By Kasey Herrera, 2SpeakDog Training and Behavior Specialist
The Importance of a Feeding Ritual
My dog won’t eat his food!
My dog guards his food!
My dog is reactive to other dogs!
I think my dog is guarding me!
These are just a few things we hear when working with clients and typically my response is “Let’s talk about a feeding ritual”. I talk a lot about changing the dynamic in the home before we can change that dynamic outside of the home. We need to let your pup know that you have got “it” so he doesn’t have to do the work. I want to let your dog know that you will take care of everything. You can tell your dog you are in charge by gaining respect through trust, not obedience through fear. A feeding ritual can be a great start to that process.
The feeding ritual is an important exercise for all dogs and their humans. It trickles into everything else you do with your dog. You will practice many of the skills you will need to change the dynamic in your home such as gaining space and creating a calm state of mind for both you and you pup. It adds value to food for picky eaters and grazers yet helps calm dogs who are excited or who experience anxiety around food. It is the type of mental stimulation we should be engaging in with our dogs daily, while building a bond between you and your dog based on respect and trust.
Insecure or reactive dogs will mirror your calm and confidence around meal time and their pack members. This ritual removes the weight from their shoulders and allows them to just enjoy being a dog. The feeding ritual will help create a dog who is balanced and confident, and trusts you to handle whatever comes their way.
We begin by owning space. Space is respect in the dog world. You'll move your dog out of the kitchen. We will create a boundary for them to wait behind, and help them get to a calmer state of mind using their language rather than obedience commands. This associates a calm state of mind with their food and with meal time. Your pup will practice impulse control as you prepare and scent their food, and then they'll work hard to earn their food by showing off their obedience commands. You'll then release them to their food using their language again.
This ritual helps to change the dynamic between you and your dog. Your dog will gain confidence. They’ll thrive on the added structure – dogs like to know what to do and that they’ve done it well. Your dog will learn that you’re handling things now, so they don’t have to handle them themselves. That’s huge for a dog who is insecure and may be reactive or fearful as a result. A feeding ritual helps you create a dog who is balanced and confident while building a relationship of trust and respect.
Step 1. Creating a Boundary (and a Calm State of Mind)
Begin by creating a line and help your dog get to a calmer state of mind. This line is imaginary, but thresholds between internal rooms or places where the flooring changes can be helpful in creating a visual boundary.
Pick up your empty food bowl and hold it on your hip. This is your bowl, that you own. Do not move it up, away, behind, or in front of you. Hold it securely at your side.
Tell your dog, just one time, “Out of the kitchen!” in a very matter of fact tone (do not repeat yourself) while pointing in the direction you want them to go. Dogs understand pointing as direction so we can use that as a tool.
Get behind your dog and move forward into their space towards the line. Your purpose is to move them to the other side of the line. We are speaking in their language when we move them this way. You can own anything behind you. In moving your dog out of the room, you own the space behind you and the space around the food.
Now help your dog get to a calmer state. This associates a calm state of mind with their food. Do not let your dog cross back over the line. You stay on your side, and keep them on theirs! Stay square to them – be careful not to turn your body sideways. A sideways position is release in
body language, and tells your dog to come forward.
If they do sneak by you, it’s okay! This takes practice. Take a deep breath and get behind them again. Move them to the other side of their line while pointing. It’s very important that we do not cross onto their side of the line. Stand right at the boundary, facing your dog. Do not speak to your dog during this process. Words can escalate or confuse them. Instead, take a deep breath. This brings oxygen to your brain and lowers your heart rate. It will make you calmer. Dogs will naturally mirror our energy, and we can use that as a tool to help them become calm.
Dogs understand the world first through scent, then through energy, and respond to body language. Energy and body language are a big part of communicating effectively with our dogs, and a big part of your feeding ritual. Your body language here needs to be strong. Put your other hand on your hip. This will square your shoulders, giving you strong body posture. Keep your head up, and stare past your dog. Making eye contact here will make your dog anticipate a command – instead we want to tell them to mirror our energy and get to a calmer state.
We are not using obedience commands at the line. Instead, we are using their language to help them make the right choices on their own. A dog can be under obedience command and still be escalated or fearful. For example, I can have a dog in a sit-stay still quivering from excitement, shaking in fear, or whining in anticipation. For that reason, you won’t tell your dog to “sit”, “stay”, or “wait”. Instead, you will wait for them to get to a calmer state of mind by telling them to mirror your energy.
This is the most important part of the feeding ritual. Take your time. Take a deep breath to get yourself to a calmer state. Stare straight ahead, past your dog. Keep your hands on your hips to square your shoulders. Wait for your dog to visibly relax. When your dog sinks into a sit or melts into a down, that is reflective of a calmer state. Remember that your dog is learning something new here. The first time will always take the longest – make sure you have plenty of time to wait out your dog. If you give up after two minutes, your dog will push you to three or four minutes next time! Be patient and don’t give up until your dog is in a calmer state. If your dog moves away from the line, reengage them by tapping the bowl or snapping your fingers once.
This first step is so important. It allows us to practice owning space, creating a line, and getting our dog to a calmer state of mind.
Feeding Ritual – Level 1
Once your dog is calm back up towards their food while staying square to them. Turning around will make things harder. They’re not ready for that yet, but will be eventually. If your dog crosses the line, just move them back as you did before.
As they wait behind their line, pour the food into the bowl. Make a lot of noise when you do it. Pick up the kibble and drop them noisily into the bowl. This does a few things! It’s a great exercise in impulse control for your dog. It also puts your scent on your food that you are sharing with your dog. This is important. If the food belongs to your dog it gives them a lot of responsibility that they don’t know how to handle. You’re taking that weight off their shoulders, and helping them relax. In doing so we are addressing issues like resource guarding or panic or excitement around the food. Your dog might come forward as you create noise and movement. Just own your space again, and move them behind the line. Always take a breath before moving away from your dog to leave them with balance.
Go half way across the room, towards your dog. Set the bowl down behind you – remember, you own anything behind you, and you own the bowl and the food! Going down low can make you very inviting and may encourage your pup forward at first. It can help to stay square to your dog and keep your posture straight as you set the bowl down behind you. If your dog begins to cross the line, quickly move forward to block them. Move them back across the line and wait again for them to relax into a sit or a down.
Once the food bowl is behind you, you will release your dog to eat their food. Your release should be very intentional. We are still communicating with them in their language.
The release is very specific as we want to use three things dogs inherently know:
1. Turn sideways. Sideways is a release to a dog. Throughout this exercise we have stayed square to our dogs. Turning sideways opens our body and invites them forward. Imagine inviting someone into your home, opening the door and turning to the side, gesturing them inside. Dogs inherently understand sideways as a release and we can use that to let them know when it is appropriate to come forward.
2. Use a fluid motion of your arm from your dog all the way to the bowl. Fluidity is positive. think about wiggly puppies with their big eyes and fluid movemnts, expressing to the world that they mean no harm. Dogs understand fluid movement, expressing as a positive thing. You'll use a fluid sweep of your arm from your pup to the bowl to encourage them forward.
3. Finally, point to the bowl as you release them with that fluid movement. Remember, dogs understand pointing as direction. They're one of the few animals (and only domesticated animal) who do, and we can use it as a tool. We already did, in fact, when we pointed to get them out of the room.
You can use a cue here as well such as “enjoy” or “bon appetite”. Be careful not to become excited and excite your puppy – we just worked very hard to create a calm state of mind around the food.
Feeding Ritual – Level 2
Some dogs will need several days to a week of level one before they are ready to move on, and that’s perfectly fine! Creating a calm state of mind around the food and owning the space and the food and bowl are the most important parts of the feeding ritual, so don’t be afraid to spend time
building that foundation. Some dogs may be ready for level two much faster, and that’s okay too! Every dog is different. For every dog, though, the calm will come faster, last longer, and be more calm with each practice session. Be consistent and be patient. Soon this will be a very quick process.
Level 2 of the ritual begins in the same way. Create your line, move backwards, add the food to the bowl, move to the halfway point. Instead of putting the bowl down behind you, continue to hold it at your side. Take a handful of kibble and call your dog to you.
Now your dog is going to work for you, and earn their food. For dogs who aren’t especially food motivated, this adds value to their food and can encourage them to eat their meal instead of pick at their food. If your dog is a picky eater, begin with level 2. It’s a great chance to practice their
obedience commands, and it gets their brain working even harder.
Ask your dog to do a command that they know, and reward them with a handful of kibble. Then ask them for another command, and reward them again. You can hand feed a few handfuls, or their entire meal. Hand feeding doesn’t have to last forever, but it’s a great chance to build respect and trust with your dog. Return to hand feeding anytime there is a big change in your dog's life – a new pack member or new house can be less stressful by increasing structure.
Some dogs may try to pick up their food and set it down on the floor. This behavior is related to anxiety around the food. If your pup tries this, be sure to track them with your hand. Don't give them the opportunity to eat their food from the ground, only from your hand.
Your dog is now eating your food, from your bowl, from your hand, in your kitchen. You own everything and so they do not have to own it themselves. This lets them relax!
After your dog has worked for their meal, set the bowl behind you, and release them to their food!
You can continue to build on your feeding ritual! Once your dog is calm enough to sink into a sit consistently, wait them out until they relax into a down position (again, not using obedience commands, but by breathing and telling them to mirror your calm energy.) You can teach your dog to give even more space, and even go to another room while you prepare your food. You can ask them to show off all of their tricks and obedience commands before releasing them to their food, and teach them new tricks while they're especially motivated. Your feeding ritual can be as extravagant as you'd like it to be.
Feeding a Pack
If you have more than one dog in your home, practice with each dog individually until they understand the new rules. They should consistently mind the line, while getting to a calmer state faster and maintaining a calm state longer before you begin working your dogs together.
Begin by pairing up your two calmest dogs, and slowly add in the dogs who are more excited. All your dogs will wait behind the line and get to a calm state.
Prepare your bowls, and set them down behind you. Make sure each dog has a clear line to their bowl, and that there is some space between the bowls.
Call forward the dog who is giving you the best behavior – not the dog who is the oldest or has lived in the house the longest! Teach your dogs that the best behavior – the calm and respect of space – gets the reward. Your dogs are watching carefully. We want to reinforce the best behavior and not accidently reward the less desired behaviors.
Have the first dog work for you, and then release them to their bowl. Call forward the next best behaved dog, have them work, and release them. Carry on until everyone in the pack is eating. If one dog finishes before the other, pick up their bowl and have them leave the room. Do not let them bother the other dogs who are still eating. Soon they will naturally begin respecting one another's space.
Fear and Reactivity: How the Feeding Ritual Can Help
The feeding ritual is incredibly important for dogs who are resource guarding or reactive to other dogs. The reactive dog is able to associate a calm state of mind and have positive experiences around the other dogs. It also gives the reactive dog a plan to follow and a job to do – a job they
know how to do and can be successful with, not a job we have unintentionally let them take on. Fear and reactivity are often based on insecurity. Now you’re telling your dog it isn’t their responsibility to handle feeding time, and builds their trust in you to be the one handling it everything.
Benefits to a Feeding Ritual
The feeding ritual is an important step in changing the dynamic in any home. It lets you practice gaining and owning space, and getting your dog to a calmer state of mind. We will use these skills in so many other exercises, and the feeding ritual lets you practice them twice a day. The feeding ritual tells our dogs in a big way that we are handling meal time. It's not their job or responsibility to stress about meal time. Instead, we can give them jobs they are good at such as respecting your space, getting calm, working for their food, and showing off their obedience commands. The feeding ritual will help create a dog who is balanced and confident and a human who can lead their dog with calm confidence.