How to Create Healthy Eating Habits for Your Dog

Let’s talk about feeding schedules and why this is such an important foundation for your dog’s overall wellbeing. 

If you are in the habit of cycling through new types of dog foods or adding tasty tid bits to your dog’s bowl to get your dog to eat – this video is for you. The novelty of new foods usually works for a short time before dogs revert back to being disinterested. So what can be done to get dogs genuinely excited about meal time? 

Let’s start with a simple question first.

How important is it for our dogs to be on a feeding schedule?

A good feeding schedule can have a positive impact on your dog’s physical, emotional and behavioral health. The nutrients that are found in your dog’s main meals can help their brains function better. This means that good eating habits can improve your dog’s ability to learn and can help to regulate their mood. 

Poor eating habits can lead to dogs that are  either under or overweight. Dogs that are not at their ideal weight are prone to weakened immune systems, skin infections, and may be more susceptible to diseases. 

Leaving food available throughout the day can devalue food, and could lead to a dog that is not motivated in training, or less likely to engage with food in more challenging training scenarios. 

Last, but not least, if you know that your dog is typically excited for each meal, then you will also have a better indication of when they are sick because you will usually see an immediate change in their appetite. You’ll know right away that you need to schedule an appointment with the vet. This indicator is less apparent for dogs that are not on a healthy feeding schedule.

Why won’t they eat?

First off, know that most dog food bags will recommend that you provide more food than your dog actually needs or wants. It’s possible that some dog food companies view the food as a product, and they simply want you to use more of their product. If you use more, you’ll also buy more. 

One dog food company was cited in an article by Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University as recommending 61% more calories than a dog would actually need. 

Lisa Freeman also notes that feeding directions can leave a lot of room for interpretation. Feeding charts are usually written in this way “dogs between 0-15 pounds should eat 1/2-1 cup per day.” This leaves a lot of room for error in trying to determine the appropriate amount. Another point to consider is that every dog is unique. You could take 100 dogs, that are all 50 lbs, and they will require different quantities of food to maintain their ideal body condition. 

How do we know what the right quantity of food is for our dogs?

If you’re trying to determine how much food your dog needs, simply by going off of the feeding directions, there’s a good chance you are overfeeding your dog. 

It’s a better idea to consider these two things.

1. Assess your dog’s body condition

If you have a dog that has long hair, or a thick coat, it might look as though they are heavier than they actually are. It’s also important to take their breed into consideration. Cattle dogs and grey hounds, for example, have different body types and so looking at their figure alone could be misleading. This might seem pretty obvious for purebred dogs, but it can get a little bit more confusing when we have mixed breed dogs.

The best way to assess your dog’s body condition is to run your hands down your dog’s back, sides and hip bones. You should just be able to feel the outline of their ribs and hip bones under a healthy layer of fat. 

Many times people go out of their way to get their dogs to eat more, when the reality is that their dog is actually at a good weight or in some cases, a little overweight. Even if it’s not from an ideal food, the calories are coming from somewhere.

2. Listen to your dog

If you have a dog like my dog Fritz, who has a bottomless pit for a stomach, and is alway ready for second breakfast – this might not apply. 

But if your dog is like one of my terriers and are snoozing on the couch as you prepare their meal, that could be an indicator that they are  being over fed. 

The key here is to find that “sweet spot” – the amount of food that keeps your dog excited at meal times, maintains a healthy appetite, and keeps your dog at an ideal weight. 

What can I do to help my dog develop healthy eating habits?

Here are six simple steps to get your dog on track with healthy eating.

1. Feed high quality dog food

Look past the marketing, do your research, and look for a dog food that is healthy for your dog, and within your budget. Healthier dog foods have fewer fillers, which means that your dog won’t be eating as much at each meal. Take this into account when you are comparing prices.

2. Use measuring cups

When feeding dry dog food it’s important to remember that each of those little nuggets is packed with calories. Estimating quantities is a BIG mistake. It’s hard to adjust the quantity when you’re not sure how much your dog is actually receiving in the first place. This becomes even more problematic when there are multiple people feeding your dog, since everyone will be feeding slightly different quantities with an unmeasured scoop. 

3. Pick up the bowl

If a dog walks away from the food bowl, pick it up. Feed them their regular portion at their next meal. Don’t combine their breakfast and dinner, if they skipped their previous meal.

4. Find the Sweet Spot

Pay attention to how much your dog actually wants to eat. Write down how much food they are actually eating out of the total provided at each meal. These are your data points. Average this number over the course of a week, and use that as a rough guideline. Some dogs will eat all of their meal for a day or two, and then stop eating on day 2 or 3. Averaging the quantity your dog eats over the course of 7 days will factor in those fluctuations.

5. Avoid Wet Toppings

I generally avoid adding wet food or gravy to entice a dog to eat more. This can backfire, especially if you are offering your dog more food than they need or want. Some dogs will be excited by the novelty for a short time. But if the toppings are paired with an overabundance of food, you’ll probably find that it’s just a matter of time before your dog begins to turn their nose away from that too. Adding wet toppings could inadvertently encourage some dogs to overeat, which would lead to unwanted weight gain. That being said, it’s not wrong to dress up your dogs meals with more appetizing foods. Just make sure that you’ve found the appropriate quantity first.

6. Add healthy toppings

It’s ok to add whole foods, like carrots, apples, blueberries or broccoli. Not only is it ok, it’s a really good idea for your dog’s overall health. Start with small quantities to help them acquire a taste for fruits and veggies, with time you might notice that these whole foods become some of their favorite snacks. 

7. Sprinkle in a little love

Follow the tips above to find the right quantity of food for your dog. Once you’ve found that sweet spot, you can spice up their meals by grating in a meat roll, like this Happy Howie Roll. Grating in the food allows small pieces to fall into the crevices of the food. This allows the dog to smell the meaty food, and will help to stimulate a healthy appetite. Most dogs find it to be a welcome addition to meal time, Happy Howie Rolls are also a perfect training food.

What is my dog is underweight?

Here are four things to consider.

1. Medical Issues

If you think your dog has a poor appetite due to health issues make sure you consult your veterinarian.

2. Less is More

Animals are biologically programmed to feel that food that is offered in smaller quantities is more desirable. This means that if you provide small quantities of food more frequently throughout the day, you’ll likely see your dog’s appetite increase. Leaving large quantities of food out throughout the day usually has the opposite effect.

3. Chronic Stress

Address chronic stress like that related to separation anxiety, sound sensitivity or other stress related behavior issues with a qualified behavior consultant. The video I created on this Korean Jindo named Lucky is a good case study on the relationship between appetite, weight and stress. Lucky started off being extremely underweight. I trained with him for just under 4 weeks. In that time his confidence grew, his appetite improved and his weight improved. This is a common occurrence with dogs that are struggling to adapt to their day to day routine and environment.

4. Hand feeding

A lot of dogs will be more interested in food when it becomes part of a social activity. Sitting down with your dog at each meal to hand feed meals can help increase their interest in eating nutritious meals. This will be familiar to you if you’ve seen my video on hand feeding.

You might also be interested in this video I created on how food shapes behavior

Let me know if you found this helpful. Please be sure to subscribe for more videos on Youtube and leave a comment on this blog page.

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