The Food Bowl that is.
We hear it all the time, don’t we? Don’t feed your dog out of their food bowl, let them work for their food out of Kongs and other food enrichment toys. There are some trainers and ‘experts’ that promote the idea that dogs should never get any food in a food bowl and that they should work for it all.
But is it really the best thing for the dog? Don’t get me wrong, I use food enrichment toys for my dogs. They have Kongs, K9 Connections, snuffle mats, slow feeding bowls and other food enrichment toys. I also use part of their daily ration to reward them for good behaviour during the day (and of course, they get ‘extra treats on top).
However, for some dogs, having to work for all their food causes huge frustration and this can tip over into training and may even result in behaviour problems such as food guarding appearing as well as things such as poor impulse control. We really don’t want frustration to tip over into training as it then becomes part of the behaviours that we are training (yes, emotions can be attached to behaviours during training) and when that frustration bubbles over the top, we can end up with an aggressive outburst and someone (or some dog) is going to get bitten.
Yes, some frustration is good as we do need to teach our dogs (and kids) some frustration tolerance, so that they can cope with delayed gratification rather than just wanting instance gratification. Too much frustration is not good and can lead to aggressive outbursts (bit like a temper tantrum in a child), so we need to avoid that.
We are often advised to feed young puppies (8 weeks of age) only from Kongs. Now young puppies need more food than an adult of the same size as they are growing so fast. They need to eat frequently and need nutrient dense food. They get hungry fast. The problem in feeding only via Kongs, is that the puppy cannot get enough food in its belly quickly enough to meet their hunger pangs. Hungry dogs will have low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can and do result in uncontrolled aggression. Just think how ratty and irritable you get when you are hungry. Hungry animals will resource guard food and people carrying food. They are hungry, so food is very important in their lives, so they will guard any source of that food; their Kongs, their owner’s treat pouch etc. and they will guard it from other people and other dogs.
Yes, there are plenty of puppies that have been fed only via food enrichment toys and have never developed resource guarding, but there are many that have, so it is something to be aware of. Some dogs are more food driven and struggle to cope with being made to eat their food slowly. Yes, we need to teach them to slow down (with having GSDs, I always worry about bloat).
Lara (GSD), has been horrendous. Even at 11 weeks, when she arrived, she has been almost frantic to eat her meals. Feeding her only via Kongs would have been an out and out disaster. She has been hard enough to teach to cope with using a slow feeding bowl, although she is better than she was and enjoys a meal from her snuffle mat.
With this ravenous-type pups,k they do need to eat the majority of their meals from a bowl, but you can also give them part of that meal in a Kong, on a snuffle mat or scatter feed it. This type of pup, can be very grabby over treats, so watch your fingers and teach them some slow treat control and Doggy Zen (see our online Self-control course).
Also. bear in mind what I said earlier; hungry dogs are going to be more impulsive, more easily frustrated, more irritable and easier to tip over into an aggressive outburst.
Feed some of each meal in a food bowl; the rest can come from a Kong or scatter feeding as long as it doesn’t take the dog too long to get the food into their belly.
When you first introduce Kongs, they should be really easy to empty and should empty quickly, especially for puppies. We need to them to get the food out quickly to have satiate their hunger. If we make them too hard to empty too soon, all we are doing is building frustration in an already hungry dog.
Gradually increase the difficulty of the Kong. For the really experienced Kong users, you may want to try freezing them first. For some recipe ideas, take a look at my frozen Kong recipe page
Don’t train a hungry dog. Even a dog that has had its meal will be happy to take food rewards (and their are loads of other rewards we can use other than food). Hungry dogs will lack impulse control, will get frustrated faster and will be more snatchy/grabby over treats and are more likely to tip over into using aggression. Make sure they have had at least 50% of their meal before you train (can be hours before your session) so that you have taken the edge of your hunger (and make sure you don’t train when you are hungry as you will be more irritable as well).
Kongs are fabulous as an entertainment toy; to keep your dog occupied for a little while. Heck, I use them myself and the dogs love them, but just be a little careful over how you use them and don’t make them too hard too soon or use them are the only source of your dog’s food.
My advice is to not ditch the bowl completely.