Why I will never free feed my dogs

Free feeding a dog means that a dog has access to food all day long. Now how can I say that I don’t like free feeding? The dog is eating so that must be a good thing right? That makes me a good dog owner right?

Wrong!  There is a lot of controversy around the feeding of dogs, when to feed them, how much to feed them etc. Now let me explain some of the negatives of free feeding.

  1. By nature dogs are opportunistic animals. Whenever food is readily available, dogs will nibble on it all day long. So what is bad about that? In studies conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, they found that 52.6% of domestic dogs are obese. They also found that most owners were not aware that dogs can become obese. As many as 93% of owners did not know how to look for obesity in dogs. So why is obesity so bad for my dog? Obesity can lead to many illnesses to start with. The dog might get early arthritis and joint problems because of the extra weight they must carry. Obese dogs are known to get diabetes type 2. They can also develop heart disease, kidney disease and a variety of cancers. Bloat is another medical issue that kills thousands of dogs each year. Chances of developing these illnesses are just so much higher in cases of free feeding dogs.
  2. You lose one of the best training tools you possibly can have. In modern dog training, trainers use food as a training tool. Food gets used as a reward for a wanted behaviour. If the dog comes when he is called and the behaviour is reinforced by a tasty treat – the likelyhood of the dog coming to you the next time he is called is far greater, as there is something in it for him! Win win situation! If the dog had just eaten, he would not be enthusiastic about a treat and will most probably give you a slow response if any at all. It is much the same as it is in humans. After a Sunday lunch you feel lazy and not in the mood for any physical activities. That is exactly what a free feeding dog feels like, in its case it feels like that all the time. Food can also be used to correct unwanted behaviours. In cases where dogs bark when you leave, you can use food as a tool to quite them down. You can for instance put some food in a hollow toy and give it to the dog when you leave. If he knows the toy he will spend a lot of time trying to get the food out. In some instances hollow toys with food are used to correct certain behavioural issues like dogs jumping up on visitors, dogs barking etc. Food is also used to correct behaviours like pulling on leash when walking; running away in a dog park and the list goes on. This kind of training is not possible with a dog that has access to food all day long. Pet-parents who complain that their dog doesn’t listen and or labels them hard to train wilful, stubborn, defiant, not food motivated, have unwittingly devalued the dog’s food because he has access to it whenever he wants it. However, by controlling access to what the dog wants, it’s so much easier to ask for a behaviour in exchange for his kibble or other reinforcers.
  3. Fixed mealtimes are great opportunities to train you dog. Instead of putting a full bowl of food in front of his face, you can use the food to teach your dog all kind of behaviours and hand feeding his food to him as reward. For instance your dog has to sit before he gets anything. Then you can food reward him for sitting, lying down, standing up, spinning around and the list goes on and on. Dogs actually enjoy this interaction with owners and owners will find that as this continues training the dog will become easier with time.
  4. Preventing food aggression. Many dogs that gets free fed develop food aggression. This means as soon as somebody gets near his food bowl, he will start growling, showing teeth and even bite. Schedule feeding the dog will let you handle his bowl on a regular basis and it will in most cases prohibit food aggression from starting.
  5. Picking up on medical issues. If you feed your dog twice a day, you will immediately notice when your dog is not eating well, or not eating at all. That might be signs of your pet not feeling well and you can keep an eye on him and maybe not eating two or three meals in a row contact a vet. Dogs with illnesses like biliary will lose their appetite very quickly and with fixed meal times you will pick up quickly that something is wrong with your dog.  With free feeding you will not notice a change in eating habits that quickly, especially if you have more than one dog.

In Conclusion.

Once your dog is used to schedule eating, you can observe how much he is eating. If there is some food left over in his bowl after eating you are probably feeding him too much. If you see he is eating slowly and still hungry you can add some more food. You can adjust your food until the portions for your dog is just right.  On most packaging of good quality dog food you will also find feeding information and recommended feeding quantity depending on your size of dog. The only disadvantage of scheduled eating is that it takes time to prepare meals. But the advantages are so much more and so much more rewarding. If you want to train your dog, take away that permanently filled up food bowl and start interacting with your dog at feeding time. The human dog bond will improve as well.  So, now that you know why many dog people and veterinarians prefer regular mealtimes, make the choice that is right for you and your dog.

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Force free science based behavior modification and training

Eden K9 Abilties

George van Huyssteen (DipCABT)
Practitioner Member CAPBT International
Garden Route, South Africa


Petra du Toit (CPDT-KA)
SABCAP Companion Animal Behaviorist (AB/013)
SABCAP Dog Training Professional (DT/015)