To Ditch or Not To Ditch….

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).

DSCF9576However, 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.

My advice?

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. DSCF9538

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.

 

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Keep those experiences positive

We all get told to do it, but just how do we do it correctly?

What am I talking about? Socialising your puppy of course.

24826216_1747354428670420_1879317993_oWith having a new puppy myself, I’m back to going through this process with my puppy. So let’s take a look at what socialisation is all about. Basically, it means exposing your puppy to everything that it is likely to meet as an adult, so that your puppy isn’t frightened by those things in later life. Sounds all fine so far, and we’ve all seen those checklists where we tick off that our puppy has met x number of people this week and x number of dogs and heard x number of sounds and so on.

 

Checklists are great as a basic, but they do tend to shift your focus onto completing the checklist rather than the actual process of socialisation and what it means to the puppy. Socialisation is the process of allowing a puppy to become familiar with something, whether that is a person, and object, a sound or another animal. It is a process of habituation (becoming familiar with) and it should be a positive experience (nice things happen) or neutral (nothing pleasant or scary happens).  Given a choice, I prefer to make every experience that a pup has, a pleasant one. It sets the pup up for being a well rounded, confident dog that can take a few emotional knock-backs because it has a host of positive experiences to fall back onto.

If we become focused on just ticking the boxes on a checklist, we can forget to make these experiences pleasant or neutral for the pup. What can happen is that a pup is put into a situation and then feels overwhelmed. This is not a positive association for the pup, nor is it neutral; it is a negative (scary) situation for the pup and continual experiences like this will create a pup that doesn’t like certain people, dogs or situations or could even become a nervous dog altogether.

If someone wants to say hello to your puppy, ask them to ask the puppy if it wants to say hello. If the puppy puts its tail done, turns its head away or moves away from that person, then the puppy is quite clearly saying that it doesn’t want to say hello. Respect the puppy’s decision and just ask the person to stand there and leave the pup alone. What you don’t want to do is pick the puppy up and thrust it into that person’s arms as now you have just taught your puppy that you won’t protect it when it is frightened (you are no longer a safe place) and you have just made that person and that experience (other people approaching) a very scary thing. You also don’t want to drag the puppy by the lead to ‘say hello’ or allow the person to keep approaching until the puppy can’t escape and has to submit to being touched. These situations will end up being very scary for the puppy and they can learn quite quickly, to be scared of people (or even a specific type of person, such as men, women, children, babies, etc.) and try to run away or to drive the scary person away by barking and lunging. What we have just done is the direct opposite of socialisation! We actually made people scary!

The same can happen when your puppy meets another dog or puppy. Allow them the chance to decide whether they want to interact or not. There is little point is pushing your pup into interacting  with another dog or puppy that is going to be aggressive or bullying with them. A poorly run puppy play session, whether it is at a training class or a dog creche, can do untold damage to your pup and make them worried by other dogs approaching, so that they react by barking and lunging or these play sessions can teach your puppy to be a bully. Neither of these scenarios are good or appropriate socialisation.

DSC_1656Pups do not need to play with every dog they meet or every person they meet in order to become sociable around them. All they need to do is be able to see them and have wonderful things happen whilst dogs, people, vehicles etc. are present. If the puppy wants to approach closer, then fine, but do be guided by your pup’s body language, not by an arbitrary check list that says your puppy MUST meet 10 people this week. Yes to the meet, and be prepared to say no to the interact.

Of course, depending on your pup’s innate personality, it is entirely possible to over-socialise your pup. What do I mean by this? Well, your pup can have so much fun saying hello to other people and dogs that it has little interest in you and all that it wants to do is drag you over to say hello to other dogs and people or it clears off to see them as soon as the lead comes off and has little interest in being with you. You’ve basically become your pup’s social manager and little else. Your puppy needs controlled exposure so that it learns that responding to you is still important and you should most certainly work on teaching your puppy to come away from another dog (not all dogs are friendly) and from people (not everyone likes dogs)

DSC_2108Being able to take your dog anywhere and have your dog continue to do as it is told, is just fabulous and opens up so many opportunities for you and your pup to go on social walks with your dog. Socialisation is something that every pups needs to experience in a positive way. Note that I say it is something that the pup needs to experience; their choice. It is not something that we just expose a pup to, as that it when it is likely to go wrong and we end up turning what was a confident pup into a shrinking violet that finds the World a very scary place.

If you are not too sure that you are reading your pup’s body langauge correctly, then please seek help and advice from a reward based dogs training (avoid anyone that tells you that your pup needs to ‘face up to its fears’). You could also take an online course in Canine Communication.

Have aread of our other article on socialising dogs. Sociable or Socialised?