I’m not a fan of feeding dogs from bowls, as it doesn’t provide any type of enrichment. A bowl filled with food, is typically devoured within a few minutes, and needless to say, there is no particular skill or challenge to that act! Dogs are highly evolved animals that need a job to do. And while some dogs still work herding, guarding, hunting and other forms of service to humans, the typical lifestyle of today’s dog can be a mentally and physically impoverished environment.
The good news is that there are numerous activities and outlets for our canine companions such as agility, treibball free-style, rally, scent work, just to name a few. And even for the “stay at home” dog, a guardian can provide stimulation and enrichment in the form of long walks, where the dog can sniff to his heart’s content, training new behaviors or tweaking old ones, and using puzzle toys filled with the dog’s meal so he has to work at extracting food. And even if one were to feed some meals from a bowl, while it’s not ideal, at least if the dog were given other toys and activities, it would most likely satisfy some of the dog’s needs.
As a trainer and behavior consultant, I spend the majority of my time in the client’s home, and the first thing I look at is the environment to see how the dog is living, what kinds of toys he has, what kind of activities he does, and just as important, I want to know about his “dining experiences”. That’s right, his dining experiences. And in the process I’ve uncovered a different type of circumstance that also deprives the dog of stimulation and that is the pet-guardian who feels that the dog must have access to his food bowl 24/7! In my experience, this is the dog who, sadly isn’t enthused about food, which of course can be very challenging to teach the dog a behavior and or counter-condition him to fear producing stimuli. This dog also has a guardian who continues to add tempting tidbits to the dog’s bowl in an attempt to entice the dog to eat which typically motivates the dog to rifle through his bowl looking for hidden treats, leaving the majority of his kibble in the bowl.
It seems that no matter how I explain the consequences for this human behavior such as a possible nutrition imbalance, no motivation for training, or even an illness that can go undetected because “poor appetite” is the norm for the dog, it usually falls on deaf ears because, let’s face it, food is sustenance; it keeps us alive, it fuels our activities, but for a lot of people it is emotional comfort. Food can trigger wonderful memories of family gatherings, or console us when we’re sick or upset, so no wonder we want to show our love for our pets with food. And it behoves us not to set down a big bowl of “love” so our pets can graze all day long.
Growing up, my mom provided three home cooked meals a day. She awoke early to prepare breakfast, made sure that I left for school with a (shopping) bag filled with sandwiches (yes plural), potato chips, and a Hostess Snowball for lunch and then dinner was always something amazing. The point of this is that I really looked forward to mealtime, and while I don’t have kids, I still provide a “dining experience” for my animals in the way of scheduled feeding times, and as such, they look forward to these daily events. Imagine, your favorite food on your dining room table 24/7. There’s really nothing to look forward to, as it is for the poor dog who picks at his food all day.
The next time you’re planning your next meal at home or gathering with friends in a restaurant, think of the dining experience, and then think of how dreadful it would be if you really didn’t care about food one way or another. This is how some dogs are conditioned to live. Just ask the client, who leaves food in the bowl all day, what foods the dog likes, and the response is typically, “Oh he won’t work for food!”
I believe that if we give our dogs something to look forward to, in the way of a “dining experience” we will have created a very enriching environment. Dogs then can enthusiastically anticipate, mealtimes, puzzles, and even training!