Teaching Your Dog Good Food Manners

Some dogs seem to naturally have good food manners;

they don’t crowd other dogs away from food, don’t gulp their own food as if it’s the last thing they’ll ever get to eat, and don’t grab have their owner’s hand when offered a treat. Other dogs, however, are a bit more greedy when it comes to meal and treat times (their own or their owner’s). Good food manners can be taught though and these skills can help lessen your dog’s excitement, anxiety, or possessiveness around food.

Establish a Schedule for Meals

Three meals a day is suggested for retraining a dog with poor food manners. By feeding him three meals, you will prevent him from becoming overwhelmingly hungry. His primary meals can be morning and evening but then have a smaller meal sometime during the day; that time being set according to your daily schedule.

Scheduled meals will help keep your dog’s appetite and hunger on a more even keel and by doing so, prevent some of the emotional highs and lows concerning his food. The schedule doesn’t have to be etched in concrete; at 6:30am and 6:30pm on the dot every day, for example. Dogs are very good at becoming fixed to a schedule and if his feeding times are not flexible, then he’ll become agitated at any changes. Instead, feed him his morning meal at any point within, say, an hour before you leave for work. Dinner can be any time within an hour of your normal dinner time.

I generally feed my dogs prior to eating my own meals. Although, many trainers commonly recommended (or still do recommend) eating your meals first before feeding the dogs, I feel this isn’t as important as we once thought it was. Do what works best for you and your family.

Feed Part of his Meal By Hand

Years ago, dog owners were told to put their dog’s meal in a bowl and put it on the floor for the dog to eat. Dog owners were never, ever, to feed their dog food by hand because it would spoil them. Well, as with all professions, we continue to learn every day and this is one of those rules that has fallen to the wayside.

When I bring home a new puppy, adopt a new dog, or am working with a dog who has food issues, I feed at least half of the dog’s meal by hand. I feel this gives me a wonderful opportunity three times a day to show the dog I provide his food and that he can learn to take it nicely from me. These times are both great bonding opportunities as well as good training sessions.

When offering food by hand (a piece of meat or other easy to handle foods) I will hold the food in my closed hand to the dog. He is then to gently nose or lick my hand and I’ll open my hand so he can take it. If the dog touches me with teeth to grab the food, my hand remains closed.

When feeding The Honest Kitchen’s foods, I offer the foods on a spoon and let the dog lick the food off a spoon. Not only can this slow down a food gulper, but it’s a great skill. If you need to give your dog medication one day, putting a bit of food on a spoon with the pill buried in it is a great way to make sure your dog gets the medication.

After feeding at least half of the meal by hand, I give the dog his bowl to finish the rest of his meal in peace. Don’t put your hand in his bowl or mess with his food; that is only going to make him more anxious.

Tools to Slow Food Gulpers

If, when given his food, your dog eats as if it’s his last meal, you’ll want to slow him down a bit. Not only is the dog who gulps his meal unsatisfied (his stomach hasn’t yet told his brain that he’s full) but many gulpers will vomit after eating because they’ve shocked their stomach by taking in too much food too quickly.

Some dog owners will place some smooth stones that are too large for the dog to swallow in with the dog’s food so that as he’s eating, the dog will have to move the stones around in the bowl to get to the food. There are also commercially available bowls with pillars that come up from the bottom of the bowl that serve the same purpose.

There are many food dispensing toys on the market now that can be loaded with your dog’s meal (or treats) and with these, he has to move or otherwise manipulate the toy to get his food. These range from simple (for puppies) to more advanced.

You can also slow down a gulper by feeding him half or more of his meal by hand. When you’ve fed him at least half of his food, asking him to sit while he eats and asking him to take it gently, then give him the rest of his food.

©istockphoto/sanjagrujic

©istockphoto/sanjagrujic

Sit is Self Control

I teach my dogs to sit while I fix their meals so they aren’t tripping me, knocking the bowls out of my hands, or jumping up on me. I also want my dogs to sit before I give them a chew toy or treat for the same reasons.

Teaching a dog to sit also helps teach him self control; he can sit still and hold that sit until you release him. It’s a great skill with many uses. The food, treat, or chew toy becomes a reward for sitting as does your praise.

During Your Meals

When you or others are eating, don’t allow your dog to beg. Begging usually gets worse over time and you’ll end up with a dog who isn’t just sitting and watching you with big eyes, but he’ll start nudging hands and arms for food, barking, whining, and even jumping up on people, chairs or even the table. Begging never gets better on its own and always escalates; don’t allow it.

This also means the dog isn’t to be fed from the table or your plate. If you have some food you’d like to share, wait until you are done eating, walk away from where you were eating and have your dog do something for those bits of food. He can sit, lie down, or do some tricks.

When I have a puppy or a newly adopted dog I put him in his crate in the living room so he’s not isolated but yet also not too close to where people eat. After beginning the puppy’s training, then I have him stay on a dog bed in that same location while we eat. If he decides to join us, I take him back to his spot. He’s never rewarded when he comes to the table.

Preventing Food Problems

Where is there food in your house? Make sure no one leaves food or snacks in pockets, purses or bags where the dog can sniff it out. Not only could these be dangerous for the dog to consume, but he may decide to chew his way to the food, destroying clothes or bags. Make sure no foods are left in bedrooms, on end tables, or in other places. This will require some changes in your habits but when trying to change your dog’s behavior, it’s only fair not to tempt him.

How about other pets’ foods? Cat food is particularly appealing to dogs as it’s usually higher in fat than most dog foods. Feed your cat and store his food where dog doesn’t have access to it. Ferret food, rabbit, and even bird foods can tempt a hungry dog (or a dog who thinks he’s hungry).

Trash cans with food leavings or wrappers also need to be stored where the dog can’t reach them. Trash cans can also be dangerous; there are items in there that can harm your dog or make him sick so choose a secure location for the trash and take it outside often.

Keep in mind, dogs repeat actions that are rewarding to them. If your dog raids the kitchen trash can, or your purse, or your pockets and finds some goodies, he’s going to do it again.

Be Patient

Just as changing our eating habits can be difficult for us, so is it when trying to change your dog’s behavior around food. Don’t get angry; instead be consistent, be calm, and be patient. You can help your dog but it will take some training and patience.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

The Best Tips for Raising a Kitten
Cats vs. Dogs: Why Moving with a Cat is Such a Struggle