By Tyler Rohm, 2SpeakDog Intern
The Importance of a Feeding Ritual
The feeding ritual is an important aspect of any dog’s training. Whether you have a pup that is respectful around food or not, the feeding ritual is always a useful skill to have in your toolbox.
It’s common for dog owners to say okay, I know what a feeding ritual means – just having my dog sit before I feed them, right? While that might be a small part of it, the feeding ritual is much more than that. It can be used to retrain a dog who guards their food, gain trust through feeding, or to fine tune your dog’s respect for you and the space around you. We use the feeding ritual to gain respect through trust, not obedience through fear. By respecting your food, your commands, and your space, your dog will start to respect you in all other areas of training.
An important thing to remember when working with your dog is that for dogs, space is respect. Gaining your space behind the line and around the food you’re making for them automatically gains your dog’s respect for you. An effective feeding ritual will trickle down into all other aspects of your training by encouraging your dog to want to work for you, because they respect you.
Step 1: Creating a Line
The feeding ritual starts with creating a line. Ideally, this line would be the doorway between your kitchen and an external room, for example. If you don’t have a doorway, or if your doorway is very wide, you could use any line in the room as long as it’s the same line every time, and it’s more than a couple feet away from where you’ll feed your dogs. You can start by moving your dog’s food and their bowls into the kitchen, or whatever room you like to feed your dogs in.
We don’t recommend feeding your dogs in their crates, as this can create food guarding. For a dog that already food guards, feeding in the crate can exacerbate it by giving your dog more things that they think are theirs. If your dog is in that room with you, have them leave the room using a command. You can use any command you’d like as long as it’s the same command every time. Point out of the room when you say your command, as this will help your dog know where you’d like them to go. Now you can mentally create your line, whether it’s a doorway or just a near the end of the room. From this point forward while you’re training, neither you nor your dog are allowed to go past this line. This means that if your dog comes past the line, you should encourage them back behind it but not step across it yourself. For the first couple days of creating a line, before you begin the feeding part of the feeding ritual, the line is practice. Your dog will probably need a couple of days to get used to having to wait behind the line, so you can start slowly. Have your dog sit behind the line, tell them to “wait”, and square your shoulders as you face your dog. The reason you square your shoulders is to create “posturing,” which your dog will see as you being in charge. This also creates confidence in you even if you don’t have it just yet. Then you will take a deep breath, and release it. Breathing deeply physically lowers your heart rate, brings oxygen to your brain, and takes you down a notch. By taking your deep breath before you give your dog any command, not only are you creating more balance within yourself, but you’re also leaving your dog with balance. This is very important when working with your dog, because always leaving them with balance will help them learn to trust you as someone they can follow and depend on. Once you take your breath, start to look past your dog instead of directly at them. This keeps your chin up but also encourages your dog to focus on what you’re going to ask of them next. The food and bowls should be kept as far back into the room as you can go, if that is feasible for you. If your dog is in their placement behind the line, you can now back up a few feet. When you give your command, make sure to only give it once. If they get up from that spot, move towards them and start over again. Increase your distance from your dog until they stay behind the line for the duration of you backing across the room. Dogs are one of the only animals that understand pointing as a sign of direction, so use this in your favor when asking them to leave the room. Make sure that you are silent at this point – one command, and then no words after that. Be sure that you aren’t encouraging them forward with any kind of excitement. Once you are able to back up to the spot where your dog food is located, stand beside it. Ensure that you are doing all of this calmly, with few words and no exciting body language. When your dog can sit (or lay down) behind the line while you move backwards across the room and not move past the line, you have successfully created your line. Now you can begin the feeding portion of the feeding ritual!
Step 2: The Feeding Ritual Level 1
At this point you should be standing next to the food, and your dog should be sitting (or laying down) behind the line you’ve created. Put the food in the bowl with no excitement. If you feel yourself getting escalated or anxious, take your breath. This will calm you and your dog. As you put the food into the bowl, mix it around with your hands. This gets your scent on the food so your dog is reminded that it’s yours. Make noise with the food too, so that your dog hears it. Creating noise in the food bowl is good impulse control practice for your dog. Set the bowl down behind your legs. Changing your levels and going down to the floor is a more engaging position for your dog. Remember this, and keep your shoulders square and your eyes up while you do this. If your dog has continued to stay behind your line throughout this, you can move on. If not, go back a step and move them behind the line again. Your next move is to step forward into the halfway point between the food bowl and the line. It would be beneficial to take a breath at this point as well, to ensure that you’re leaving your dog balanced before they eat. This will also teach them that a calm energy is being rewarded. Since we’re in the early stages at level one, you can release your dog to eat from the halfway point. Remember that throughout this process, you have been keeping your shoulders square towards your dog to encourage them to stay behind the line, using clear body language. Therefore, your release position is breaking this on purpose. Turn your body so that you are sideways to your dog, and use any command you’d like. This can be, “go eat”, “bon appetite”, “who’s hungry”, any command is fine, as long as it’s the same every time. Use slightly bigger body language here, when you release, so that your dog knows exactly what you’d like for them to do. You can use a sweeping arm motion towards the food as well, and even throw a couple of pieces of food into the bowl. Ensure that your movements are fluid when you release. When you give commands, your body language is clear and strong. When you release from the commands, your body language should be loose and fluid, as fluidity is positivity in dog language. It’s important to praise with clear signals and calm body language here, instead of lots of excitement. The reason for this is that the food is a big reward for your dog, and by keeping yourself and therefore your dog calm, they are getting rewarded for that as well.
Step 3: The Feeding Ritual Level 2
Depending on your dog, getting level one down solidly can take anywhere from three days to a week. It’s important not to rush into level two, as you won’t be gaining the proper respect, but only obedience. Before moving onto level two, your dog should be sitting or lying down consistently behind the line without any big movements forward (some dogs will test you more than others and that’s okay). It’s important to note that because we’re asking for a wait behind the line and not a stay, it’s okay if they lay down if you asked them to sit. The goal is that they stay fully behind the line. Your dog should also be starting to understand the routine of it all, and not have to be asked more than once to leave the room or initially sit behind the line. Level two will start all of the same ways as level one, except for right before you call them into the room. Once you have put the food in the bowl, touched all throughout it, made some noise with it and set it behind you, level two starts. Walk to the same halfway point that you have been releasing your dog from, but this time, call them directly to you. This may be confusing for your dog at first, because they have gotten used to going directly to the food bowl. This is where you can use your body and your body language to keep your dog in front of you. You can “body block” the food, by keeping your shoulders square and your posture straight as you call your dog to you, not releasing them to eat yet. On the first couple of feedings you only need to use a simple command, such as “sit”, before they are released to their food bowl. You can make it more challenging by adding in more commands that your dog already knows. For example, “focus” is a great command to use here. The reason why we get to level two at the feeding ritual is to gain your dog’s trust and therefore their respect. Getting them to work for you before they eat only increases the respect they have for you. Once your dog is doing many commands at the halfway point, you can start to make it even harder – have your dog back up even further from the line, towards the back of the external room. Do this using your body and your body language, physically moving them towards them as they back up and pointing them in the direction you want them to go. The reason behind this, again, is that to a dog, space is respect. Once they get to the back of that room, you can add in another challenge by having them go to a different room. Keep in mind that all of these additional challenges take time and practice, so it’s important to not rush any of them.
Using the Feeding Ritual with More Than One Dog
If your household is home to many dogs, the feeding ritual is just as important. You would repeat the steps with each dog individually at first, making sure they are solidified at level two before adding in a second dog. Both dogs should be able to confidently complete sitting behind the line, working for you at the halfway point, and backing up behind the line. If you have more than one dog, ensure that you are introducing the feeding ritual with your two calmest and least reactive dogs first. Sit both dogs behind the line, and do the first part of the feeding ritual with the food and the bowls. When you get to placing the bowls down, place them far enough away from each other that each dog has a clear path towards their bowl. This next step is very important – call the calmest, best behaved dog towards you first. We do this because it’s important to reward the best behaved dog of the pack. Ask them to work for you using a few simple commands, and then release them to eat using fluid body motion. Do the same with your second dog, making sure that they are completely focused on you even while the other dog is eating. If one finishes before the other, pick up their bowl and have them leave the kitchen. Do not let them bother your other dog or dogs while they are eating.
Using the Feeding Ritual to Work Through Fear and/or Reactivity
The feeding ritual is a great tool for fearful, reactive, and/or food guarding dogs. This may seem odd, to have a food guarding or dog-reactive dog eating in the same space as another dog. The key is that the feeding ritual is giving the reactive dog a plan to follow. Often times, fearfulness and reactivity are based upon an insecurity in how to handle a situation. The feeding ritual is a step-by-step guide for a fearful or reactive dog. This takes the responsibility off of the dog, and again places their trust in you to handle a situation. For fearful dogs, the feeding ritual is a great confidence builder. If you have multiple dogs and one of them is fearful of other dogs, call them to you first to work and then eat. This allows the dog to walk confidently past the other dogs, gaining confidence in themselves as they do so. If there is a reactive dog in that pack, this allows the reactive dog to focus on staying in their placement instead of reacting to the dog that is walking past. For a dog that is reactive towards other dogs, they don’t focus on the other dog(s) in the room as much because they have learned that in order to get their food they must stay in their placement until you say otherwise. If you call the dog into the kitchen, past the other dogs, that dog will learn that you have confidence in them and the situation you put them in, which will ultimately translate into having confidence in themselves.
Why the Feeding Ritual is Beneficial
The feeding ritual is not only a tool to gain your dog’s trust and respect, but it’s also good practice for you! A good feeding ritual will teach you how to have confidence when asking your dog to work. It will also trickle down into all other aspects of your training. When you and your dog together have a good feeding ritual, your dog will respect you in areas you may not have even realized he wasn’t respecting you in before. By gaining confidence through trust, not fear through obedience, your dog is learning that you are capable of handling the situation. By placing your confidence in each dog if you have a pack, every dog learns that they can have confidence within that pack, too. Lastly, by leaving your dog with balance at every point throughout this process (and hopefully you’ll do this every time you give a command in the future), you’re creating a dog who is more balanced, more respectful, and more confident within themselves.