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How Dogs Eat Is as Important as What They Eat. Feed Their Brain as Well as Their Belly

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It’s been said that you are what you eat. But perhaps when applied to dogs, it’s more accurate to say, “You are how you eat.”

The way dogs are fed, starting in the formative time of puppyhood, has monumental effects on their physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing and has power to change their internal state as well as their outward behavior.

When it comes to the way dogs are best fed, feeding from the food bowl holds pennies in value when it comes to the tremendous brain- and body-boosting value of more enriched feeding strategies. The benefits make them the standard for my own dogs and those of my training clients.

These ways of feeding dogs don’t just satiate physical hunger, they also feed the brain through healthy mental challenge; offer dogs an opportunity to physically express themselves in a natural way; and help to emotionally relax them by providing a comforting sense of agency over their life.

Ditching food bowl feedings for creative ways of delivering food to pets gives a more natural and fulfilling mealtime experience more closely aligned with a dog’s instincts. Consider the following feeding strategies to switch up your dog’s feedings for the good.

Training Time Feeding

Hand feeding a dog teaches gentle, polite taking of food and treats from human hands. It also forges deep affection and trust between puppies and key people in their life.

Hand feeding is an opportunity to get to know one another at a level that feels safe on the puppy’s terms. Always offer the puppy the choice to approach or to move away at will. 

For more reserved pups, start by gently rolling or tossing pieces of food to land near the puppy. Once the puppy is comfortably moving, encourage social behaviors like eye contact and approach. Reinforce these friendly behaviors with a tossed treat as they happen. 

Once the puppy is up close, start hand feeding. Hold the treat or kibble in a flat hand, held below the dog’s chin, to reduce the likelihood the puppy will jump up and become snatchy with treats.

Then the task can build into holding pieces of food in an enclosed hand, parceling out a piece of food one at a time. Hold pieces between thumb and index finger (and maybe with third finger in there too for extra support and coverage of the food piece until it’s delivered into the pup’s mouth).

Feeding kibble or treats one by one in this way helps to teach the puppy to use a gentle mouth, allowing for easier feeding of rewards during training times.

If the puppy is mouthing the hand using teeth, don’t feed. Instead, wait for a soft mouth with lips or tongue only. When the puppy’s mouth is soft, funnel the piece of food into the puppy’s mouth.

If the puppy’s teeth pinch or poke skin, consider that these attempts to snatch the treats could be a sign of fear, anxiety, or stress. Is there anything in the environment that could be concerning to him, such as the presence of another animal or use of the vacuum nearby? Maybe he’s in a situation of high excitement such as puppy class or meeting someone new. Look for body language signals of uncertainly or distress: a lowered tail, raised hair on the back or neck, or hesitation about taking treats, such as leaning away or taking them hard and fast.

Make needed adjustments to help the puppy relax. This may include going back to an environment where the puppy feels comfortable, increasing distance from the area or object of concern, or lowering the intensity level of the situation. If the pup is simply taking food or treats in a grabby manner because they haven’t learned to not put teeth on human skin, practicing hand-feeding can help them learn to moderate their behavior.

One way to do this is to wait until your pup is already partially satiated so the food is less valuable to him. If necessary, with an overly eager, mouthy eater, hide the hand between the knees, showing it again when the pup backs off. 

Measure out the puppy’s daily allotment of kibble and keep it in treat jars around the house or easily accessible in treat bags or pockets. This allows fast, easy treating for desirable behaviors the puppy does throughout the day, from pottying in the right place to sitting to saying hi.

Food Puzzle Feeding 

Food puzzles invite dogs to use both brawn and brain in pursuit of their meal. They can be set at varying challenge levels to keep pets mentally engaged, yet not so frustrated that they give up.

Acquire a variety of food puzzles, including homemade options that won’t break the bank.

Dogs dig novelty. You don’t have to buy or make a food puzzle weekly but rotate them so that eating stays fresh and exciting for the pup.

Puzzle feeders range from cavity feeders, such as the Kong, which can be filled with soft foods and frozen for an additional challenge for more experienced pooches to other feeder toys that are most appropriate for hard foods like kibble. Think snuffle mats or other toys that require the dog to use nose and paws to find or release kibble or treats by manipulating the item.

Food Bowl Reimagined

Instead of feeding from one bowl, place food in several bowls. At first these may be spaced close together. Over time, move them farther apart—even to other rooms—to encourage the dog to use their nose to find food.

A different version of this exercise can help to reduce resource-guarding tendencies—the instinctive habit of puppies and adult dogs protecting their food from the approach of a person or another animal.

Teaching dogs that sharing their space while they eat is beneficial. They learn that they’ll get something better rather than fearing what they have may be taken away.

To play the resource-guarding-reduction game with a puppy, start with three empty bowls in a triangle about two feet away from each other. Measure out the amount of food appropriate for one meal. Place a small portion of that food, only a few kibbles, inside each bowl, allowing the puppy to move about and eat at will.

When the bowls are empty, pick them up and place a few kibbles in one. Set down all three, adding a few kibbles to the empty bowls after you set them down.

The next round, again set down the bowls, with two containing a few kibbles, plus the empty third bowl, adding food to the empty bowl after it’s on the floor. Then repeat with all three bowls containing food. When the pup finishes eating, toss or place little pieces of extra-tasty treats inside the empty bowls.

By not having the bowls fully filled with food from the beginning, the puppy learns that people add good things to bowls. That creates an eager expectation of the person approaching the bowl. The treats added later reinforce the idea that resources increase when a person approaches.

Continue tossing treats into each bowl as the dog finishes and moves onto the next to instill the idea that a person approaching a former food source that’s now an empty bowl means that more food, or even special treats, will be tossed inside.

This builds positive expectation that something good happens when people approach food sources, so rather than anticipating as would naturally be the case that another individual coming near means their food source is in danger of being taken away, the puppy instead learns that people coming close means good things!

Once the puppy shows happy expectation, such as lifting up their head with ears loose and forward and body relaxed, perhaps even approaching the person with a joyful dance of expectation, you can start to toss food or treats nearby or directly into the bowl where the puppy is eating.

Gradually you can put hands closer to and eventually atop the bowl to deliver treats. The treats should be higher in value than what the pup is currently eating. If the puppy remains relaxed, practice touching the bowl, sliding the bowl’s position slightly on the floor, and eventually picking up the bowl entirely before replenishing treats inside and presenting the bowl again to the dog.

With each approach, touch, movement, or pickup of the bowl, always aim to provide something of high value inside, something the dog could not otherwise access on their own.

Lickable Bowl Challenge

This is ideal for the dog who wolfs down food. Slow feeders, “licki” mats, and soft silicone bowls can be used to encourage dogs to slow down when they eat.

Look for a slow feeder bowl with raised inner edges. These require the pet to maneuver to eat the contents. Eating from this type of bowl slows down a chowhound and adds some variety to mealtime.

A bowl made of a soft silicone material with raised edges that offer a textured surface also puts the brakes on fast eaters. To encourage the dog to lick it good, fill the bowl with a soft, spreadable base such as canned dog food. As a special treat, add fillers such as plain canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), peanut butter (check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain xylitol), or low-fat cream cheese. All of these can be mixed with the pup’s regular kibble or other hard treats to add interest. Bonus challenge: freeze the mixture to increase the amount of time your dog spends eating.

Can these techniques be used with adult dogs, too? Dogs of all ages can benefit from them but pay close attention to grown dogs who have any tendency to become “growly” or concerned around food, toys, or other possessions. Don’t try to deal with it yourself but consult a Fear Free Certified Professional veterinarian, behaviorist, or trainer.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Mikkel Becker is a certified trainer, dog behavior counselor, and lead animal trainer for Fear Free.

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