Think Outside the Food Bowl!

Part 1: We Really Don’t Like Food Bowls

Feeding time is an exciting and important part of your dog’s daily routine but just because it’s routine doesn’t mean it needs to be boring.

The key is enrichment; protocols that you can put in place, simply, to provide your dog more appropriate outlets for natural, doggie behaviour.

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Why enrichment for pet dogs?

‘Natural’ behaviour

The “wild”, that idyllic place that’s considered the model we should mimic even though in actuality it is a dangerous, dog-eat-dog place, has nonetheless caused the evolution of a wide range of feeding behaviours that take up plenty of an animal’s energy and keep them busy.

Animals will naturally work for their food, with or without your help (or knowledge!):

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Contrafreeloading

Animals  are compelled to carry out behaviours, even if the goal of those behaviours e.g. food, is freely available.

This is referred to as contrafreeloading – animals often prefer to work for access to food, even when food is freely available.

Sounds counter-productive, but perhaps not!

Check out this smart pup, passing by a bowl of free food to activate a food dispenser:

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Natural Puzzlers

Dogs also appear to experience that ‘eureka’ feeling when working on challenges – working on a puzzle is rewarding to dogs, even if they don’t solve the puzzle successfully (i.e. get the tangible reward such as a food treat).

Dogs are natural-born-puzzle-addicts!

Ian & Irene work on puzzles for the first time, in puppy class; they work harder relative to the value of the food reward – they are in it just for the fun:

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“Problem” Behaviours

When animals don’t get the opportunity to engage in enrichment and are lacking outlets of natural behaviour, they can develop all sorts of difficulties.

At the very least, those behaviours that dogs are compelled to carry out will become a problem for us – dogs need to chew, dogs need to chase, dogs need to sniff and track.
And you might not like the outlets they choose for those behaviours.

All the puppies learn to settle themselves in a busy class with the help of a food puzzle and lapping & chewing, which helps dogs to chill:

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Think of all the things your pup can’t do if he is chilling out, working on a food toy?!

Dogs that are unemployed, become self-employed…

With all that free time on his paws, your dog may also engage in other behaviours that become a problem for you such as barking, digging, escaping, jumping up, being obnoxious.

It is not easy to live with a self-employed dog because the jobs they choose for themselves are usually not particularly preferred by humans…

First step, ditch the food bowls.

Why do we HATE food bowls?

  • food bowls do very little to encourage interaction between dog and owner
  • food bowls do little to teach the dog that good things come through their owner
  • feeding from a food bowl wastes hundreds of reward opportunities by presenting them for free all in one go
  • your dog would probably prefer to work for his food than get it for free
  • modern pet feeding practices encourage a sedentary way of life for our pets
  • there is a limited range of behaviours demonstrated so dogs will need to display them in other ways (which may cause problems for people)
  • chasing, chewing, tracking and using their brains are important for dogs and modern feeding practices often don’t encourage any or much of that

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Food bowls are human convenience devices – toss food in bowl, leave on floor, dog eats….dog is fed and my job is done.

But feeding your pet can be soooo much more…

Dogs come with  predatory behaviour, built-in

Dave Mech, the wolf guru, outlines canid predatory behaviour in a sequence of behaviours called, not-surprisingly, a predatory sequence. These are behaviours that are innate in all dogs and to greater or lesser extents in different types of dogs and individuals.

The dog predatory sequence might look something like this:

track – stalk – chase – grab – hold – bite – chew – dissect

These are the behaviours that your predatory pet needs to do – provide acceptable outlets otherwise he will find his own, and you might not like that.

Watching dogs play with pals gives you an insight into just how relevant these behaviours are for even modern, pet dogs. A good proportion of normal play behaviour will be feeding related with games of stalking, chasing, take downs, neck biting, and of course enjoying being chased too!

You will see your dog practicing these behaviours in other non-real-life scenarios too – give your dog a tissue or soft toy and watch him chew and dissect it, throw a tennis ball or play tug and flip the switch, turning on those in-built behaviours.

But feeding behaviour isn’t just about feeding…

Dogs engage in all sorts of feeding related behaviour, and many activities revolve around feeding.

Dogs enjoy actively scavenging for food and, let’s face it, non-food items – they will devote plenty of time to this sort of activity and often learn to do it when their owners are not watching…!

Although dogs prefer their own space when eating (not big on sharing!) they have evolved plenty of behaviour for negotiating social contact around food.
For the most part, this can cause trouble for us living with modern dogs, but it can be easily managed, with the right guidance.

Competitive interactions, that may lead to resource guarding and even social facilitation have been shaped over millions of years and generations, and despite a few hundred years of pretty intense selective breeding modern dogs still show these behaviours strongly today.

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Digging/burying and hoarding behaviour may be employed by many dogs, often much to their owner’s disgust (especially the green-fingered owners). Some dogs appear really bothered when they get something quite special, carrying it from place to place, vocalising, difficulty settling…
This may be frustration related at not having a safe place to work on their treat or indeed at not being able to stash it away for a rainy day.

Grass and plant eating can cause concern for many owners. But for the most part where this behaviour isn’t excessive or too intense, it’s probably nothing to worry about and a normal part of canine behaviour.
However, where dogs do this a lot, or try to, and/or where there has been any changes to this behaviour have a chat with your vet as soon as possible.
Intense eating of grass, plants or other non-food items (behaviour called pica) may be linked with gastrointestinal upset and stress.

And you thought feeding was just about putting- food-in-a-bowl…

 

In Part 2 we will be looking at things to get started enriching your dog’s life!

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4 thoughts on “Think Outside the Food Bowl!”

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