Clicking With Canines

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Training at Dinner Time

I believe one of the most important training tools everyone has available to them is serving dinner to their dog.  In the canine world, which includes our dogs, eating dinner is about as important as it gets for them.  Also, in their culture, the dogs who have the ability to provide dinner are viewed as the “leaders” of the pack.  This is the principle way the alpha male and females of wolf packs ascend to, and maintain, their position as pack leaders.  They have the ability to organize the pack to hunt and obtain food.  A recent study of wolf DNA has revealed that a domestic dog’s genetic composition is 99.98% identical to that of the grey wolf.  It should not be difficult to accept that, despite living for thousands of years close to humans, dogs continue to maintain their own cultural and genetically programmed behaviors and views on their environment.


Therefore, dogs living in human homes and are free-fed (food is left available at any time) tend to develop an unrealistic and erroneous view of life in the human packs.  These dogs have no clear picture of who the “leader” is because food is just there for the taking.  Our dogs, generally, have little interest in leading human family packs.  However, if they perceive the leadership role vacant, some will naturally begin to assume that position.  Of course, when one assumes a leadership role, one expects to be showered with the perks of leadership, no matter if it’s a human or a dog.  For dogs, this can translate to coveting food, places, and objects, otherwise known as resource aggression.  It can also lead to conflict aggression, where the dog is challenging the humans in the pack. 


Dogs whom are provided a structured dinner by one or more of the human pack members, tend to understand their lesser status and have no problems accepting it.  Furthermore, the ability to train your dog is enhanced because the dog inherently understands the importance of paying attention to the “dinner-giver.”  Dogs instinctively understand that the “dinner-giver” should NOT get out of their sight, lest dinner becomes unattainable.


There are two other reasons for dogs not to have food available all the time.  One is to avoid excessive weight gain.  When there is a lack of sufficient exercise, dogs can easily gain weight.  Weight gain is unhealthy for dogs just as it is for humans.  Most dogs for which food is available 24/7 can, and do, get very fat. 


The third important reason for not free-feeding relates to health.  If a dog is not feeling well, one of the first ways it becomes apparent is when the dog stops eating.  Dogs who do not eat are either not hungry, the food is not palatable (though sooner or later the dog will eat it), or the dog has a health condition.  One of the first questions any vet will ask when you bring a sick dog to them is:  “When did he stop eating?”  If a dog is free-fed, it is very difficult to know the answer to that question.  A possible health problem is easier to notice and the dog taken for examination much earlier if it is easy to tell that the dog is not eating.


So, feed your dog a high quality meal (no grocery store or department store, that I’ve found so far, has available a good quality kibble) and make dinner time as interesting as you possible can.  You can do this by always putting a little something extra in their dinner bowl along with their kibble.  A one-quarter or one-half cup of something like chopped carrots, chopped apples, any chopped green vegetable, pumpkin, some tuna fish, a couple tablespoons of cottage cheese, applesauce, or plain yogurt, can make dinner a whole lot more interesting that eating the same old food everyday.  More importantly, adding these gives you a chance to take a little time preparing the food while your dog watches.  This sends a clear message to your dog regarding what his status is in the pack versus yours.  In general, dogs do not allow the “dinner-giver” out of their sight.


When you are ready to feed don’t just set the bowl down.  First ask your dog for a behavior, such as “sit”.  If your dog knows “sit” on cue, then give the word.  If not, just wait.  Trust your dog, he/she will sit all on their own if you give them a little time.  Once your dog is sitting, begin to put the bowl down.  If the dog moves from position, bowls goes back up.  Continue like this until your continues to sit until the bowl is completely on the floor.  Then give a “good boy (or girl)” as the release phrase to eat dinner.  Over time, “good boy” will become a valued reward because it has been associated with getting dinner night after night.  Then when you are out with your dog and he/she does something you like, a “good boy” will actually be rewarding them for their behavior and not just another boring sound we make.  A well mannered dog sits politely for dinner and it is not hard to teach with just a little patience.


Now, once your dog starts eating I recommend a “two-minute” rule.  Your dog has two minutes to start eating.  If it doesn’t, pick the bowl up and your dog just missed dinner.  You are not being mean to your dog, but instead you are communicating that you are in control of dinner, you give it and you take it away.  You are the “leader”.  If he/she wants dinner, they had better eat it quick.  Next, once they start eating, if they walk away from the bowl, even for a second, they are DONE!  You pick the bowl up.  Your dog will learn to eat their meal when its available and not wander off.  If you dog is hungry they will eat, unless they have a health problem or the food your are feeding is simply distasteful to them (it happens sometimes).  This is especially important if you have more than one dog in the household.  You don’t want each dog wandering off to see what the other dogs have to eat.  It just sets the stage for some major resource guarding issues.  You will likely have to pick the bowl up  only a couple of times before your dog realizes it has but one opportunity to eat dinner and it had better take it if it is hungry.  Again, a well mannered dog eats dinner when its offered.


Also, I recommend a feeding time that is not exact.  If you always feed at 6 pm and then you miss it by a couple of hours, your dog can feel be stressed due to missing their meal at the scheduled time.  It is better to pick a range, say from 4 pm to 8 pm and your dog has dinner anytime within those hours.  Every meal time is a training opportunity, so make use of it.

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763