Should I Free-Feed My Dog?
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Growing up with dogs, I did not always have them on a regular feeding schedule. It was really easy to just set out food in the morning next to their water bowl and call it a day. But after doing some research and watching some of my dogs struggle with their weight, I realized that free-feeding was not the best for them. Getting my dogs on a feeding schedule has been great for many reasons and I hope that my experience can help you find the feeding method that works best for you.
According to CrossBones, there are many benefits to keeping your dog on a feeding schedule, including weight management and training as a whole. A feeding schedule can look differently, but most commonly it is feeding your dog twice a day, once for breakfast and once for dinner or it can be once a day at breakfast or dinner. I prefer the twice a day method because that just happens to work for my schedule and when I am home. Breakfast is usually served at 7 A.M. and dinner is usually between 4 and 5 P.M. Dinner may seem a bit early, but this is the timeframe where my dogs do not have accidents in the night.
How does a feeding schedule help with training in general?
A regular feeding routine is one way of getting your dog in the habit of looking to you for guidance and it helps establish you as their leader. Consistency is key with any type of training, especially with potty training. With a regular feeding schedule, your dog will begin to relieve themselves on a regular schedule. They usually need to go potty ten minutes after eating and a few times throughout the day.
Some of my foster dogs have been food aggressive, so a feeding schedule has been one part in the process where I establish control over their food. Training a food aggressive dog can be a process, and regular training is instrumental in teaching appropriate behaviors.
If you have more than one dog, free-feeding can be the root cause for food aggression and resource guarding. The lack of regularity and adequately allocating resources for each dog stresses them out to the point of a survival mode, and they subsequently turn to extreme behaviors to defend what they view as their resource. Feeding on a schedule and in separate bowls prevents aggressive behaviors from occurring.
If your dog will not eat without you hand-feeding them, then definitely put them on an eating schedule. It is important that your dog knows when it is time to eat and that you are the one who is in control of their eating schedule. So if they do not eat their meal within the time that you give them the food, then pick up the food and feed them at the next scheduled time. They will eventually learn that when you set down the food it is their time to eat. Your dog will have to eat at some point and they will not just starve themselves.
Weight management and why free-feeding is not the way to go.
Free-feeding is when you set out a bowl of food for your dog to eat at their leisure throughout the day. This may not be a bad thing, weight management wise, if the right amount of kibble is poured into the bowl every day. If you are setting kibble out with no concept of portion control, this will definitely contribute to their inevitable weight gain and potential health problems that come with obesity (collapsed trachea, diabetes, etc.). In the case of owning more than one dog, one may eat more than the other and leave the other dog without enough food. The dogs do not know when to stop eating, or they will overeat, so it becomes really hard to control their portions and weight gain.
From personal experience...
Fostering dogs has really opened my eyes to the consequences of little decisions that we make everyday for our dogs. Even something as simple as setting a bowl of food out all day for your dogs can be detrimental to their learned behaviors and relationships with you and other dogs. I had no idea about the risks of free-feeding until I personally went through all of the issues above. I have had dogs struggle with their weight, exhibit food aggressive behaviors, and suffer from obesity-related health problems. These problems can burden anyone, so do right by your dog and get them on a feeding schedule. They will be much happier and you will be relieved when they grasp training concepts quicker.
HOWEVER, there are dogs that do benefit from free-feeding. Adult dogs that have a healthy relationship with the other dogs in their home, or if they are an only dog, and who have access to their portion of food for the day, can benefit from the free-feeding method. Maybe you work during the hours you would typically feed your dog? Maybe it is easier to portion out the food once a day for your pup? Maybe they are a slow eater? Free-feeding can certainly be an option for certain homes.
Establishing a schedule really has desirable effects that pervades all forms of training. It is all about building trust and being consistent with your routine, and that can begin with your dog's feeding schedule.