Sunday, May 22, 2011

Freefeeding

I teach a small class at my local dog club for puppies six months and under.

In addition to basic obedience, we also cover general maintenance of dogs such as grooming, and feeding.

And in the process of discussing what to feed, the second topic that comes up is how often.

And often, I find out that a lot of people 'freefeed' their dogs. To put it simply, when I say 'freefeed', I mean to say that a person makes food available to the dog at all times, so the dog could eat as often as it wanted.

And freefeeding isn't a method I would suggest using with a dog, and here are a few reasons why.


Freefeeding lowers your dog's interest in food. When you make food available to the dog at all times, the dog is less likely to work for food. Where's the motivation? Why should he sit for you for a biscuit when he knows there is plenty to eat in the kitchen? You could use higher value treats, for sure - but the dog is not going to work very hard when he is constantly full.

I feed my dogs in three meals a day. Delilah, the Great Dane, eats 5 cups of kibble a day. Instead of giving her five cups at all once, I feed her 1 in the morning,  two when I get home from work, and two around dinner time.

It is harder to monitor how much the dog eats. Monitoring exactly how much your dog eats is very important. How will you know if your dog is suddenly only eating 3 cups a day instead of 5? 

When dogs become ill, they often won't show symptoms right away. Sometimes the only indication that anything is wrong at all is the consumption of food goes down. If Delilah did not eat breakfast, then I know she was down to 4 cups that day. If she skipped breakfast and lunch, then I know she's down to 2 cups a day.

Knowing how much your dog eats and monitoring the amounts will help you discover underlying problems much sooner.

Freefed dogs tend to be overweight. Not all freefed dogs are, some of them manage just fine with plenty of exercise - but some dogs, (particularly dogs prone to obesity, like Labs) will eat and eat and eat.

Delilah is the type of dog who would eat herself sick given the opportunity. Which presents another very, very dangerous possibility - bloat. Bloat occurs when the stomach flips on itself and traps gas inside of it -  and it continues to expand. It is very painful and can cause death within the dog if not treated immediately.

By limiting the amount of food my dog consumes at one time, coupled with limiting her activity for 30 minutes after eating, it lowers her risk for bloat. Large breed dogs are at risk for bloat, particularly those with deep chests.

It is much harder to keep your dog on schedule. If you let the dog eat whenever he or she wants, then the dog will also need to eliminate - and this may not be with any type of regular schedule.

What goes in the dog must come out. So if the dog eats breakfast, within an hour or so the dog will need to eliminate. I feed my dogs three times a day, so they need to eliminate three times a day. Like clockwork.

When freefeeding, it is not as easy to place the dog on a schedule. When was their last meal? Approximately how long can the dog wait? Freefeeding can make housebreaking tedious and messy because the dog's body does not have a reliable schedule of when to expect food.


Yes, I know there are some dogs out there who are in the ideal body condition, who have never suffered bloat, and train just fine when being freefed. (In fact, Cozmo used to be one of them) However there are no real 'advantages' to this method of feeding. (Except, perhaps, laziness. I know how much work it is to scoop dog food and put it into a bowl!)

In addition to decreased food motivation, an irregular schedule and not knowing for sure how much the dog is consuming - leaving food out constantly is an invitation for pests. Dog food is still food - and food left out can attract anything from mice and rats to ants and cockroaches.

I highly reccomend to the owners who take my class that they try to feed 2-3 meals a day. Even for little dogs! If your dog only eats 1 cup a day, divide it up into thirds and feed the dog small meals.

You could even turn meal time into a training session and make the dog work for every single little kibble!

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