Mealtime Manners for Dogs

The Dog Trainer debunks a popular myth about doggie mealtime and rank. 

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
October 10, 2012

Mealtime Manners for Dogs

Many a dog training guide will tell you that you should eat before your dog does, or at least that you should “make” her sit while you put her bowl on the floor, and also wait for permission to snarf up the contents. The idea is that you’re the leader, the leader eats first, and these little demonstrations of control will teach your dog to respect you. As is so often the case, many a dog training guide is being silly, or being partly right for silly reasons.

You do not have to eat before you feed your dog. Sometimes I don’t even know how to begin refuting this idea, because it kinda gets the grand prize of silly. One writer even tells you that if you’re going out to eat (where, you know, your dog won’t see you in possession of your prey) you should eat a cracker before you feed the dog. Just to … show her. Because your dog is going to be so impressed with you for having a cracker. 

See also: Dogs Who Guard Their Food

Among canids, the relationship between who’s got a given resource and what rank they hold, or whether rank enters into it, is Facebook complicated. If two feral dogs argue over the garbage pile both are foraging in, is the winner higher-ranking, or just hungrier that day? If eating first = high rank, then what should we make of the fact that when a wolf pup licks an adult wolf’s muzzle, the adult will regurgitate food already eaten – in other words, give up the meal? 

The whole business of eating before your dog does is a classic example of humans telling ourselves plausible stories, not based on much evidence, to make the world seem orderly. Personally, I think it’s mean to make the dog lie around salivating and hungry till after human dinner time. Feed her first.

But should she sit and wait for her bowl? All my dogs have. I don’t teach them this to make a point; I teach it because all my dogs have been medium size or larger and I don’t fancy being bodyslammed when they’re really excited over their supper. Also, impulse control is an important and sometimes life-saving doggy skill. It’s impulse control when your dog does a 180 when called, instead of keeping after the squirrel that just headed for the road. It’s impulse control when you’re at a highway rest stop and your dog doesn’t bolt out the open car door but instead waits for you to leash her and give her the okay. Many – most? -- of the good manners behaviors  that make a dog easy to live with boil down to impulse control.  

Top secret: I don’t care what rank my dogs think they have, if they think anything about it at all. I teach them to wait patiently at times because I care about their happiness, comfort, and safety, and about mine. 

Dog with food image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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