Features March 2016 Issue

5 Reasons NOT to Free-Feed Your Dog

The benefits of feeding your dog meals VS. leaving food out.

[Updated December 10, 2018]

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.

dogs with food manners

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.

dog waiting for meal

Saber sits patiently and offers eye contact while awaiting the “OK!” to eat dinner. When the author first adopted him, he knew to sit and wait, but his gaze was fixed on the bowl. The duration of his eye contact was shaped over a few weeks, starting with releasing him to the bowl for a quick glance the author’s direction.

My goal is not to achieve status over my dog. My goal is to teach my dog how to handle himself, as a dog, in the human world. When a dog is motivated to eat a meal, I can use feeding time to help teach several valuable behaviors, such as:

Come When Called.

Coming when called is the most valuable skill any dog will learn. It’s a behavior that might literally save his life. While I use several techniques to teach and maintain a strong recall behavior, simple classical conditioning is always on my list, and is something I practice during every meal.

Classical conditioning is about creating strong associations in a dog’s mind. When I know a dog loves food, and is excited about mealtime, I can easily transfer some of that love and excitement onto my recall word by saying the word a split second before reaching for and feeding a bite of food.

It doesn’t matter what the dog is doing at the time. He can be sitting, standing, etc. What matters is that he hears his recall word and food magically lands in his mouth no more than two seconds later. I can easily rapid-fire my way through 25 rounds of “Saber, here!” in about a minute, and consider this a valuable piece of our recall maintenance training.

Impulse Control.

Some dogs really love mealtime, and, as a result, quickly become over-excited, working themselves into a barking, spinning, jumping frenzy. This often prompts the owners to work faster in an effort to hurry up and deliver the food so as to quiet the chaos.

Unfortunately, delivering the bowl to an out-of-control dog rewards the out-of-control behavior! There are many ways to ask your dog to exhibit self-control in anticipation of receiving his meal, from expecting that he simply wait calmly and quietly, to requiring that he hold a formal stay. At the very least, I teach my dogs that overly excited behavior will backfire, causing me to put food away and walk out of the kitchen!

Formal Stay.

When a dog is motivated to eat, earning a bowl of food is a powerful reinforcer. After my young dogs have learned that remaining calm is the key to keeping me on-task with meal prep, I use feeding time as a prime opportunity for teaching the sit-stay.

Start small, by asking for just five seconds of self-control via a sit-stay as you hold your dog’s bowl of food. If the dog breaks position – including calmly lying down or standing up (since you specifically asked for a sit-stay) – simply set the bowl on the counter and disengage from your dog for 30 seconds or so. It’s wise to busy yourself during this time so that it’s easier to remain disengaged from a dog who might try and pester you as he works to figure out what just happened.

Also, there’s no need to reprimand or otherwise correct the dog when he breaks position. The goal is for your dog to realize that his action (breaking position) is what’s causing the dinner delay.

After 30 to 60 seconds, return to the kitchen, pick up his bowl, ask him to “sit” and “stay” and try again. Chances are good that his “Ah-ha!” moment will come within three tries. When he’s successful, and you reach your five-second count, be sure to use a clear release word (I like, “OK!”) before inviting him to eat. The release word lets him know that this time, getting up won’t result in you removing the bowl.

As he gets the hang of things, be sure to change up how long you ask him to stay, sometimes asking for more, sometimes surprising him with an easy, short stay, but always ending with the release word.

Prevent Guarding.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I much prefer to prevent food guarding problems than to fix them. Mealtime is the perfect opportunity to condition a dog to enjoy his owner’s presence while he’s eating. It’s easier when a dog eats at a reasonable pace, rather than inhaling his food at warp speed (which, in some dogs, is an early sign of guarding).

To buy yourself some time with an enthusiastic eater, try spreading his kibble onto a cookie sheet, adding a large obstacle to his bowl (a small, upside down terra cotta pot works well) to create a “kibble moat” of sorts, or try one of the commercially available bowls designed to slow a dog down by making it harder to inhale large mouthfuls at a time.

As the dog is eating, stand a few feet away and toss several pieces of a high-value treat on the floor near the bowl. He might not even notice at first, and that’s fine. You want to be far enough away so as not to disturb the dog.

Repeat this process during every meal. If there’s room, sometimes walk by, dropping the treat as you pass the dog. Don’t say anything. Just toss or drop the high-value treat. Eventually, he will realize that the “good stuff” is coming from you, and you’ll likely see him pause, in eager anticipation of the treat, as you walk by.

pet free feeder

For reasons listed in the text, this sort of feeder should not be used for dogs; some would argue that it shouldn’t be used for cats, either!

The idea is to build a positive association with a human near the dog and his food. We want our dogs to want us nearby when they’re eating – our presence becomes a predictor of good things. As he eagerly looks to you for the treat, sometimes ask him to “sit” and hand him the treat, then release him back to his bowl of food.

This method works well to prevent food-bowl guarding, or help reverse mild cases when caught early. If your dog is growling or snapping, or has already bitten somebody in proximity of his bowl, please consult a qualified, positive-reinforcement trainer before attempting to modify the behavior on your own.

Say “Bye-bye!” to the buffet

A little tough love is often all that’s needed to transform a dog accustomed to grazing throughout the day into a dog who readily eats meals when they are offered. To begin, make sure you have a solid idea of how much food your dog actually needs. Remember that what’s printed on the dog food bag is only a guide – and is usually significantly more than most dogs need. Plus, it doesn’t take into consideration the calories consumed throughout the day via training treats and special chews. Your dog’s individual metabolism will also greatly affect how much food he needs. For example, my previous dogs included a 30-pound Whippet and a small, 40-pound Golden Retriever who ate the same amount of food thanks to the Whippet’s fast metabolism.

Once you’ve decided on a quantity, split it into as many portions as you plan to feed meals. In general, puppies should be fed three (or even four) times per day until they are about 4 months old, at which time they can be fed twice a day. Most adult dogs seem to do best on two meals per day, but some people find that their dogs do better on one meal a day.

When it’s time for a meal, present the food and set a timer for five minutes. Your dog now has five minutes to eat his meal. If he eats a bite or two and walks away, that’s his choice, but you’ll pick up the bowl at the five-minute mark, and he won’t be offered food again until the next meal. (The only exception here is for young puppies or underweight dogs, in which case I will offer food again in an hour – but only for five minutes. You want the dog to understand that the buffet has closed and he needs to eats when food is offered, or it will disappear.) You can usually safely store what wasn’t eaten after only five minutes, but wet food should be refrigerated or thrown away.

When the adult dog chooses to walk away from the food bowl, he has effectively made the choice to skip a meal. That is his choice. If you have a second dog who is an eager eater, try letting your picky dog watch the eager eater happily eat his left-overs! (Then cut back on the eager eater’s next meal so as not to over-feed him.)

When dealing with a picky eater, it’s tempting to try hand feeding or augmenting the food with table scraps or other toppers, but that can actually encourage pickiness. A little warm water can often jump-start a picky eater by enhancing the smell, and it’s OK to decide on a healthy additive such as a little plain yogurt, but you don’t want to keep changing things up in an attempt to entice your dog to eat. Now is when you need to be strong in your commitment to some necessary tough love. No healthy dog will starve himself when you are offering food at regular intervals.

While a healthy dog won’t starve himself, some take longer than others to understand the new game plan and decide to eat when you offer a meal. The longest I’ve seen it take is three days. Yes, three days! Thankfully the owner hung in there, resisting the temptation to offer training treats and other snacks throughout the day (or caving in all together), and we were all excited to see the dog finally choose to eat dinner on that third day – and all offered meals that followed. Her dog wasn’t being stubborn when he walked away from an offered meal – he was just getting used to the new routine. Just like any new behavior, learning to eat at a specific time, when the dog is used to free feeding, can take time.

After you’ve gained your dog’s cooperation when it comes to meals versus free feeding, how you fine-tune the feeding routine is up to you. Some people stick with the five-minute mark, allowing the dog to come and go from the bowl as he pleases, but only for a set amount of time.

I prefer that my dog stays on-task when at the bowl, so if something catches his attention and he leaves the kitchen, I pick up the bowl right then. So, as long as you’ve established a willingness to eat when a meal is presented, we see no harm in making minor adjustments to fit your lifestyle with your dog’s.

If you find that your dog isn’t consistently finishing a portion, you might be offering more food than he needs. Remember to factor in training treats or portions of kibble that are delivered throughout the day. Try reducing his meal portion by 25 percent and see what happens. If he mows through a meal and seems like he’s starving, its wise to observe for a couple of weeks to see if he’s losing weight – in which case, maybe he needs more food, or a different food – or if the hunger is all in his head.

With a little patience and persistence, your dog should soon understand that his buffet lifestyle has ended, and you’ll both begin to enjoy the benefits of daily meals.

Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Los Angeles.

Comments (14)

I like to feed in the A.M. and P.M. and believe it helps create a regular time when your dog poops. This aids in housetraining and the comfort of your dog if access to outside is not always readily available.

Posted by: springerlover | December 9, 2018 10:06 AM    Report this comment

I sure wouldn't want to be a dog in your house. My RR's stomachs are never empty (starving for meal-time) or taking their food away if they don't want to eat (that never happens). They're fed breakfast, dinner, midnight snack & some treats throughout the day even from my dinner plate. Their food consists of dry & wet together from Merrick dry/wet (mainly) & First Mate dry (treats; low calorie) plus 10 blueberries for breakfast. Water is always available in 3 places in the house, one in the truck & summertime outside. They're not overweight either. They get plenty of excerise (one loves running 2 to 3 miles a day at 20/25mpg; I live in the woods with alot of old logging roads & fishing sites way in the woods).

Posted by: JOLLYJIM | December 9, 2018 9:37 AM    Report this comment

My kennel recommended free-feeding and my owners have always done this. As a canine, I evolved to forage and eat when hungry, not at specific times of day. I have not developed food guarding behaviors, nor do I overeat since I know that I can eat when hungry. I know other dogs may not share this, but I appreciate not having food being the central focus of my relationship with my owners. Rather, I love being around them, indoors and out, and going for walks and to the dog park with them, playing tug-of-war, and saving the house from squirrels and deer. And knowing that when I am hungry, I will always have food. Also, I have a very regular (shall we say) gastrointestinal schedule. Please consider that some of us canines thrive with free-feeding. PS: I am a standard poodle.

Posted by: mabel1 | December 9, 2018 8:01 AM    Report this comment

I know this is an older article, and I think it has a lot of great advice, but I also wanted to mention that there can be very significant breed differences in this practice. Many people with working border collies freefeed them by leaving buckets of kibble out, something that generally astonishes people with labs.

Border Collies are typically not opportunistic scavengers. (That would be a very unfortunate trait in a free running farm dog!) Most of them eat only when they’re hungry and eat only the amount that they need.

Because calorie requirements for a working farm dog can vary hugely from day to day depending on what the dog’s activities were, and in particular if they were moving sheep from one location to another, freefeeding allows each dog to eat what they need for that particular day. Resource guarding isn’t usually an issue, and typically you’ll put out five buckets if you have four dogs.

On the other hand, the same scheme would be a disaster with a typical lab. Of course there are always individual differences, but typical breed traits do factor in as well.

Posted by: Robin J | December 8, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

LOL. This is like a political discussion isn't it! Those who voted to do what you think is best, I'm with you. I am opposed to once a day eating. IMO that's cruel, makes for starving, impacts blood sugar levels. It is probable that my pup doesn't eat her food when I am gone, though she will take her treats just prior. And in my circumstances I always leave a full water and one meal or so of food in her bowl (dry food, elevated) just in case. Because she is a bit reactive and my elder parents cannot handle her so she is alone during my part-time work hours...but in case of an emergency I know she is not left without food or water. The person who wrote this is a trainer and some are more rigid, I have noticed, than others. Again, like child-rearing, different strokes.

Posted by: robin r | December 8, 2018 10:29 AM    Report this comment

To one of the last comments - I've noticed most free feeding dogs dont touch their food or water bowls when they are home alone/without owners.

•PSA• to everyone else..
â–ªI ALSO FREE FEED/WATER MY OWN DOGS.
For example, whenever their food/water bowls empty they get more. It totals up to around three meals and drank a day. Sometimes more, never less. ATLEAST THREE TIMES A DAY! They normally always still have food in their bowl even around bedtime. But that doesn't mean they eat it. BECAUSE THEY KNOW WHAT BEDTIME IS.
And they are smart dogs. They potty outside. There is rarely ever an accident. If there is, it is in the early morning before I have had the chance to take them out.*because I am sleeping*
THEY CAN EAT WHEN THEY PLEASE
THEY GO OUT MULTIPLE TIMES A DAY, when I'm not constantly home or if I sleep in late, STILL, ATLEAST THREE TIMES A DAY **and of course they go out shortly after each time I catch them mowin. That's on top of their minimal, *three times a day!
Also, they dont scarf down food. Like someone else said in their comment, it's always there, and the dogs know that too, so they likely arent going to mow it all down in seconds.
And they usually eat until they dont want to or are distracted(in this scenario, they most likely come back and eat more)
My two furbabes, a pitlab and a huskiweenie are very active dogs. And they are also very loved. They also love their owners(my boyfriend and I)

• So moral of the story is, do what you think is best and make sure your dog is happy too.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Posted by: R3ap3r | September 9, 2018 9:54 PM    Report this comment

I don't believe in free feeding. If you free feed then your dog would eat all day long and probably gain a lot of weight plus I don't think it's a good idea as far as housebreaking goes. I think they would be likely to have an accident if they ate all day. I think sticking to a schedule is important.

Posted by: Wendyanne1969 | September 3, 2018 11:17 PM    Report this comment

The conversation of free feeding our dogs comes up frequently between my husband and I. He believes that a dogs should be fed 1x a day and I believe in free feeding. The points made in this article could apply to dogs that do not receive constant companionship and discipline. I have dogs that roam around our property and they are fed and locked up in their kennels at nite. Each one has their own kennel, inclusive of dog house and full roofing to protect them from nighttime weather conditions and that’s where they are fed 1x a day. I have always keep 1 dog in the house for emotional support, who also spends equal time with other digs as well as in the house. The house dog is free feeding and none of the behavioral traits mentioned in this article apply to him or any other house fogs o have kept throughout my life. In fact, the outside dogs appear to possess some of those qualities mentioned in this article. The outside dogs wolf down their 1x meals very rapidly, where the house dog casually enjoys his food in smaller portions throughout the day. The house dog has never had any accidents in the house and let’s us know he needs to relieve himself by sitting by the door and whimpering or if we are sleeping, he comes over and nudges us or lifts our head to wake up. All my house fogs have followed these behavior. Btw, I’m talking about our pit bulls and dogs only learn behaviors we teach them

Posted by: Vicki K | May 9, 2018 3:06 PM    Report this comment

Wow the reasoning in this article is ridiculous. Dogs are actually very adaptable and smart animals. If dry food is left out all day as part of a dogs routine the dog will not gorge because they know they will have any food they need throughout the day. As far as using the restroom, again, dogs that free feed also have a schedule. My dogs poop in the morning and evening because that is their schedule. Next, food aggression. Was there a scientific article you cited when you said dogs “can” get more aggressive when their food is left out? Or did you just make that up? Seems contradictory to me. I have “aggressive” foster dogs in my home all the time and after training their aggression away, by hand feeding and letting them know their food is always out, they are no longer food aggressive. I’ve fostered about 30 dogs with this method and they all have done wonderfully. Now on to your training theory. You are using feeding your dog dry kibble as training motivation, so I assume you don’t give your dogs treats, wet food, or cooked food? I doubt that. My dog I’ve had since a puppy is extremely smart and I have him trained to do things like open and close doors, get things from the refrigerator and cabinets when asked (which he doesn’t do when he is home alone because he is a good boy), turn on and off lights, put his toys away (which I also leave out for my dogs after training any aggression out of my foster dogs), among many other tricks. Guess what? He has free fed his entire life. Additionally, my dogs are NEVER overweight. Seems like once they realize their food is always there they don’t overeat. Once again, I only leave dry food out and they still receive treats, wet food or homemade dog food occasionally, and a bit of human food almost daily. Anyways, I have always free fed because my father always did it with our “aggressive breed” dogs and it worked for him and now for me.

Thanks for reading 🤗

Posted by: Periwinkle | March 2, 2018 4:57 AM    Report this comment

This was a very helpful article. My dog is fed first thing in the morning. Some days he gobbles it down other times we play "I'm on a hunger strike". I used to wait him out until he started throwing up stomach bile. I would have included in the article physical repercussions as a concern to not take the food up between feeding times.

We also had an episode where a new food was incorporated into the mix that made him sick. We had very bad odors and poor piles and nothing hidden in the mix was going to get him to eat. I take cues from my dog's behavior as to whether he is just being stubborn or not feeling well.

Posted by: Dlp1204 | April 20, 2017 1:42 AM    Report this comment

Where can I Purchase that feeder please? My Pomeranian and Whoodle needs it!

Posted by: TheHappyHumanMom | July 12, 2016 10:56 AM    Report this comment

Hello. .. where can I Purchase that feeder? My Pomeranian and Whoodle needs it!

Posted by: TheHappyHumanMom | July 12, 2016 10:55 AM    Report this comment

Another great article, but I have to wonder if certain eating behaviors are breed-specific. For allergy reasons, I have been a confirmed "Shih Tzu mom" for 35+ years and have lived with many since I fell in love with my first when I was in grad school. Not one of them has ever once exhibited any form of food guarding behavior - whether a single pet or one of two or three, and regardless of the mix of ages (they do take ownership of favorite toys, though, each respecting the "rights" of the other).

When I've had multiple dogs they preferred to share a single food bowl - even when I set down one for each dog (most often when I attempted to feed puppy food to a new puppy), they'd jointly empty one before moving to the next -- so I bought a bigger bowl to allow them to share and share alike and switched to an "all ages" kibble.

Far from having to train them to accept my presence while they ate, every single one of my dogs has *preferred* my company while they chow down - waiting to eat until I came home on the relatively rare occasions when I was out for the day. Even though free-fed, the bowl was untouched when I was away. I have also NEVER had a Shih Tzu who would eat to the point where they became over-weight. My last dog, 11 pound Tabitha, lived to be 19 years old, btw.

Another of my female dogs, 12 pound MeeToo would actually carry a mouthful of kibble around until she found me - cheeks like a chipmunk, making little snorting noises as she attempted to breath through her nostrils, mouth closed. Once she reached me, she would spit it all out at my feet, then happily eat piece by piece before returning to the kitchen for the next mouthful, until she was no longer hungry.

My current 15 month old, 10 pound TinkerToy, will ignore food in his kitchen food bowl unless I am washing dishes or cooking - but will eat immediately when I put down food in a smaller bowl in my office, even when I'm not at my computer.

Since I have been home all day most of the time, I have usually been available to take them out as needed (unless I am teaching a class or in the middle of a client session). Tink has a plastic tray with a pad as an indoor potty for those times, and all of my dogs have been successfully paper trained (even though they all preferred to wait to be taken out, of course).

I have usually appreciated their nudges to take breaks from my computer - so the benefit of "standardizing" their bathroom habits has never been one that mattered much to me. Perhaps if I had not run my own business, going to an office 9-5 instead, I would have been more attracted to the mealtime approach - but my Shih Tzus have all been free-fed without problem.
xx,
mgh
(Madelyn Griffith-Haynie - ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
- ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder -
"It takes a village to educate a world!"

Posted by: ShihTzuMom | April 2, 2016 7:37 PM    Report this comment

Good advice. I feed my dogs in the dog room, in their open crates. They have to wait in the crates while I prep food with their meds and supplements. I set down the food in the same order every day. Is it okay to feed in their crates? Is my routine good?

Posted by: Pjsurratt | March 13, 2016 9:33 AM    Report this comment

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