How to Train Your Dog to Eat Slower

Hard
1-4 Weeks
Behavior

Introduction

You live in fear of your dog getting bloat. He's a gorgeous deep-chested German shepherd, so not only is he a classic breed to get bloat but he eats way, way too fast. 

You swear he never tastes his food and just inhales it. You put the bowl down and in an inelegant frenzy he stuffs his face into the bowl and...voila...the food is gone. 

You've tried telling him to slow down, but being a dog he just won't listen. Hand feeding works up to a point, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day to spend hand-feeding a hungry GSD. What to do? 

Defining Tasks

Eating too quickly isn't just about bad manners,  as it also carries significant health risks.  Dogs that inhale their food also swallow down lots of air as they gulp down that dinner. Once in the stomach, the presence of air distends the stomach and greatly increases the risk of bloat (also known as gastric dilation and volvulus, GDV). 

Deep-chested breeds are especially vulnerable to complications, as their anatomy means the stomach hangs more freely and is more likely to flip over on itself. 

For many dogs, wolfing food down is a way of life. Instinctively, they see food and eat it as fast as possible so as to stop competitors getting it instead.  Often the best way to make a dog eat slower is to address any psychological pressure to eat quickly (such as competition from other dogs) and use puzzle feeders so the dog has to work to access food. 

Getting Started

To train a dog to eat slower,  a variety of commercial slow feeders or puzzle feeders are available. However, you can also improvise a slow feeder by using objects that are commonly found around the home.  If you have some or all of the following, you will be off to a flying start. 

  • Golf balls (or small rocks, too large for the dog to swallow)
  • Muffin tins
  • Empty plastic drinks bottle and a drill for reaming out holes
  • Hollow puzzle feeder such as a Kong (TM) 
  • Puzzles feeders such as a Buster Cube (TM)
  • A commercial slow feeder bowl or tray
  • Two food bowls: A larger outer bowl and a small bowl that fits inside when upside down
  • A large towel

The Behavioral Issues Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
Fair enough, some dogs are just greedy and will eat anything, anywhere, as quickly as possible before the owner can get the food (or rubbish) away from them. However, sometimes there are behavioral issues that drive the dog's greedy habits, such as pressure from other dogs or an owner that accidentally trains the dog to eat fast. This method looks at some of those pressures and how to correct them.
Step
2
Protecting resources
Food is an essential 'resource' for dogs, as is water, a comfy bed, and the owner's attention. However, in a multi-dog household there can be competition between dogs for valuable resources such as food. It might be an underdog learns to eat quickly so there's nothing left for a more bossy dog to eat. Or, it might be a bossy dog gobbles down his dinner in order to steal his slower eating fur-friend's food. Be aware of this and take steps to prevent competition so each dog can eat at their own pace. If necessary, feed the dogs in separate rooms and only allow them to mix once both dogs have finished eating. Indeed, it's wise to have a five to ten-minute time-out after a meal, so they realize there's no point rushing their food.
Step
3
Food insecurity
Some dogs may feel insecure about food and its availability. The classic example is the rescue dog, who in a previous home was never sure when and if he was going to be fed. This creates anxiety around mealtimes, such that when food does appear it is gobbled down before the owner changes their mind. This can be a difficult motivation to get to grips with. However, feed at regularly scheduled times and over the weeks, months, and years, the dog will learn that meals do happen regularly, and really there's no cause for concern.
Step
4
Boredom eaters
An under-stimulated dog that doesn't get to use his brain much during the day, may eat his food quickly out of sheer relief from the tedium. Get around this one by giving the dog plenty of exercise and by using puzzle feeders (See the 'Slow Feeders' method) to provide valuable mental stimulation.
Step
5
Avoid accidentally training the dog to eat fast
Dogs thrive on attention. To the dog, attention from the owner is a reward in itself. Thus, if you have a fast eating dog and you chastise him, telling him to eat more slowly, this can backfire. Rather than realize you are displeased by his poor table manners, he's going to be pleased by the extra attention and try to eat even faster. The way around this one is to ignore the rapid eating and use slow feeders.
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The Slow Feeders Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
Other than hand feed the dog, it is difficult to control the rate at which he eats. However, you can use tactics or feeders which make it physically impossible to eat quickly, either because of he has to physically retrieve the food bit by bit or because he has to problem solve ahead of eating. Here are just a few suggestions for how to do this.
Step
2
Scatter kibble on the ground
Instead of putting his kibble in a bowl, scatter it over the ground. You could even scatter it over grass in the yard if you want to make it even more tricky. This makes the dog use his nose to sniff out the food, one biscuit at a time, making it impossible to eat fast. If you don't fancy putting his food on the ground, you can achieve a similar result by spreading food over a large baking sheet or tray.
Step
3
Put food inside a towel
A highly effective variation on scattering food on the floor, is to scatter some kibble on a towel, which you then fold over. Again the dog has to sniff out the kibble and puzzle out how to retrieve it from the towel.
Step
4
Muffin tins
Distribute his dinner equally between the pans of a large muffin tin. This means he has to come up for air before moving onto the next pan.
Step
5
Place a large object in his dinner bowl
Another neat trick is to use a large food bowl, and place a large heavy object at the center. This forces the dog to eat around the edge, which slows up his eating. For small dogs, placing two or three golf bowls in the feeder works well. For larger dogs, either use a rock (make sure it is washed and clean) or upturn a smaller bowl to make an island at the center. Just be certain that whatever object you place in the bowl is too large for the dog to eat and swallow, as this would be dangerous. Alternatively, you can purchase commercially made slow feeders, which work on much the same idea.
Step
6
Puzzle feeders
These require the dog to solve a problem in order to get to the food. You can make a simple version by drilling holes in a clean plastic drink bottle and put the dog's kibble inside. He then has to bat the bottle around to get the biscuits to drop out. Alternatively, there are a wide range of commercial puzzle feeders ranging from treat balls (kibble falls out when the dog bats the balls around the room) or hollow feeding toys, of which the Kong is the best known. Simply stuff the hollow feeder with wet food, and the dog then has to lick it out.
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The Teach Self-Control Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
Does your dog almost snatch the bowl out of your hand as you place it on the floor? When the dog is so eager that mealtimes become a race against time, it's important to teach the dog some self-control (which also doubles up as good manners). A good starting point is to have the dog wait for your signal before he starts eating. While this may not slow up his consumption from the bowl, it does enable you to set up a slow feeder on the floor or else train the dog to wait to be hand fed.
Step
2
Establish a 'sit'
Take the dog's food bowl over to the designated dinner spot. As the dog tags along at your heels, have him sit before you even move to put the bowl on the floor. No sit: no dinner. He may fool around for a little while, running in circles around your ankles, but eventually he will sit, if only to figure out how best to get your attention. As soon as his butt hits the ground, say "Good" and go to put the food down.
Step
3
No sit, no food
If at any stage the dog gets up while you are putting the bowl down, say "Uh-oh" and take the bowl up again. Insist he sits and waits nicely while you put the bowl on the floor.
Step
4
Have the dog 'wait'
With the bowl on the floor and the dog still sitting, hold up a finger to him in a 'wait' gesture. You want to be able to straighten up and back away from the bowl before the dog starts eating. To do this, start by staying within reach of the bowl, and if the dog moves before he's allowed, say "Uh-oh" and pick the bowl up. Start over with the 'sit'. The dog will quickly learn that if he breaks the sit, it takes longer to get his meal.
Step
5
Step away from the bowl
Once the dog is sitting and waiting for the release command that gives him permission to eat, you can start stepping away from the bowl. Keep the 'wait' hand signal in place, and drop your arm when it's OK for the dog to start eating. This is a useful way of teaching some self-control around mealtimes.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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