Dogs and Food
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Dogs and Food

Dogs
Health & Safety

Dogs instinctively have certain rituals and habits around food which are completely different to ours. But once you understand the way dogs view food and feeding time, it can explain a lot about other aspects of their behaviour too. And there's more to it then opening a tin or packet and putting the contents in a bowl!

Who eats first

In the wild, the pack leaders eat first, then the rest of the pack take turns according to status. There is a basic reason for this - survival of the fittest. If it emerges that there isn't enough food to go round, at least the leaders and next strongest pack members will have eaten and will survive to hunt another day. And if that means the weaker pack members have to go without, then so be it. As tough as that may seem, that's the way it works in nature. And it goes against what would probably happen in a human survival situation - the stronger members of a group would give up their food ration in order to help the weaker, sicker ones. To an animal such as the dog, that just doesn't make sense, but that's because there's no emotion involved.In addition to survival, eating first also means the leaders are reaffirming their status. So at home, we can do the same with our dogs and many trainers and behaviourists recommend eating before feeding the dog. In reality, though, it's not always that easy. There will probably be a gap of at least several minutes between finishing your meal and preparing the dog's food, so the impact of the leader eating first will have disappeared. And what if you're going out for a meal? How would it work then? There is a simpler solution. By eating a mouthful of food immediately before putting your dog's food in front of him, he will get the message that you are eating first, just as the pack leader does, and he is then being allowed to have his turn. But, just to be clear - there is no need to eat dog food, eat something of your choice and also, don't just pretend as this won't work. Your dog isn't only watching what you do but can smell your saliva as you chew and swallow. And you're not teasing your dog, but matter-of-factly eating first, then allowing him to eat. Under supervision, children can also use this technique to help raise their status in the dog's eyes and to gain some respect.

Taking the dog's food away

This is an absolute no-no and a completely inappropriate way to test a dog's temperament. There is a big myth that a dog owner should be able to approach their dog while eating and take the food bowl away, maybe because young children are around and the dog should be able to put up with being disturbed while eating. Let's go back to the pack situation. When it's your turn to eat, that is sacred and you're entitled to eat undisturbed until you have finished and walked away. Even the pack leaders don't disturb another to go back for more, it's just not done - when you've finished, that's it. The only time you will be challenged while eating is in the event of a more junior pack member taking a chance on getting you out of the way in order to work his way up the ranks. But even the lowest ranking dog will try to defend their food in the only way they know how - by growling, snarling, snapping and biting. So go back again to the domestic situation. If you disturb your dog while eating and try to take his food away, you're immediately showing yourself to be subordinate to him and he'll understandably protest, with his teeth. And to add insult to injury - this is food you gave him in the first place! It's best not to even create this situation in the first place and stick to the rule: Let feeding dogs eat. If your dog is placid and would allow you to take food away, it doesn't mean you should! Even if you can take your dog's food away, there's nothing to say he will allow someone else to do it, especially a child who is below him in the pecking order. Instead it would be far safer to have a rule that the dog is left well alone while eating (how long does it take after all), perhaps shutting him in a separate room or behind a child/dog gate for extra security, then take the bowl away when he moves away from it when finished. Job done - no food or bowl for the child to interfere with, or for the dog to protect. The same applies to chews and bones too.In an emergency situation, e.g. if the dog has something dangerous, try distraction first and get the dog to swap his prize for something else. Sometimes, you only need to pretend you have something better. Only physically remove something from your dog's mouth as a last resort.

Picky Eaters

Back in the wild, there is no such thing as a picky eater - it's about survival again, so they eat when they can and when food is available. They don't refuse food because they don't fancy it, or because they don't like the taste, or because it's the same as they had yesterday. The simple fact is - go without and you don't know when food will become available again so you risk at best going hungry, or at worst - starving. So if you have a dog who is a picky eater (ie a dog who chooses not to eat what's given), there is no need to buy or cook special food to tempt him, instead you need to change your dog's mind about who has the power over food. Dogs will, and do, use food as a tool to test who has power. If a dog can get you to leave food down for him all the time and he can choose when to eat it eg when you're not looking, it gives him power but is also very confusing as it just wouldn't happen like that in his world. No dog would ever let himself starve so there is no harm in removing uneaten food when he loses interest in it and walks away. Put it down again (or a fresh serving, if required) later, or at the next mealtime. Once your dog realises he has to eat straight away or lose it, he'll start eating properly rather than go hungry. NB: If your dog usually eats well and suddenly loses his appetite or the situation continues for more than a couple of days, a check-up with the vet is advisable, in case there's an underlying medical problem.However, if your dog has other behavioural issues, not eating properly may also be a sign of stress ie he just can't eat when people are around or when other things are going on, he needs to wait until all is quiet, there's no-one around and he can relax a little. If this is the case, these other issues need dealing with as well as the feeding problem. Also, if you have a dog who is aggressive around food and resents food being removed even when he's not interested in it, you may need to seek professional help to prevent the situation getting out of hand.

Treats

If your dog's diet allows, occasional treats are fine but try to think of them as rewards. So as well as rewarding your dog with small treats during training and to reinforce good behaviour, ask him to do something to earn any extras - even coming to you to get the treat is preferable to you taking it to him. It doesn't matter if he only has to walk a short distance to you. You're not his servant after all!

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