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
-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.
-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
-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.
-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.