I’d like to preface this article by stating I do NOT advocate making your dog (or cat) work for every bit of their meals. That can lead to frustration in your pet. What I am suggesting is that, meal times can be a great time to practice some training and/or provide enrichment opportunities.
With a new dog or puppy, using their food early on, gives you dozens of positive reinforcement opportunities. You can teach good manners or obedience cues at every single meal. It is also 1 – 3 times a day built into your daily schedule, you are reminded to take a few minutes and work with your dog. Don’t let these opportunities go to waste by feeding your pet solely out of a bowl.
To start, fix your dog’s meal as you normally would. If it is kibble, simply grab a handful. If it is a mix of wet and kibble, raw, or hand made, you can use a regular spoon, wooden spoon, or brand new fly swatter (length is especially good for those with tiny dogs) to deliver the food. For some foods, freezing it on a spoon or fly swatter makes for a cleaner delivery system.
You can use part of your dog’s meals to teach/reinforce basic cues. Sit, Down, Stay, and Come (recall) are particularly good ones to choose. Set aside 1/4 to 1/3 of your dog’s meal and either before or after they eat, spend 5 – 10 minutes practicing cues, even if your dog is well versed. There is no harm in having your dog practice a cue that they already know, even when you know they will be 100% successful. This is particularly useful for folks that haven’t really worked with their dog once they passed a basic training skills class.
For a new puppy, you and another member of your household might each grab a handful of kibble and sit on the floor, delivering a few pieces of kibble each time your puppy looks at you when you say their name. Once your puppy knows their name, sit a few feet apart, and each of you could take turns saying their name and then “Come”, offering part of their meal every time they move towards you.
For an adult dog, you might work on the duration of a Sit, or a recall down the hallway a few times. Even more fun is to play a few rounds of Hide N Seek to reinforce a recall. Start by hiding in an easy to find place and then calling your dog once. Once your dog finds you, deliver some of his/her food along with an enthusiastic “Good Boy/girl!”.
You can also use part of your dog’s meals to use as enrichment using food puzzles and toys. Stuffing part of a meal into a rubber food puzzle and offering it when the family sits down to a meal can be a part of teaching your dog to go relax away from the table. Smearing canned food onto a chew toy and freezing it helps get puppies/new dogs in the habit of chewing on appropriate items. Offering these items to a dog that isn’t happy about being crated is one way to change the dog’s negative association of the crate. Batting around a treat dispensing toy can keep your active dog busy and engaged when your attention is on something else.
Lastly, using small portions of your dog’s meals can also be used for human social interactions. Having your guests or other household members offer some food can teach your new pet that humans of all sizes and shapes means great things happen. Please be mindful that it is never a good idea for guests and children to offer food to a dog that has resource guarding issues, or is shy. Consider seeking the help of a professional to help you work on these issues right away as they can increase if not handled correctly.