Developing Your Dog's Food Drive
Implementing food into your dogs training can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to take things to the next level. Sure, we can train dogs with or without it and of course, we need to make sure that the dog will behave whether we are using it or not. But there is a big difference between a dog just listening and a dog that is cooperatively working alongside you because they WANT to train. Balancing out food and rewards, a good attitude towards training, and fair but clear boundaries and consequences for lack of compliance gets you to a place where you are never so contingent on one technique or tool to long term maintain your dogs training.
But what do you do if your dog is a picky eater? What if they have seemingly no food drive at all? Well luckily that all can be resolved with a few adjustments on your end and you can be off to the races!
In my experience, no dog does NOT have food drive. In fact, no dog is even a picky eater. Most dogs are simply over fed. The acquisition of food is built into your dogs genetic make up which is why it can be such a powerful training tool. Because of this, dogs don't have a natural understanding of self regulating their food intake and will over eat and over eat until they physically can no longer do so resulting in a "grazer"; which is really just a dog that sporadically will gorge themselves to the point of sickness then nibble and skip meals until they are so hungry that they repeat the process. This results in a crunchy or groggy dog, inconsistent bowel movements, and health issues later on. It is up to us to set the necessary schedule for them. Additionally, we tend to give our dogs more high calorie dense treats and edible toys without factoring in all of those calories into our dogs daily food allowance. Due to all of this, our mental image of what a healthy dog should look like has been skewed over time as we have seen more and more out of shape or overweight dogs everywhere. The following steps will help you to get your dog back on track, healthier, and develop their food drive to increase their training!
Step 1: Assess and temporarily eliminate treats and edible toys.
Typically speaking, this is what we find to be the main culprit of a dog lacking good food drive. Partially because they are getting their daily calorie intake via these things alone (some larger treats can be the equivalent of an entire cup of food) and partially because we are conditioning the dog to expect something a little better than their standard dog food. I'm by no means against you giving your dog these things, but in order to develop a more consistent feeding schedule, we have to temporarily eliminate them and make sure later when you go to add them back in, you adjust your dogs amount of food to factor in the added calories. And who knows, you may find you don't want to give them after all. It's been years since I've used formal treats with my dogs since they are just as motivated to work with their standard dog food.
Step 2: Get a general idea of how much food your dog needs.
Once we've eliminated any excess treats, we can then get a baseline of how much you should actually be feeding them. This will vary from dog to dog but there are a few general rules you can follow to get started. Keep in mind that every dog is a little different and going off of what the bag says is a bad place to start as it doesn't factor in your dogs age, breed, activity level, AND dog food companies want to SELL MORE DOG FOOD so they will typically tell you more than what it should actually be. As a reference, my dogs get about 2/3rds the amount that the bag says I should be feeding. For your average dog with moderate exercise, this is usually where I start.
Small sized dogs: 1/2-1c per day
Medium sized dogs: 1-2c per day
Large sized dogs: 2-4c per day
XL sized dogs: 6c+ per day
Using my dogs as examples, my two 55-60lb Pitties eat around 3c a day, my 60lb Malinois eats about 4c per day, and my 30lb Mini Labradoodle eats 2c a day. They all are more active than your average dog as well. Again, these are not hard and fast rules but they are somewhere to start as you assess. This also may change if your dog has some weight to lose once you hit your desired weight.
Step 3: Implement your feeding schedule and assess progress one week at a time.
Now that you have your dogs feeding amounts situated, we are going to start the new feeding plan. If your dog has been free feeding, you will be switching to two meals per day. (Time is not important. My dogs eat at different times every day. Amount is all that matters.) If you have a puppy, you can feed three meals a day until they are large enough to digest half of their daily food in one sitting. Take your dogs daily amount and split it in half. For each meal, give the dog roughly 10 minutes. At the end, anything left in the bowl goes away and DOES NOT roll over to the next meal. It is normal for dogs that have been free fed for a while or had inconsistent feeding schedules to skip a meal or two. This is normal. Dogs will not let themselves starve. Continue offering the meals at your designated times and do not try to add anything to the designated amount to entice them more. After the first week of this, you should see an immediate change in your dogs responsiveness to their food. If they are still leaving food in the bowll after the first week, cut the daily amount back more. If your dog begins to drop too much weight, increase it. Repeat this week by week until your dog is very engaged and eats all of their food when it's put down and they are at an appropriate weight.
Step 4: Adding back in treats.
Once your dog is at a healthy weight and highly motivated for their food, you can begin adding some treats back into things from time to time. If you do this, it is important to get a general idea of how many calories are in that particular snack and cut back that days food to account for it. Just don't over do it. That can be great for high distraction training sessions or as a reward to keep them occupied on a busy day to help stimulate their mind but doing too much can slowly get you right back to where you were before. Hopefully these tips and tricks help! Obviously if your dog has health issues or specific dietary needs, further adjustments to this may need to be made. This is a general approach to how we have been developing dogs food drive or helping them get on more healthy eating schedules for years. Happy training!