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SG Susan Garrett
SG If I told you there was one difference between very successful dog trainers and most pet owners, and
that one major difference was responsible not only for a better relationship between the person and
their dog but was responsible for the dog being easier to train and was also responsible for the dog
living a long life and having less health problems. You’d be more interested in knowing what that one
difference was, right? Yeah, I thought so.
Hi, I’m Susan Garrett. Welcome to Shaped by Dog. And today, I’m going to tell you right off the bat that
one difference that will help your dog live a longer healthier life, that will help you have a better
relationship and make that dog easier to train it’s something that is achievable by every single person
who owns a dog. And it is all to do with how you feed your dog. Simple right? That’s the difference. It’s
how you feed your dog because there’s really two groups of people.
There are people who put the dog food in a bowl, put the bowl down for the dog. And when the dog has
finished a few minutes later, they pick that dog bowl up, and that’s it until the next meal. And then
there’s people who fill a dog food bowl and put it down and leave it down for the day. And when it
comes around to the next day or maybe a couple of days later, they might top up that dog food.
That kind of person, the person who leaves the food down, that’s called free choice feeding or free
feeding. Sometimes it’s called graze feeding the dog, allowing the dog to graze throughout the day.
Now some of you might feed your dog two meals a day, but if the dog doesn’t eat at all and they walk
away, you leave it there for them. Same thing, slightly different version, but you’re still allowing the dog
And that is hugely problematic, as I alluded to at the very beginning of this podcast. And by the way, if
you’re watching this podcast on YouTube go ahead and click the like button for me, will you? Let me
know that this is a topic that’s of interest to you. So why is free choice feeding such a huge problem?
Well, there’s a lot of obvious and a lot of not-so-obvious reasons. First of all, if you have a puppy and
you free choice feed your puppy, they learn a lot of bad habits. Number one with a puppy is the
impulse to have to relieve themselves happens soon after eating. You have no idea when that urge is
going to happen if you free choice feed your puppy, and so it’s going to make house training a lot
There’s going to be a lot more accidents in places you don’t want them to if that food is left down all the
time. But when you know, predictably, you’ve put down a meal, the puppies eaten. When the puppy
backs away from that food if there’s any left, you pick it up, and then you’re going to take that puppy
outside for a walk because you know when they’ve had that meal.
So, for sure, if you have a puppy, I mean, let’s face it, if you want your dog to live a long life with less
health issues, that alone should make us all say, “Okay, all right. I’ll never put food down and leave it
down.” That’s a biggie. But for puppies, it’s just super important because you’re teaching a puppy to be
a picky eater by leaving the food down all the time. Because “You know what? I don’t really have to eat
now. It’ll be there whenever I want it. And if I want it now, fine. If I don’t want it, fine”.
But what about the health of other dogs? There has been studies done on this, like this one by a list of
people, and it was published in the journal of veterinary medicine. I’ll leave a link to that in the show
And they looked at 48 eight-week-old Labrador puppies, and they split them into two groups; half they
gave free choice feeding the same brand of dog food, and the other half were given the opportunity to
eat just two meals a day of the same brand of dog food. And then, at two years of age, they looked at
these dogs’ hip x-rays.
Now the group that were given access to free-feeding, 18 of those 24 puppies by the age of two had
hip dysplasia, which meant they are going to have a limited life. They are varying depending on the
degree and the severity of the hip dysplasia; they are going to develop arthritis. They may have arthritis
changes at the age of two. That means that they’re going to have some sort of pain element to their
life, which means their mobility is going to be less.
And it’s preventable because, in the other group, only five of the 24 dogs in the other group were
dysplastic. Of course, hip dysplasia is dependent upon genetics as well, but definitely allowing the dogs
to free choice feed, graze feed has a huge impact on that.
Now, what other health impact that has, is dogs who are allowed to pick their own food when they want
it all day long, they have more obesity. 40% of dogs in the general population are obese. Not just fat,
they are obese. And a big part of that is they’re being fed too much food because food today is so high
in calories, and a lot of dogs today live a pretty sedentary life, and one plus one equals big fat dogs.
Obese dogs don’t live as long as fit dogs. The same is true for us people. You want to keep a dog as fit
and healthy as possible. You want to keep them at an ideal weight. You do not want your dog carrying
extra weight because it not only leads to a shortened life but to a lot more health problems during that
So, we know that it can cause health problems. We know that it can lead to obesity, and it definitely is
going to impact the quality of that dog’s life.
In addition, by not putting down a bowl of food twice a day, you’re missing a great training opportunity
with the dog. Because when you are free choice , feeding that bowl of food isn’t looked upon with the
same excitement. Why should it be? It’s there all the time. All you’re doing is topping it up.
When you want to train your dog with food, they might be engaged with you for a little bit, but if it gets a
little bit, “Oh, this is not interesting to me, I’m going to walk away because I really don’t care about your
food.” It makes training so darn difficult. “Food is plentiful in my world. It’s everywhere. It’s not really
that important.” Imagine if you had the opportunity to eat the same food and it was plentiful, and you
could get it every hour of the day. It would eventually become not that important, and the same is true
for dogs who get access to free choice feed.
Plus, the fact that when you would go to train that dog, even if you could get them interested in the
food, they’re probably either partially or fully full. So, they couldn’t physically eat more food. Now the
other side of that coin is dogs who are not free choice fed, who are given a bowl of food in the morning
and another bowl of food at night, they are going to be more keen to train and work with you.
You can use those two opportunities when the food is coming. It’s more exciting to that dog because
they haven’t seen a bowl of food in 8 to 10 hours. When you go to put it down, you can ask them for a
simple behavior. Like my dogs, it’s hang out in the crate, and I don’t want your paws touching the floor
(is my puppy’s criteria).
And when you do that, I will deliver food to you. And if you don’t do that, then we will wait until your
paws go in the crate. It’s a great opportunity to train your dog a behavior that you’re working on. Hold a
sit while I put the bowl down, don’t dive in. You’re teaching the dog that when I ask you to do
something, and you do it, then I will give you what you want, which is your big bowl of food.
So, the other thing that maybe isn’t so obvious about this scenario is you are the one delivering the
food. Now, when you pour it, and it’s always there, it’s the floor that magically erupted this food. It has
nothing to do with you. So when you’re delivering it, and you’re asking for a behavior, the value of the
food goes through you, and it deepens the relationship you have with your dog, as does all that extra
training that you get to do with your puppy or dog.
And so, when you are free choice feeding, you’re losing a lot of opportunities. It’s a common question
that we get in our online classrooms is that “You know, my dogs don’t seem to be as keen as your dogs
are in the video.” And the first question that I or one of the members of my team is going to ask you is,
“please describe your feeding routine with your dog.” And most of the time, it’s predictable that “Well,
my dog is a picky eater” (probably because it’s been allowed to be), “so I just leave the food down all
day.” We can fix this, and I will get to that later but let’s keep addressing why we don’t want to free
A lot of times, when people put food in a bowl, they just tend to top it up. And so, some of the food may
have gone rancid, or it may have attracted insects into the bowl. So, it’s a health risk when you’re
leaving food out all day. Now I hope if you are one of those people that you aren’t leaving out wet food
because that can go bad much, much faster than kibble. But if you’re leaving out just dry kibble, then
you’ve got to be sure that the dog’s drinking enough water to balance that dry, dehydrated kibble.
Another reason why it’s not good for your dog’s health if you free choice feed is because when I put my
dogs’ breakfast down if they leave some and walk away, I have a heads up that they might not be
feeling well. And then I’ll put down their dinner at night, and if they have a pattern of suddenly not
eating in the morning but they’re eating more at night, then I can go to my Veterinarian and say,
“Here’s what I’ve seen.”
You don’t have that opportunity if the food’s there all the time. The other thing you don’t have the
opportunity is to plan for some fun exercise. So, if I’m going to let my dogs go for a big swim, then I
know it’s not going to be right after they’ve eaten. But if you don’t know when that is, you can’t plan for
that intense exercise with your dog.
Another problem that you might be seeing if you’re free choice feeding is when I put down a meal for
my dog, and they eat it, and then for my dogs, it’s 12 hours in between post meals. When I put down
another one, I’ve given their stomach time to empty.
So the food in a dog’s stomach usually takes 8 to 10 hours to digest. And so, it goes into the small
intestine, and it triggers a hunger response. You are never triggering a hunger response when the food
is always there—again, leading to more picky eaters and leading to a dog who has less interested in
If you are a person like me who wants to use reinforcement in my training, you have eliminated the
possibility of using food reinforcement, and you’ve got to get more clever on how you can do things.
Like only use toys or activities to train your dog. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Now, if you are saying, “Susan, okay, I want to change.” I’m going to flip this around. I’m going to give
you a plan that you can do. Number one, you’re going to decide how much food that dog really needs.
Are they too thin? Are they too heavy? Let’s get them into a good weight.
And if you aren’t sure what that good weight is, take a look at other dogs, look online, or look around
and ask how much does your dog weigh. So, if you have a Border Collie and your Border Collie is 20
inches tall and weighs 50 or 60 pounds, or more, then I’ve got to tell you, very likely it’s overweight, and
it may possibly be obese.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t Border Collies out there that are 50 or 60 pounds, but chances are very
slim. For example, the heaviest Border Collie in my household is Swagger, and he’s 42 pounds. And
he’s 21 inches at the shoulder, and he’s got a lot of muscle on him. My young puppy This! only weighs
Take a look online, ask around, “what’s your dog weigh?” come to YouTube and put it in the
comments. And I bet there’ll be people that will say, “Well, I have a friend, and their dogs really fit, and
it’s that breed, and it weighs this.” Now again, it doesn’t mean that is your dog, but you can go to your
Veterinarian and say, “Look, I really want my dog to be lean cause I know lean dogs live a lot longer.
Can you let me know what you think?”
So, we’ve got a goal. You’re going to weigh your dog at least once a month. But if you want your dogs
to either gain or lose weight, you should be weighing them every week. I personally like to feed my
dogs in a stainless-steel bowl. I think that’s far more sanitary.
I’m going to give a link in the show notes to the bowls that I love and how you can get bowls just like
them. But those bowls have to be washed at least once a day. My dogs’ bowls get washed after every
meal. And once a week, they get put into the dishwasher for sanitizing. Now we hand wash with hot
Both your dog’s food bowl and their water bowl need to be washed regularly. If you have a picky eater,
I’m going to give you ideas on how you can change that. But if you listened to episode 70 of Shaped by
Dog, where I was talking about your puppy’s first day and night, you would have learned that I like to
feed 75% of my meals in the form of training. Which means they’ll be hand-fed to the dog, and we’ll be
playing training games.
If you are in one of my classes like Recallers or Home School the Dog or any of our Agility programs,
then of course, you’ve got a whole slew of games that you can play with your dog. If you aren’t in any
of my programs, but you’re interested in playing one of our training games, I’m going to give you a link
in the show notes on how you can get access to some of those games right here on YouTube.
I’ve got a bunch of them, both for puppies, and any games that I have there for puppies can be used on
any age of dog. Just check out the games I have here on YouTube. They may be listed as puppy
games, but they can be effectively used for any age dog.
75% of those meals go into training games, and 25% just go to the experience of “here’s your food, eat
your meal out of the bowl.” So, they get the experience of eating out of the bowl. You don’t have to be
hand feeding them all their meals. Now, if you’re super busy in the morning, you can go to 50% of the
meal in the bowl, and 50% hand fed and then do 100% of that meal, training games at night.
All right, let’s talk picky eaters. If you’ve got a really picky eater, here’s what I’d like you to do. I’d like
you to stop giving them a chance to walk away from a full bowl of food. Stop letting them say, “I don’t
want that food,” and then you putting some of your human table scraps on top. What you’re going to do
is, you’re going to put down just a spoonful of dog food in that bowl and put it down.
If the dog sniffs it and walks away, then take it up until the next mealtime. Now I feed my dogs
somewhere between 8 and 10 in the mornings, and on weekends I feed them at 5:30 in the morning,
and then they get fed somewhere around 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon. So, if I had a picky eater, I would
give them that small meal, and if they walked away, I would give them the next one the next time
I would then maybe change out that food and try a different food for the next meal when I get them to
eat. So, let’s say they eat at eight o’clock in the morning. I would offer them another small meal at noon
and then another small meal at five, and then another small meal before bedtime.
And then I’m just getting them the rehearsal of finishing a small meal. Now, if you have a dog that loves
going for a car ride or going outside, you throw the ball or play a game of tug. When you give them a
small meal, and they eat it say, “let’s go do X,” and that X is whatever that dog really loves.
And in that way, we’re helping to build value for when you finish your bowl; we get to do something you
really love. Now you don’t have to do this for the rest of their life. But we are conditioning the dog to
finish their bowl. And it is possible to turn that picky eater into a dog who really loves their food.
Don’t be afraid to let that dog miss a meal. Some dogs can maybe even miss two meals. Now, this is
also dependent on the breed. If you have a breed that is prone to bloat, definitely check with your
Veterinarian about your plan. “Susan Garrett says I should let my dog miss a meal,” and they might
say, “Well, that’s not good for that breed.”
So, I want to caution you to check with your Veterinarian before you decide that your dog’s going to
skip a meal. But most dogs will skip a meal without a problem. And they might even skip two meals
without a problem. And then the next time you put down food, they’re not going to say, “Oh, food is
everywhere. Food is plentiful. It’s not that important to me”.
They’re going to go, “Uh, food is limited and valuable. People are awesome because they bring me
food. I kind of like food.” We’re going to grow that intensity for food, which is going to help you be able
to train your dog using the food. And that is the sweet spot we’re looking for.
So go from a free feeder, and yes, I recognize free feeding is easy for you. I dump a big pile of kibble
on a bowl, and I walk away, and I come back, and I check it every couple of days. I hope after today’s
podcast you’re convinced you are no longer a free feeder, and your dog is going to turn into a dog who
looks forward to mealtimes because it’s a bonding event for the two of you. I’ll see you next time here
on Shaped by Dog.