Unless there is a medical reason, leaving food out for your dog all the time can create training and behavioral issues throughout your dog’s life. This is true for cats and dogs. As a professional dog trainer, and someone who has lived with multiple pets for 50 years or so, it’s simply never going to be an option in my household. From my dog training experience, free fed dogs are generally less food motivated. If a training client tells me that their dog isn’t food motivated, I ask them if they free feed. About 85% of the time, they confirm that they do. This makes positive reinforcement training more difficult. While there is a small percentage of dogs that are truly not food motivated, most of the time it has to do with free feeding and/or what is being offered as a reward.
Below is a list of reasons why I don’t free feed…..
1) From my dog training experience, free fed dogs are generally less food motivated. If a training client tells me that their dog isn’t food motivated, I ask them if they free feed. About 85% of the time, they confirm that they do. This makes positive reinforcement training more difficult. While there is a small percentage of dogs that are not food motivated, most of the time it has to do with free feeding and/or what is being offered as a reward.
2) Portions of your pet’s meals can be used as a reward. When you are doing scheduled feeding, holding back a quarter or third of each meal and using it for training, is a quick and simple way of training a new cue or reinforcing one your pet already knows.
3) Potty training becomes more unpredictable. We know when puppies are likely to have a house soiling accident, and after meals is a likely time. Free feeding your puppy can make it difficult to know when your puppy needs a potty break.
4) You might not notice if your dog not eating which is often a sign of illness. This is especially true of owners who tend to top off their pet’s bowl when it looks low, or for those who use the self-feeding bowls. Self-feeding bowls can hold 2 to 5 pounds or more of food. It would be quite a long time before you notice your pet isn’t eating much or at all.
5) If you live in a multi-pet household, free feeding can lead to Resource Guarding. In my current household, I have three dogs- two of which had Resource Guarding issues when I first adopted them. Both are cured, but free feeding would set them both up for failure because free feeding can become a limited resource. My third, most passive and easy-going dog would hardly ever get to eat. I can feed them in the same room for scheduled feedings currently, but I would blow that training and behavior modification right out the window if I started to free feed.
6) If you host play dates at your home, and free feed, it can be dangerous and a set up for a major fight if the guest dog(s) have resource guarding issues. By the way, pick up any high value item-certain toys and bones can start a fight.
7) We know it is important for puppies to have a fairly solid routine during the first year or so, but this is just as important for anxious dogs. These dogs generally do better when they can predict what is going to happen throughout the day. When an anxious dog knows that a couple times a day, food is delivered by a new owner, it helps that dog bond.
8) Leaving food out all the time is not very sanitary. You may summons ants, flies, mice, and rats to the free buffet even when you feed indoors. If kibble is in a self-feeder, it is exposed to air which can make it stale or rancid depending on the ingredients. Most foods cannot be left out all day, so if you feed raw, canned, or home cooked, you will invite bacteria to each meal left out. As a side note, bowls including ones for water, should be cleaned daily. Often free fed kibble bowls are dirty, fresh food layered on top of older food.
9) If you don’t measure out your dog’s daily food ration, or you live with multiple pets, you may accidentally feed your dog too much or too little.
If you are struggling with training, or notice any of the above mentioned behavioral issues in one of your dogs, consider switching to a scheduled feeding schedule for two weeks. Within a few days, you are likely to notice a more food motivated dog.
** Please check with your veterinarian if your pet is free fed for medical reasons, or has a metabolic or nutritional issue before starting scheduled feeding.