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Are We Failing Our Fearful Dogs In How We Feed Them?

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

Before you read any further, I would like to make it clear that this blog discusses a specific campaign which is being promoted by a well-known, long-standing public figure in the dog training industry. The campaign poster attached to the Facebook post I refer to displays the term "ditch the bowl," but what is actually being promoted is not in line with the principles of "Ditch The Bowl" as we know it. Feeding through enrichment is a wonderful way to provide our dogs with fun, enjoyment and mental stimulation, whereas the campaign I refer to encourages feeding all meals through active training. The free course videos clearly state, "make them earn it", and ask that we pour all daily food rations into a jar, only feeding when our dogs are not "misbehaving".

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I recently came across a particular Facebook post from a well-known public figure in the dog training world, and it caught my eye. It was advertising the “ditch the bowl” campaign, which most people are now familiar with. The premise is to use food to increase engagement between the dog and his human, as well as activating their brain and encouraging them to use their nose. By injecting some fun into meal times, the value of the food is also increased. With this approach to feeding, the dog can satisfy their need to perform doggie behaviours by incorporating play, chase, sniffing and foraging, licking and chewing.

It has been found that many dogs enjoy what is known as “contra freeloading”, meaning that they prefer to eat food that needs a bit of effort to acquire. This allows for greater variety in how they receive their food, and will boost learning, therefore it can be a really positive way to add mental stimulation. Canine enrichment has gained enormous popularity in recent times, and many people now provide their dogs with food puzzles, snuffle mats, KONGS, licki mats, and other novel ways to contain their dog’s meals. It has always been emphasised that in order for these activities to be enriching, interesting and enjoyable for our dogs, they must not be so difficult that they cause frustration or damage confidence, and the dog should be able to access a good proportion of the food easily so that he is not hungry. Enrichment activities should not prevent a dog from being able to eat, and should not require him to complete a task that is beyond his ability; in no way would this enrich his life.

By now, you might wonder what was in the post that caught my eye. Looking at it from the perspective of a fearful dog guardian, the alarm bells started to ring when I read some of the statements made.

“If your dog eats their food for free, with zero effort, from a bowl, they’re not going to care very much about your food and you’ve lost the magic.”

The implication here is that they should work for all of their food. Surely this can’t be right? I scrolled down further, and accompanying the text is a poster, at the bottom of which is a pledge.

“I promise to use my dog’s food in training and if I am unable to feed my dog all of their food during active training, I will put whatever is left over into hollow chew toys to help my dog learn to love settling down quietly with their chew toy”.

So, every bit of food will be worked for, wherever possible. My first thought is that this sounds very much like the Nothing In Life Is Free protocol, where a dog displaying undesirable behaviours receives nothing freely, whether that is food, attention, toys, going out to the toilet; everything must be earned. This protocol is based on the outdated dominance theory and pack leader way of thinking. My next thought was, how on earth would this translate to my reactive dog, for example? Would he only ever get to eat in the presence of triggers? Would we have to go out and train multiple times a day in order for him to be able to have his meals? What about rest days to prevent trigger stacking and increased stress levels? Why can’t he eat in peace, where he feels safe?

“You can use food to teach your dog to feel calm and confident in any situation, and perform behaviors on cue, promptly and reliably.”

This reads very much as an invitation to place our dogs in situations they cannot cope with, and expect them to offer behaviours around triggers. It flies in the face of systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning, where we work from a safe distance, pairing the trigger with food, without the feeding being contingent on anything other than being aware of the trigger. Another factor to consider is that in order to maintain the 1:1 contingency necessary for successful desensitisation and counterconditioning, we must use a high value treat that is only given in the presence of triggers. If we were to feed meals instead, we could not meet this contingency. In addition, if we make mistakes with our counterconditioning and we poison the food by getting the timing of delivery wrong, or we misread our dog’s body language and try to feed while our dog is over threshold, what then? How will we be able to get our dog to eat again, and how do we change this negative association that we have caused?

You can read more about common mistakes when carrying out systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning here:

“Don’t feed your dog from a food bowl until your dog is perfect for you!”

Oh, my goodness. So, here is the thing. Dogs are not here simply for our benefit. They are sentient beings, with their own thoughts and feelings, and are here living alongside us, but not for us. Why should they have to align with our expectations of what constitutes “perfect”? The poster lists behavioural issues ranging from separation anxiety, fear of people, fear, anxiety and reactivity, most of which are lifelong challenges for both dogs and their guardians. There is no quick fix, nor should we expect there to be. This expectation of perfection is totally unreasonable, not to mention unattainable. We would not expect a human to behave impeccably one hundred percent of the time, so why is it okay to expect this of a dog?

From the wonderful Good Guardianship page: Good Guardianship | Facebook

The pledge on the poster states:

“I, Insert your name, want my dog, insert dog’s name, to behave better.”

It goes on to say:

“I promise to NOT feed my dog from a food bowl until I have resolved the following behavior problem(s)……”

This implies that every dog behaviour problem is fixable, but the issues listed are not easy to overcome, requiring careful behaviour modification, alongside medications, sometimes. It is so unfair on our dogs, who are living with their struggles day in, day out, to place unreasonable expectations on them, only focusing on their outward behaviours, and ignoring the emotions which drive them.

There are also ethical issues to consider here. Let’s take the example of the fearful foster dog, who missed out on being socialised around people. There is real potential for creating approach avoidance conflict through the misuse of food. Using treats to draw him out from a safe space in an attempt to form a bond with him would be coercive, and could result in creating more fear. Being hungry and having to interact to earn his food could cause conflicted emotions and negative associations.

It is often recommended that fearful dogs are handfed all of their meals, but they should never be forced to choose to approach something they fear in order to eat. You can read more about the potential fallout of hand-feeding fearful dogs and approach avoidance conflict here:

Being able to eat should not be contingent on doing something that pleases us and worries the dog. When hungry, he may be forced outside of his comfort zone, and could even lead to a bite. Dogs should never be made to feel they have to cooperate in order to eat; withholding food is likely to only increase their level of stress. Surely all animals deserve to be able to eat in peace, where they feel safe, without a contingency being placed on whether or not they eat? It certainly goes against the principles set out in the five freedoms, which were designed to protect the welfare of animals: The Five Freedoms for animals | Animal Humane Society

I believe many people view the use of food in dog training as a failsafe way of providing positive reinforcement, with no risk of repercussions. If food is offered as a reward, it isn’t coercion; coaxing or luring towards something scary and offering food close to triggers does not constitute flooding, because the dog gets to eat treats (if he is even able to eat). If food is whipped out to distract from a trigger that the dog hasn’t yet spotted, it must be risk free because food is involved. What is often overlooked is the possibility of creating negative associations around the food itself. Food can so easily become the predictor of something scary, if it precedes the trigger. Or, if we insist that a shy dog eats from our hands, or doesn’t eat at all, we can cause further fear and destroy any appetite that the dog may have had in an already stressful situation. We really need to use food thoughtfully, and this includes creating a balance in what we use for training, enrichment, and satisfying hunger. Food is not exempt from being aversive if negative associations are created for the dog, just like any other aversive.

All of our dogs are individuals, with their own likes, dislikes and preferences. Levels of confidence and resilience will vary hugely from dog to dog, therefore it is really important that we find the right balance in feeding to nourish our dogs, and the food we use for enrichment and training. We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach but, instead, we can do our best to think carefully about how we use food, considering how we can meet the needs of our dog, while keeping them safe. We also need to keep our expectations in check, and look at the function of our dog's behaviour, rather than simply trying to change it for our own convenience. Lastly, our dogs should not be defined by their perceived behavioural issues; just like Mary Poppins, they are practically perfect in every way!

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