The effects of food and diet on your dogs behaviour

Lots of things can affect your dogs behaviour and mood, and diet is definitely an underrated one. If your dog gets easily frustrated, hyper, anxious, can be unpredictable, or even defensive, you might consider the effects of food and diet on your dogs behaviour.

Regular meal times for reactive dogs!

Don’t under estimate the power of regular meal times – it’s not just about convenience. Feeding at set times is great for your dogs blood sugar levels which can have a huge impact on mood. Grumpy dogs are far more reactive than relaxed dogs. So, if you are currently free feeding, maybe consider switching to set meal times instead.

Random feeding times can leave your dog feeling hungry at strange times of the day. Feeling hungry can affect him in all kinds of ways including the way he responds to a recall, his concentration levels, how likely he is to scavenge, abscond, and how protective he is of his treats and things he “collects”! Check out my reactive dog experiment to understand more about reactivity and how simple things like feeling hungry can affect the way a dog reacts to their environment.

Easier puppy training

Regular feeding times also help make a more predictable bowel, which can help with toilet training! Set meals times, coupled with set walking routines, can also help him with better sleeping patterns which makes for a much more balanced puppy.

Confidence and diet

Food and feeding is on the bottom layer of Maslows pyramid of needs. The bottom layer lists a dogs most primal needs. Like air and water, he just can’t survive without food. So it’s understandable that any uncertainty around food and diet can have a profound impact on your dogs behaviour and his mental health in general.

Maslows Pyramid of Needs. Physiological needs are at the bottom, then Safety, then Love and Belonging, then Esteem and at the top of the pyramid we have self actualisation.
Maslows Pyramid of Needs shows us that food and diet can have a massive impact on your dogs behaviour and mental health.

Getting into a predictable feeding routine builds trust between you and your dog. Especially as you’ll be seen to be providing the food, rather than the bowl! Knowing who’s responsibility it is to provide the food, and trusting you to do it at the same time every day, is so relaxing for them.

Any dog can benefit from a more predictable feeding schedule, but it is essential for dogs that have shown aggressive behaviour around food and ex-street dogs/strays who might have had to fend for themselves at some point. Those dogs will be extra sensitive over their food and where it’s coming from.

Slow feeders and puzzle toys

Slow feeders and puzzle toy feeders are all the rage at the moment. They come in all shapes and sizes and are great for slowing feeding down, encouraging foraging behaviours, and providing problems for your dog to solve.

However, they don’t suit everyone! If your dog often gets frustrated or has food related behaviour problems, I definitely wouldn’t recommend them at meals times. Your dogs feeding times should be relaxing and free of obstruction. These toys can cause frustration as your dog has to fight for every morsel. Save them for treat time!

If your dog does need to slow down his feeding, scatter feeding or multiple bowls might be a better solution.

High value Vs low value foods

Every dog has a “trump” list when it comes to food. It’s different for every dog so take a moment to familiarise yourself with your dogs list. If you’re not sure, just imagine all the different kinds of food and treats available to him. Imagine he had a choice between them all; which would he choose first? Which second and so on until you have a list of “likes most” to “likes least”.

The one at the top of the list is his highest value food, save this for the really important stuff like a recall. Next comes the moderate to high value foods, use this for his other training. The stuff in the middle/bottom should be his everyday dog food.

High value “everyday food” can increase a dogs anxiety around food, so consider lowering the value of food if your dog has ever shown protective or aggressive behaviour around his food or resources. This does not mean lowering the quality of the food! He still needs a balanced diet! But, a diet of gravy soaked dog food would be considered far more worthy of protection than a dry kibble, for example.

Top tip! Don’t switch treat value AFTER your have issued a command! This teaches a dog to ignore your requests until you switch to something better! Instead, make a note for next time and start with a higher value treat in future sessions.

Getting the timing right

Sounds obvious, but your dog is more likely to respond to a treat when he’s starting to get hungry! So, unless your dog is super motivated by food and would eat all day, it’s better to schedule training sessions at a time he’s just starting to think about food. Don’t wait until he’s starving though, as he’ll be more reactive and could become frustrated. If you feed twice a day, an hour or two before dinner time is ideal. Good timing is especially useful if you are training a dog that exhibits tracking behaviours, has an unreliable recall, or doesn’t value food as highly as others.

Keeping it positive

People often ask me if you should be able to take food away from your dog! The answer is a tentative “yes, but…please don’t!” When you give your dog food, he should free to enjoy it in a relaxed way. If people keep checking to see if they can take it away, he’ll soon lose trust and become suspicious of any hands near him or his food. That could quickly escalate to aggressive behaviour, which was the opposite of what you were trying to achieve.

If you need the food back, it’s good practise to either wait until he has finished or distract him from it. As per the rule of dog – unattended food is anyone’s so when he’s left the scene, you are free to help yourself! Incidentally, this also applies to your food. So don’t ever leave your dinner in reach if you have to nip away for a second! You’ll just be setting him up to fail as he’ll feel well within his rights to help himself.

According to the rule of dog – unattended food is anyone’s!

Dogs Everywhere!

If you are already in a situation where a dog has become defensive of his food, you should seek professional advice on how to rebuild positive associations between hands, people and food. Also, get advice on how to use food more effectively as part of his general routine. Treats might not always be the right choice for him, especially if he has shown frustration during training session.

Also, don’t use the withdrawal of food to punish unwanted behaviour. Food is a basic need and should never be taken away once it has been offered. I often see this happen when a dog comes late to a recall. It seems obvious to withhold the treat if the dog doesn’t come straight away, but this is counterproductive. If you give him the treat, he’ll likely come faster in the future, not slower. There are better ways to fix a bad recall, but that’s a different blog!

The value of a balanced diet

Your dog can’t tell you if he is craving a certain food type because it’s missing from his diet. So to be sure, I always advise feeding a complete food or working with a canine nutritionist to make sure your dog isn’t missing out on anything important. Not including the right amount of each of the key elements can create general frustration, hyperactivity, protective behaviour, and reactivity.

a black puppy is taking a bite of a donut that is being handed to him from someone out of shot
Sadly for your pup, donuts are not recommended as part of a balanced diet for dogs!

It is even more important to be strict about balancing your dogs diet, and maybe even adding a probiotic, if they like to eat poo, or they regularly eat random items like coal, sponges, plants, or sticks as this can also be a sign that the correct nutrients aren’t getting through.

According to PetMD, a well balanced canine diet should contain all of the following elements. (Macros are as recommended by All About Dog Food.)

  1. Water
  2. Carbohydrates (including fiber) at 50%
  3. Vitamins
  4. Minerals
  5. Fat at 9-14%
  6. Protein at 20-30%

Quantity Matters

Feeding the right amount is important too, for several reasons, so regularly check your dogs weight and condition to make sure nothing has changed. As well as the obvious health implications, feeding too much food can contribute to hyperactivity. What goes in has to go somewhere, so too much food has a direct affect on your dogs energy levels. It will affect his sleep routine, his activity levels and his mood will fluctuate! Adding too many treats to an already balanced diet is one culprit, as is free feeding. It is very easy to over feed even with a titbit from your plate. Especially when you think that a typical Shih Tzu needs around 400-500 calories a day and a sausage is around a hundred calories! A slice of toast with butter is just over 100 calories. This could make up a quarter of their recommended allowance on top of their normal food!

Over feeding could also encourage him to hide or bury his food and treats. This is the dog equivalent of freezing leftovers for later! So, if he does this a lot, also check how much he is getting.

Not feeding enough food could cause problems with scavenging, pack fighting, resource guarding, reactive behaviour, mood swings and almost everything else! Weighing out his food each day will keep you on track far better than if you free feed. And as a bonus, you’ll know straight away if something has gone wrong.

Getting into a routine

I suggest feeding 2-3 times a day for the best results. Most dogs do well on two meals, but if you are worried about him being hungry between feeds, or he’s shown food aggression in the past, go for three. If your dog is already in a habit of grazing, this should be easy to fix with a bit of patience. Start by assigning set meal times for him and agreeing those with the whole family.

In the morning, weigh out a days worth of food and divide it into 2 or 3 portions depending on how many meals he will get. When feeding time comes, place a portion in his bowl and ask for him to sit, when he does, place the bowl on the floor for him to tuck into. If he wanders off (which is very likely) give him 5 minutes to come back for it, then pick it up. Meal time is over for now.

A calm collie type dog is laying beside a bowl piled high with dry dog food biscuits. He is attentive to something outside the photo. In the background is a green leafy plant and a yellow footstool.
Waiting patiently for his dinner!

A healthy dog won’t let himself starve!

He’ll not be in a hurry to finish his meal the first few times as he is expecting it to still be there later. Don’t worry, when the next meal time comes around he’ll be a little hungrier and he’ll eat a little more. As time goes on, he’ll slowly get back into a routine of eating when the bowl goes down as he’ll be hungry at those times.

A healthy dog won’t let himself starve, so you’ll just need to be stubborn for a short while you transition to the new routine. Even humans can go without food for a couple of days without doing any harm, and dogs are even better designed for it, so don’t worry too much if he goes a few hours between meals while he adjusts.

A few simple changes

Food and diet can have quite an impact on your dogs behaviour. In fact, most types of behaviour problem can be eased by making a few simple additions to his routine.


How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!

Caroline
Caroline

I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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