Why I don't recommend free feeding

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What is free feeding?

This is when you leave food out for your dog to eat whenever they feel like it. Typically owners top up their dog’s food bowl in the morning and allow their dog to graze from it throughout the day. This form of feeding is used by lots of dog owners, but it can have a negative impact on training.

Loss of value

When free feeding your dog has access to its food all of the time meaning that they have no reason to value it. For example, most of us are fortunate enough to have easy access to water and will take for granted that it is always there.

However if this wasn’t the case we would be more grateful and careful with any water we did have i.e. we would value it more. The same applies to our dogs’ food. If it is only there some of the time, its value will be increased.
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  We need our dogs to value food if we are going to use it as a reward.  
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This is important for training as we need our dogs to value food if we are going to use it as a reward. Of course, some dogs will always prefer a toy as a reward but wouldn’t it be great if they were happy to work for food too?

Some dogs will still work for higher value rewards i.e. anything tastier/ smellier/ more exciting than their normal food. These often also have a higher fat content so be mindful of how many you are giving.

You may need to reduce the amount of food you put out for your dog to allow for this. Which brings us to the next difficulty when free feeding. 

How do you know how much your dog is eating?

If you have a dog who eats all of the food available to him/her and you carefully measure it out each day then you probably have a good idea, however this isn’t always the case. It is usual for dogs who are free fed to graze throughout the day and often not finish everything in their bowl.

This is a particular problem for multi dog households as you have no way of knowing how much food has been eaten by each dog unless they are kept separate all of the time.

It's boring!

Finally, this is a really BORING way for your dog to get their daily food allowance. They aren’t having to use their brains and there’s no fun involved, the food just sits there until the dog goes up and eats it.

What should you be doing instead?

Use your dog’s food as a way of having a positive interaction with them. Every time they get food for free you are losing out on an opportunity to build your relationship.

Feeding from a bowl

It is most common for adult dogs to be fed twice a day and puppies three times. This will build more of a relationship between you and your dog as they will see you as the source of their food.

You can also ask for some obedience and self control at mealtimes by getting your dog to wait while you put their bowl down.

Having regular meals can also help with toilet training as you can learn when your dog will need to go out.

Food / treat dispensers

These cover quite a range of options such as Kongs, lick mats, snuffle mats, snuffle balls, cardboard boxes, rolled up towels...the list goes on!

Your dog will need to use their brain to work out how to get to the food. These can be a great way of mentally tiring your dog if their physical exercise is restricted.
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Get rid of the bowl!

You could try removing the bowl all together, by using your dog’s daily food allowance as the rewards for your training. Dogs find working for food more satisfying than getting food for free. They are one of several animals who exhibit this ‘contrafreeloading’ behaviour. 

Mix it up

You could use a combination of above. Do what suits you and your dog. E.g. Perhaps mornings are a busy time for you so you feed from the bowl at breakfast. At lunchtime you put some food in a treat dispenser. Then the rest of your dog’s food is used throughout the day in short training sessions. 

Don't make any drastic changes

However you currently feed your dog, don't make sudden, large changes. For example, if you currently free feed your dog don’t jump straight to getting rid of the bowl entirely.

Start by putting some of your dog’s food down in the morning for 10-15 minutes and then picking it up again. Do this a few times a day so your dog learns that the bowl isn’t going to always be there anymore.

Once your dog finds their food valuable, you can start to use it in your training sessions. The more they associate their food with you, the more valuable you will become to them.

This is very important for general obedience, but particularly recall as you need to give your dog a reason to choose you over the exciting things in the environment.
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