My Smart Puppy

with Dog Expert, Sarah Wilson

Multi-dog Management: Meal Times


Dogs, like people, have varying relationships with food. Pip eats as if this is her first meal in days and her last meal for weeks. PJ dines slowly and, if Bracken used to look her way, PJ would simply pick up her bowl – food and all – and retire to a more private dining area.

My dogs can eat together because none of them growl at me over food and because the training they have had makes them easy to manage. I can communicate using just spatial pressure (meaning I can step between them if I were to see any tension at all and defuse it) and calm verbal instructions such as “Go,” meaning go away.

When client or foster dogs are visiting, they are always fed in a crate, as I do not risk that new dynamic igniting something in my group. If I am feeding something extra delicious, Pip and Bacchus are both in their crates, because that is an easy way to guarantee group calm and safety.

The point is – mix and match as your dogs need. It isn’t “unfair” for one to be crated and the rest free. Managing groups of dogs isn’t about “fair,” it is about safe and sane.

Meal Times: The Rules

Feed two times a day. I’m not a free-feeding advocate for groups of dogs. Exception: Toy breed pups can become hypoglycemic, so have food down for them at all times in a crate or pen, until your vet or breeder says it is safe to move to meals.

Encourage calm sitting during food prep by feeding dogs who are calmly sitting. I dole out pieces of kibble for calm. And don’t try to be “fair” by feeding every dog – feed the calm dogs. That’s fair. Help the restless ones make a better choice: Sit and feed that. Do not feed pacing, barking, whining, jumping or any other ramped up behavior.

If one dog eats much faster than another, either crate one or the other. At advanced levels, you can teach your gobbler to ignore the other dogs, but it is safest for all to simply separate.

If any dog you have would growl at you over his food, please crate him. Not only does this minimize the risk of him aggressing toward you, but it eliminates the possibility of another of your dogs coming to your aid. Many a good dog will take strong offense at another dog threatening you – even one of your own – so avoid that by crating the growler. (By all means, work on this issue, but as long as this issue is an issue – crate!

Crate new fosters, puppies and client dogs. There is simply no reason to add them into the mix right away. It is much better to get everyone settled in less volatile situations before attempting to add them into the group.

When you do add them in, leave a leash on them while they eat so you can easily get a hold of them should they start to wander around.

Set bowls down at a distance from each other. Distance lessens tension. With up to four dogs, I tend to put a bowl toward each corner and, if supervision is needed, I stand in the center. The dogs who eat the fastest are fed closest to the exit so I can easily use body blocking (see: “Mine!” and “Go!”) to send them elsewhere when they finish first.

If you feed raw, feed in crates so you can a) minimize contamination of your home and b) control access to the high value foods you are feeding. A dog who won’t fight over kibble can come out swinging for a turkey neck.

Keep high value items put away, and what exactly is “high value” is your dog’s decision. An empty can of tuna or a full garbage bag can start a fight in some homes.

Give your dogs a set amount of time to eat. When that time is past, pick up the bowls.

If you have a one kibble at a time dog who likes to take one, walk off, eat that one, walk back, take another, then either feed in a crate or simply pick up his bowl the first time he leaves it. Do so without comment or concern. Within a couple of days, he’ll stay near the bowl, if just to keep better track of it.

Never allow one dog to hover over or stare at another dog who is eating. When dogs are done, I calmly tell them “go,” sending them out of the room, or I have them down. If I cannot do either yet, then the dog is fed in his crate.

Never allow one dog to eat out of another’s bowl or finish one dog’s food when that dog walks away. This would only encourage hovering and attempts to steal (it’ll also make the cleaner upper tubby). Left-overs are picked up.

When meals are done, pick up the bowls from floor and crates. This minimizes the chance the dogs will squabble over bowls or miniscule crumbs left in a bowl.

by Sarah Wilson

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