Ditch the Bowl!
You’ve likely heard the phase, “Ditch the Bowl,” but what does it mean? Essentially, we are encouraging you to stop feeding your dog from an ordinary bowl. But why do we recommend this and how can you feed once you have “Ditched the Bowl”?
Most people feed their dogs from bowls, a very traditional and seemingly sensible way to feed. However, feeding your dogs from a bowl is a waste of resources, reinforcement, opportunity for relationship building and mental exercise.
Some the main reasons we recommend you stop feeding your dog from a bowl are:
1. Food is your dog’s “money”: Think of each morsel of food as “money.” If you are feeding your dog from a bowl, you are essentially giving them their day’s “wages” for “free.” If you got up every morning and your daily wages were just sitting in a bowl on your coffee table, how motivated would you be to get up and go to work?
2. Building value for you: If we are still thinking of the “food as money” analogy, then we can see how having you deliver each morsel of food to your dog will make your dog see you as more valuable. The value of the food will be associated with you, thereby teaching your dog that you are the provider of all that is good in life.
3. Creating food drive: You may feel your dog is not “food motivated.” This is rarely true, and may be due in part to the fact that they always have a bowl of food on the ground from which they can go and graze. If you create some scarcity by not having food out all the time and associate some excitement with the food by having fun training your dog to “work” for it, you will likely see an increase in motivation and drive.
4. Building value for good choices: We have also encouraged you to teach your dog the “Yes!” reward marker and reward them any time you see them doing something you like. If you are keeping up with this, then you are doing a lot of rewarding. Use your dog’s food to reward him whenever he makes a good choice, and you will see him making more good choices and fewer undesirable ones.
5. Extending feeding time: If you feed from a regular bowl, your dog likely finishes a meal in less than a minute. However, if you scatter feed, feed from interactive toys (more on these below), or use your dog’s meals to train him, you can significantly extend the amount of time it takes him to eat a meal.
6. Mental exercise: Having your dog work for food, scatter feeding or feeding from interactive toys is brain work for your dog. Doing this will not extend the amount of time it takes to feed your dog, but is a great way to provide mental exercise and enrichment.
Okay, so we’ve convinced you to stop feeding your dog from a bowl...so what to do with all of this food?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Positive Reinforcement: You know that we are all about positive reinforcement, which means reinforcing the behaviours you like to increase the likelihood that they will be offered again in the future. Any time you see your dog doing something you like, say “Yes!” and reward with a morsel of food. Don’t forget that we also have to teach our dogs to be calm and relaxed, so even if your dog is doing “nothing” beyond lying calmly on his bed, reward him!
2. Train with it!: Most dogs love to work for their food, so the next time you are teaching your dog a new trick or taking him out for a leash walk, use food to reward when he does what you ask! Note that depending on your dog’s personality and skill level, you may have to use higher value rewards in highly distracting environments.
3. Scatter feed: Dogs love to use their noses to search for things. In fact, they are built for it! Start by simply tossing a handful of food on the floor and encouraging your dog to search it out. You can also scatter kibble throughout the grass in your yard for your dog to find. As your dog gets more proficient at this game, start “hiding” food under tables and chairs, on low shelves, under the pillows on the couch or your bed, or even in your shoes! The possibilities are endless.
4. Interactive toys: From the classic KONG to more sophisticated puzzle toys, interactive toys that you can put food into are a fantastic way to keep your dog busy and provide enrichment. Even simple interactive toys are like little “puzzles” for you dog, so each time your dog works on one, they are getting mental exercise, which is just as—and perhaps even more—important than physical exercise. Many of these toys can be stuffed and frozen for longer-lasting enjoyment.
5. Homemade Interactive/Puzzle Toys: You don’t have to break the bank to exercise your dog’s brain. There are plenty of interactive toys you can make for yourself. The Internet is full of tons of great ideas, but here are three to get you started:
- Empty toilet paper or paper towel tubes stuffed with food. To make it more challenging, stuff some material in there as well.
- Muffin tin: put food in the bottom of each well, and then place something on top that your dog has to remove to get to the food. Tennis balls work well.
- Plastic water bottle filled with kibble. Your dog will have to shake, drop and move it around to get the food out.
6. Slow Feeders/Puzzle Bowls: If you have to feed from a bowl, look for a slow feeder or puzzle bowl. These often look like mazes that your dog has to work the food out of. Most won’t keep your dog busy as long as an interactive toy, but can be a great introduction to more sophisticated puzzle toys.
7. Snuffle Mats: These are floor mats with long strips of material in which you can hide food for your dog to scent and search out. The Internet is full of great tutorials on how to make one for yourself.
8. Noise Boxes: Noise boxes are great for those dogs that need to gain confidence and/or are sensitive to sound. To make a noise box, get an empty cardboard box or plastic storage box. Put some food in the bottom, and then fill it with various items—toys, clothes, clean and empty pill bottles or containers, plastic or paper dishes—the options are endless! Look through your recycle bin and you’re sure to find plenty of “garbage” that can be put to good use. Your dog then has to search through the box and among the items to get the food.
9. Chews: Bully sticks, Himalayan yak cheese sticks, deer antlers and other chews are great for those dogs that need to chew. Be sure that all chews are safe and reliably sourced before giving them. If in doubt, talk to your vet.
* Please note supervision is always recommended when trying a new interactive toy or activity with your dog for the first time. Dogs that are heavy chewers may destroy and potentially ingest some interactive toys or items.
Copyright Robyn Andexser.
Photos courtesy Best Paw Forward and Christine Heal.