Posted by: Amanda | August 4, 2008

Free-feeding vs. Scheduled Meals

Free-feeding vs. scheduled meals is a subject of much discussion and dissension in the world of dogs. Which is the “correct” way to feed, and if you don’t use that method, are you hurting your dog? Everything you read and everyone you talk to will tell you something different. Some say that free-feeding your dog is a sure-fire way to end up with a fat, disobedient dog with health issues. Others will say that feeding only at certain times will lead to food aggression and a dog who will feel forced to eat even when not hungry.

Many people will insist that their way is the only “right way” and that anyone doing anything else is a horrible dog owner who doesn’t care about their dog’s well-being. It can all be pretty confusing, and worrying.

We all want the best for our dogs, but how can we know if we are doing the right thing is there is so much difference of opinion on a subject?

Which method is really better?


Commonly mentioned free-feeding pros and cons

Pros:
-Dogs eat only when they are hungry, and do not feel pressured to eat when they are not hungry.
-Dogs eat only as much or as little as they need. For example, if a dog gets a lot of exercise one day, s/he can eat more. If s/he isn’t very active the next day, s/he can eat less.
-You don’t have to worry about missing meal times, and your dog will always be able to eat when hungry.
Cons:
-Some dogs will free-feed themselves right into obesity.
-If your puppy/dog is still housetraining, free-feeding can delay the process.
-Your dog will not be food motivated, which can make training difficult.

Commonly mentioned scheduled feeding pros and cons
Pros:
-Can help with housetraining. Since your puppy is eating at the same times each day, s/he will also need to “go” at around the same times each day.
-If your dog knows the food comes from you and only when you decide, s/he will be more likely to see you as the ‘leader,” respect you more, and therefore be more obedient.
-You control when and how much your dog eats, which can help regulate his/her weight.
Cons:
-Dogs may feel they have to eat even when they are not hungry.
-If your dog knows the food is limited, s/he may be protective or aggressive during meal times.
-You may not be feeding your dog enough without your knowledge/you may be feeding your dog too much without your knowledge

Please take all of this with a grain of salt. For any given dog, some of it, none of it, or all of it may or may not apply. I personally agree with some of it, but not all. For example, I’ve never believed that a dog will be more obedient if they know the food comes from you only when you decide. There are millions of poorly-behaved dogs who are on scheduled meals, and millions of very well-behaved dogs who have always been free-fed, and vice-versa. I also don’t believe that free-feeding takes away food motivation – I free-feed my dogs, and was I still able to teach my younger girl to “sit” within 10 minutes using nothing but plain kibble as a reward. There was a bowl full of it sitting right behind her, but she still wanted the kibble I had in my hand. And even if your dog is not kibble motivated (and many aren’t, even if they are fed scheduled meals), you can use healthy treats like carrots or boiled chicken for training. And while food aggression can be caused if a dog feels food is limited, that’s the exception to the rule, rather than the norm. But I included it all to give a more balanced list of commonly mentioned pros/cons, although there are probably many I missed.

So, in the end, which way is “right?” I have always felt that the “right” way is whichever way you and your dog are most comfortable with and works best for your situation. Don’t force yourself or your dog to use a method that doesn’t work, or that neither of you feels comfortable with just because some insist it is the only “right” way to do things. The “right” way for you and your dog is the “right” way.

Of course, free feeding DOESN’T work for every dog. I can’t stress this enough. Some dogs simply can’t be trusted to eat only until they are full. If you keep filling their bowl, they will keep eating…and eating…and eating, until you eventually have Godzilladog on your hands. And weight gain can catch you by surprise. It happens slowly, until one day, you look up and your dog is fat. For these dogs, scheduled and measured meals are an absolute necessity.

In addition to a significant decrease in energy and stamina, diabetes, heart disease, increased risk of cancer, and stress to joints and bones are just some of the many negative effects an overweight dog may experience. NO fat dog will get off scot-free – there will be problems caused by the extra weight now or in the future. Some owners may laugh and joke about their “big roly poly boy,” but I doubt they’d find their dog’s myriad of heath issues and/or early death funny at all.

Switching your dog to scheduled meals
Decide on the feeding schedule you’d like to keep. Make sure that it’s something that will be easy for you; build it around your own regular schedule. Most people find that feeding twice a day works best, but all dogs are different and you may need to adjust the number of meals to suit your situation. More than three is generally not recommended unless your dog is a young puppy. Puppies under 4-5 months of age should be fed 3-4 times a day.

The first thing to do is check your dog food for the recommended amount to feed your dog per day. Some dogs will need more than this (if they are exceptionally active, for instance), and some less, but this recommended amount is a good place to start. Divide that amount evenly between however many meals you have decided to feed per day (if you have decided on one meal, you would obviously give it all at once). For this example, I will be using two meals.

Measure out the food for the first meal, and put the bowl down in front of your dog. Give your dog 15-20 minutes to eat, and then take the food away.

Don’t expect your dog to take to this immediately. If your dog has always had a bowl full of food in the corner, or s/he is a new member of your family and hasn’t ever been fed on a schedule like this, s/he probably won’t understand that right now is the time to eat. It’s fairly likely that your dog will just look at the bowl and walk away, or just eat a small portion of the offered food. Don’t be discouraged, and keep to the schedule. For the second meal, fill the bowl with the other half of the day’s food. If your dog didn’t eat the first meal, don’t double-fill the bowl – give your dog only the second meal’s portion. Again, put it down for 15-20 minutes, then take it away. Your dog, who has not eaten all day, may be more likely to eat the second meal than the first, but even if s/he doesn’t, don’t be tempted to mix anything into the food. This is a mistake a lot of people make, and it can actually delay the process. If you do this, your dog will soon learn that you will put something really tasty in his/her bowl if s/he refuses to eat. It could very well reach the point where your dog won’t ever eat dog food unless something tasty is in it. You don’t want to get stuck in this trap. If plain dog food has always been good enough for your dog, it will be now as well.

To further encourage your dog to eat, don’t fill him/her up on treats between meals. Once he/she is used to scheduled meals, the treats can come back.

None of this in harming your dog – s/he is not going to starve him/herself to death and will eat when s/he is hungry. Some dogs understand the change within a few days, some take a bit longer to understand. Be patient and give it time. If you stick to the schedule you have decided on, your dog will take to it eventually.



Switching your dog to free-feeding

Whether you’ve decided to free-feed for the first time, or you’ve been doing it for years, I’ve found that it’s best to put the dish in an area you spend a lot of time. This is so you can keep an eye on how much your dog is eating, and will also make it easier to notice if he or she suddenly stops eating (which can be the first sign of a health problem).

If your dog has always had scheduled meals and is used to finishing all the food in his/her dish at each meal time, then you may find s/he continues to do this for the first few days of free-feeding. Don’t be alarmed, and use common sense. Don’t fill the bowl up over and over and over – you don’t your dog throwing up. Once your dog has finished what is in his bowl, and walks away, try putting a bit more in the bowl without your dog noticing, so that the next time s/he comes to it, there will be food. Do this a few times throughout the day. There’s no need to fill it to the brim each time – just a little will do. You want your dog to understand that there will always be food there.

Another option is to simply over-fill the bowl and let your dog eat all s/he wants until s/he is full. Most dogs will stop when they are full (but not all, so again, use common sense). If they walk away from the dish with food still in it, and the bowl and food stays down all day, this will hopefully help them realize that the food will always be there. Most dogs will eventually realize that things have changed and that there will now always be food in his dish. For the first few days, your dog may very well eat more than s/he usually would have, but soon, his/her eating habits will even out, and s/he will only eat when s/he is hungry.

Weight gain is probably the #1 undesired side-effect of free-feeding. For this reason, it’s best to weigh your dog before you begin free-feeding, and continue to do so frequently for the first few months. If weighing isn’t an option for whatever reason, carefully monitor your dog’s physical condition instead. Is it becoming more difficult to feel his ribs? Is her “waist” less pronounced when viewed from above? This will help you catch any weight gain immediately and take the proper steps to halt and reverse it. As already mentioned, some dogs just can’t be trusted to feed themselves, and will keep eating and eating and eating for as long as there is food. For these dogs, scheduled (and measured) meals really may be the best way to go. If your dog is gaining weight (or already overweight), then you may want to reconsider whether free-feeding is really right for your dog.

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Responses

  1. I have always free fed my dogs not 1 of the 4 has become overweight. 3 were started from puppies and the 4th was 2 when we got him. He had food issues when he first came into the home, and would even growl and freeze if we came up to his bowl. He now is great with his food because he never fears not having it. Also none of my dogs have ever gobbled down their food. My inlaws got a small breed puppy and she gets a hand full 2x day (what they were told) and that puppy will gobble it down in less than 30 seconds (didn’t believe it till I saw it) and growled at me standing near the whole time. After she ran around like on a mission looking for more.

  2. I have free fed many dogs myself (100s) for over 35 years and given advice for many others.

    I have NEVER had a problem with an overweight dog that wasn’t resolved within 4-6 weeks of free feeding a HIGH QUALITY food unless there were multiple dogs in the household. In some (very few) cases the competition for the food was unresolvable and separate feeding times were needed. For many dog owners, a surprise was in store for them as their dog slimmed up even though they were apparently at a healthy weight previously.

    Free feeding may not be advisable when the dog works (seeing eye dogs, sledding, herding) or during training if the dog strongly food motivated.
    In many cases overweight dogs have been switched to free feeding and weight has dropped to normal levels within 6 months. In some cases vet advice to restrict diet has been given and the dog returns to overweight within 2-3 months.

    The caveat for free feeding:
    Free feeding requires HIGH QUALITY food. Dogs will eat until their nutritional needs are satisfied. If the protein and fat contents are not high enough then the dog will eat extra food (filler) until it fulfills its nutriional requirement.

    • My dog is a working dog, she’s a service dog and she free feeds. :) She’s still highly food motivated because treats aren’t free fed.

  3. I work with dogs professionally and am a big fan of free feeding. It doesn’t work with every dog, but most, and I haven’t met one free fed dog yet who had food resource guarding issues.

  4. I agree with the above comments. I have always had a “pack” of multiple dogs of multiple breeds- currently, a Great Dane, a German Shepherd, and two Papillons. I have have always free fed all my dogs throughout the years and have never had an issue with weight or food aggression. For me, it has made life so much easier not to have to worry excessively about schedules, bloat, potential disputes between large and small guys, etc. Everyone nibbles a little here, a little there….everyone’s healthy, happy, no worries. Obviously, this does not work for every dog, every situation, or every family- and it’s not bullet proof (just because I haven’t had problems doesn’t mean problems can’t occur). But I would highly recommend giving it a try. I would use it as the go-to option first, and it it fails, then fall back on the scheduled feed. Yes, I will grant you that early on in puppy days, it can make for a slightly more challenging house breaking (lessened if you have a doggy door and an older dog to help show the way), but in the long run- SO worth it.

  5. Four dogs here (American Akita, Chow-Malamute, Husky, and Basenji-Manchester Terrier), all free fed, all in beautiful condition with no food aggression what so ever. Before adding the 4th, we also used to foster, and had several dogs come through that were able to quickly transition from scheduled feedings in a crate due to food aggression to polite and happy free-feeding.
    It just makes common sense to me. If I didn’t have free access to food, and I had to worry that my neighbor would come and steal my sparse portions, I’d fight for it too!

  6. Not true. I free feed and my dog and foster dogs are still plenty food motivated since treats aren’t free fed. House training them isn’t difficult either since I make sure to pay attention to when they eat, which anyone should be doing anyways.

  7. I own two German Shepherds and have free fed them since they were babies. They are both lean and in excellent health and food is not an issue with them. They never have to worry about not having food and if their food bowl does get empty they ask nicely to have it filled. I think free feeding is the best option for happy, healthy, well rounded babies. :)

  8. We have a 7 month old Doberman mix and have free fed her since we got her at 6 weeks. We always start out by giving her a measured portion in the morning. She usually doesn’t touch it until the afternoon sometime. Some days she doesn’t finish it and some days she asks for more. This way we know how much she eats, but she can eat it whenever she’s hungry. She even went through a time when she ate 4 cups a day at 2.5 months old! We never had trouble house breaking her. I wasn’t working at the time and simply took her out every hour and watched her closely if she hadn’t gone recently.
    We got a second dog a week and a half ago (9 month old heeler/german shepherd mix) who is used to meal feeding. We just finished switching her to the same food as the first dog, so now we’re going to start switching her to free feeding as well. Not having her bowl down all day was a little tough for our first girl since we didn’t want the new dog to eat her food but since I know when she likes to eat, I’d offer her food at that time. Nowe we just crossing our fingers that the new dog won’t be one of the few “chow hounds” that can’t self-regulate her intake…

  9. We have used free feeding for the last 25 years for five dogs: 3 keeshonds, a terrier -shepherd mix, and a retriever. None of these dogs were overweight in the least, even in their geriatric years. The mix breed lived to be twenty, and had a healthy body mass to nearly the end of his life. We’ve used good quality dry food. I think because the dogs could freely nibble on the food to satiate hunger as needed, they did not experience cyclic swings of hunger that could set up gorging behavior or aggression as I might expect to happen if food is dispensed at limited times as meals . The dogs knew how to self regulate better than I would have known what they needed on any given day. I do not at all believe they ate out of boredom. For all of these dogs, food was not an issue for them or for me. I have never had to manage obesity in a dog, and I do attribute this to the benefits of free feeding.

  10. My 16 year old Border collie and 10 year old lab mix (both now departed) were free fed their entire lives with no ill effects. Like the other posters, they only ate when they felt hungry…sometimes at 3:00 am!

    I now have a new lab/golden puppy. I was prepared to feed her twice a day…but she ignored the food bowl! So I left it there all day, and she eventually ate when she felt like it. She is not eating nearly as much as the IAMS bag recommends, yet is quite healthy, gaining weight. So I think I will not try to force her into a scheduled feeding. It seems like it will only leave her hungry all day long, and the last thing I want is a hungry puppy looking for something to chew/eat all day long!

    Thanks for the good information here and informed comments.

  11. Excellent review. I have always free fed my dogs starting as puppies. I currently have three toy Aussies aka American shepherds. They have matured, are not overweight, and are still very much treat motivated. They are trained and trainable and have lots of chew toys to prevent boredom. I run regularly with the dogs and I do notice they adjust how much and when they eat based on our runs. I strongly believe that scheduled feedings create a sense of scarcity and dogs will eat more in this scenario. I also believe that switching from scheduled to free feeding may cause overeating. Obesity is a different situation that requires change in food and exercise. In the end, it is what works for the dogs.


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