Does your dog free-feed or does your dog eat on a fixed schedule of feeding times? Last week, dog owners discussed how they feed and why. They agreed that when and how a dog is fed can affect the dogâs health and behavior, possibly just as much as what a dog is fed. This week, Iâve asked dog professionals to explain the advice they give clients and friends about how and when to feed a dog.
Jessica Stinson Hudson When I was a child, my grandmother had a dog who was fed at 5 p.m. on the dot. God forbid someone forgot! At five oâclock the dog barked, bugged us, and ran to the pantry door and back letting us know what time it was. That was never appealing to me, and it didnât seem healthy.
My dogs are not fed on a schedule. They could eat two or three times a day, all different times (my schedule is erratic), they could eat out of a regular bowl (especially on days that weâve done lots of other training/brain games) puzzle toys, stuffed KONGs, scattered kibble, hand-feeding during training, etc. One thing that Iâve found is this has caused my dogs to be very adaptable. Since they arenât on a set schedule, they didnât freak out during the time change. They arenât rattled if I get home late. They are also more motivated by meals and food, which gives me that motivator [to use in training]. I also generalize feeding areasâthey think nothing of eating in the bathroom, off various surfaces, on a cot, out of novelty items, from different surfaces like grass/deck/in car/away from home. I like adaptability with my dogs and this is one way Iâve been able to get it.
On a slightly different note, my training clients who free-feed their dogs tend to have dogs who arenât motivated by much. They have access all day, tend to pick and graze, and they donât seem as motivated to interact with the owners because food has never been used outside of being poured into their bowls. Practically every single dog that a client says is not very motivated by food or treats is either free-fed or fed on a schedule, but [they] donât usually finish the meals offered and they are allowed the option to eat or not. The dog doesnât look to the owner for resources and doesnât show much deference or seek guidance, which affects training opportunities.
Natalie Bridger Watson Yep. I just finished a month of intensive training with a family exactly like this and it felt like pulling teeth. The dog could have made ten times as much progress in that time if she wasnât perpetually stuffed to the gills. The dog should have been 35 pounds and was probably pushing 50, while the owner lamented that the dog just wouldnât eat.
Annie Zeck When I was in Spokane, I could have specialized in house-training small-breed dogs if I had wanted to (I didnât). Many people fed kibble and their dogs drank water all day long. I asked them to try frozen raw and the dogs would get enough fluid that way. It got to the point that I would have them try that before I would schedule a visit. With large-breed dogs, they would usually have a trash can of âcanât rememberâ kibble. Many behavior problems were solved just by switching to a higher-quality food.
Photo by Cheri Contreras
Debby McMullen Sorta set times for meals. Prevents pickiness and never feeling fully satisfied. But I do recommend creating a flexible set time such as a range of about three hours for each meal so that dogs donât have issues when someoneâs schedule is different for whatever reason, including daylight savings time. My schedule is very unpredictable and different every day and my dogs roll with whatever time they get fed. Daylight savings time is meaningless to them.
Cheri Spaulding I recommend having regular meal times. Itâs easier for weight control and you can use the meals for training purposes. I donât recommend feeding at exact times every day. I recommend having a range of time; i.e., 6 to 8 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m., to prevent the expectant stares.
Summer Storm Kingery DVM Meals or puzzle feeders. Less likely to develop obesity which puts pets at risk for endocrine, skin, and joint diseases. My absolute preference is 1/6 of food fed in two daily meals (total of 1/3 calories), 1/3 fed as part of positive-reinforcement training, 1/3 fed in multiple puzzle feeders. If I had my druthers: two meals, treats of kibble from treat bag throughout day till empty (commercial breaks on TV are ideal), and one to four puzzle feeders depending on the day and needsâmore if we are gone longer, one if we are home all day, or more if [our schedule] is much more complicated. My goal is enrichment and improved human-pet bonds while avoiding obesity. A lot of pet owners essentially feed another whole or half meal in treats, chews, etc., unintentionally [throughout the day]. I just try to make sure that is intentional and done in a way that controls calories and nutrition. And, of course, medical conditions may affect this. For example, a megaesophagus dog shouldnât have solid treats at all and should be fed three-plus times a day in a Bailey chair, while a diabetic on insulin needs to avoid carbs between meals.
Natalie Bridger Watson Set times is definitely closer for me, although you could quibble with the word âset.â I deliberately avoid being too scheduled with it because I have zero tolerance for âand dinner is coming soon, and dinner is coming soon!â excited demand behaviors in my household. Itâs one of the few âdogs will be dogsâ behaviors that I wonât tolerate at all. So itâs within a two- to three-hour window of the same time each day, but not predictable enough to get demand behaviors or superstitious anticipation, because I canât stand feeling harassed by my dogs.
For my own household, even if I didnât prefer set meals in general (and I do), free-feeding would not even remotely be an option. I have four dogs and a long-term foster. Out of the five, four would happily eat themselves to death if given the opportunity. One is a dog/dog resource guarderâleaving a bowl of food down would be astronomically stupid in any multi-dog household Haven was in; there would be blood. Three are actively in training and while I donât believe in using deprivation as a motivator, I will absolutely choose what time of day I train based on how hungry I want the dog to beâbefore dinner if I want them very food-y and after dinner if I want them satisfied and drowsy. Two are slightly underweight, one needs to maintain his current weight, and two tend to drift toward plump if I donât keep a careful eye on their portion sizes.
Even if my dogs wouldnât happily eat until their stomachs burst (and they would), if I free-fed them in such a multi-dog household, I would have no way to know who was eating how much. My dogs are sports dogs, so their weight is a factor in their performance. And when Iâm training in-home, Iâm often just using kibble because my dogs will happily work for it (before or after dinner). If I free-fed, I would have to use more expensive rewards during training. I also know how my dogs feel about food, so food refusal or poor appetite is a medical red flag for me. If Indi, Bright, or Roman didnât immediately dive into their dinner, I would be on my way to the emergency vet within the hour. I would have no way of knowing that if they were free-fed.
As a trainer, I strongly recommend that my clients stop leaving food out all the time. The simplest reason is that the vast majority of my clientsâ dogs are overweight, out of shape, and bored. And if youâre patting yourself on the back because your dog isnât one of them, Iâll add that most of my clients have absolutely no idea what their dogâs healthy body condition looks like and they donât think their dogs are overweight, eitherâeven the ones who are morbidly obese. And these are intelligent, rational adults who care enough about their dog to pay hundreds of dollars for a trainer.
I see the same cluster of factors driving a lot of different behavior problems: overfed, under-exercised, under-stimulated, bouncing off the walls with pent-up energy, hard to motivate with food reinforcers because food isnât valuable to them, âbarely eatsâ so the owner leaves food out all the time and gets more and more creative with toppers and mix-ins and add-ons to entice their double-wide dog to eat the massive portion that the bag says they should eat.
Switching from free-feeding huge portions to structured meals through food-dispensing toys can make an enormous difference in these dogsâ lives, even without other training interventions. You can kill a lot of birds with one stone: regulate their weight, give them a brain toy to play with, give them a productive âpunching bagâ to take that energy out on, increase their willingness to work for food in general (which makes training go so much faster), and turn something that is currently boring into the highlight of their day.
Whatâs your choice about how and when to feed your dog? Do you know if your dogâs weight is appropriate? If not, ask your veterinarianâmake it clear you want to hear the whole truth!
âȘ Develop a specific feeding plan to accommodate whatever changes in weight or other health factors your veterinarian recommends.
âȘ Make regular âhappyâ visits to your veterinary clinic to weigh your dog. Staff will be glad to tell you what times are best for a short drop-in to walk your dog onto the scales, get a weight, and make sure itâs added to your dogâs health record.
âȘ Donât forget suitable food rewards for your dog to enjoy while being weighed!
âȘ Invest in several sturdy and appropriately sized feeder or puzzle toys that dispense food while challenging your dogâs brain and body. Talk with staff at a trusted locally owned pet supply store for suggestions and inspirationâthey know what works!
âȘ Be flexible with feeding choices. Dogsâ needs and likes can change over time.
âȘ Keep up on nutrition information and news. Be willing to try something different.
Adaptability can be a good quality for both dogs and owners. A stringent fixed-feeding schedule may not be the ideal choice for a pet whose family life isnât always on-the-hour predictable. When time again âsprings forwardâ next year, will your pet even notice the difference? It could be up to you!