Written by Anna Hollisey
Does your dog wolf down their supper in ten seconds flat? They’re not alone. For many dogs, dinner is the highlight of every day… so why not put that excited energy to good use? Here’s more about using dinner-time to teach your dog manners, patience, or other skills.
If you leave food in a dish for your dog all day (especially if it’s dry, brown kibble), there’s no sense of anticipation. Food that’s been in the bowl for 3 hours probably doesn’t taste that good either! Early in your pup’s life, you should establish a regular feeding pattern so they get just enough in 3 meals.
Dogs thrive on routine. Consistent meal-times can be the cornerstones of their day, helping them to learn what to expect at different times. Once they know their tea-time, your dog will notice their rumbly tummy – if you ever forget, there’ll be a warm nose nudging you.
When you’re doing a lot of training, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of food in your dog’s meals a little. Then they won’t be completely full, and you won’t be over-feeding when you give them treats. Don’t forget that treats are complementary foods, and your dog really needs all the nutrients provided by a balanced dog food.
Now we’ve reached the fun part – how to introduce ‘learning moments’ to dinner-time!
If your dog is the kind who needs plenty of entertainment at home, why not introduce a challenge to their dinner? Mental stimulation can help to exhaust busy dogs. It’s just as important as physical exercise, especially for working breeds.
There are absolutely LOADS of puzzle toys on the market, so it’s best to experiment to find out what your dog loves. For instance, a rampant chewer will destroy a flimsy toy containing food – so a durable, roll-to-release type ball would be better for them.
Here are some of our fave dinner-time toys:
This releases treats or kibble. This is hard rather than chewable. Your dog will have to push it around with their nose to get a trail of food to drop out! It’s great for keeping attention and developing concentration.
Is a world-famous toy that’s now available in many shapes and sizes. When you buy a Kong, you can expect it to last for years. These super-tough pear-shaped toys are designed to be filled up with kibble, treats, pate, grated cheese or peanut butter. Your dog can try a range of actions - rolling, chewing, and licking it – which develops their problem-solving skills.
There are several innovative toys which require your dog to slide, push, press or knock parts to release or reveal a treat. They can be stocked up to provide plenty of learning time. Check out the toys by Nina Ottosson, which progress from simple to very challenging!
These are useful for those dogs who gulp their dinner, and they’ll exhaust their think-boxes too. There are many designs on the market, including maze-style bowls with raised sections and wobbly bowls which must be tilted to release food. Tip: Some owners improvise ‘slow feeding’ equipment at home; try using a muffin tin, a silicone Bundt pan, or adding a tennis ball to your dog’s own bowl.
There’s another reason that vets recommend challenge-feeding, and that’s to keep your dog’s brain active, which helps to fight dementia. Older dogs can benefit from this activity, whether you scatter their favorite food in the yard or use a mat or toy.
For older dogs, we love a snuffle mat. It doesn’t demand over-exertion, just sniffing to find each piece of kibble. It’s less challenging than a puzzle toy, letting your dog draw on their experienced nose to know when they’ve found every morsel.
When you are doing core training, dinner-time is a useful opportunity to practice certain skills with your dog. Like your daily walks, these are times when your dog is naturally excited and you can test their powers of retention.
The ‘wait’ command helps your dog to develop impulse control. It’s difficult with puppies (who are inclined to leap at anything and taste everything) but this control is what makes our dogs good domestic companions. It will take time.
If you start by asking your dog to ‘sit’ before placing their bowl on the floor, you can use a release cue (like ‘OK’) when you put it down.
Tell them to sit and then hold your palm up and say ‘wait’. After counting one-two in your head, and if they stayed sitting, give them a treat. Once they understand that ‘wait’ means keep still, you can start practicing it at dinner time.
Your dog should not guard their food from you. This type of behavior can develop into aggression. Unfortunately, guarding is a natural instinct for some dogs; after all, they’ve evolved from pack animals who always had to guard their resources. It’s important that your dog knows they can trust you and they are secure. Here are some tips on preventing aggression or defensive behaviors at dinner time: