occurs on a day he isn’t feeling well or when there are other stressful things going on in the household.

When dogs are fed meals, it’s easier for the responsible humans to gently remind everyone to stay at their own bowl and not interfere with housemates. Adopting this routine also simplifies things when different dogs are on different diets.

4. Meals are more hygienic and prevent unwanted pests.

Ants are cunning little creatures. If you’ve never lived in a place where the very thought of a dropped morsel of food would lead to an invasion, consider yourself lucky – and don’t tempt the immortal insect gods! Food left in bowls is an open invitation for ants and other insects.

5. Meals can be used as valuable training opportunities for life skills.

Unfortunately, the Internet is rife with bad advice when it comes to feeding rituals for dogs. Much of it centers on the ill-conceived idea that humans must somehow assert their status over their dogs by demonstrating control over food and eating. Suggestions typically range from making sure owners eat first, while the dog watches, to ridiculous – even dangerous – ideas, such as spitting in a dog’s food or randomly taking it away as he eats, in an attempt to communicate the idea that it’s really your food and you’re kind enough to share it with him.

At best, such ideas are silly and unnecessary and, at worst, they can erode a dog’s trust in the owners and create the very guarding problems people think they will prevent.

More Info: