As with humans, mealtime for dogs is as much a social activity as it is a nutritional one. Dog owners spend the greatest amount of time with their dog at meals than any other activity. Feeding is not just about eating and filling the metabolic tanks. It is about attention, baby talk and other social interactions.
As dogs are pack animals, this “social facilitation” serves to encourage overeating as dogs seek to keep the positive reinforcement coming. Begging behavior may be targeted at getting more human attention but owners wrongly interpret it to mean hunger. Begging begets more begging creating a vicious cycle of overfeeding. Social facilitation is probably the largest contributor to obesity in dogs.
Owners commonly offer more food than their dog needs and then offer attention to encourage eating the entire amount. Often times this is amplified by owner guilt during times of long working hours or busy social commitments. A positive response of “loving behavior” to extra food gives owners comfort that they have compensated for their extended absence.
In multiple dog households owners may intervene and reward aggressive eaters with more food so they don’t “feel bad” as slower eaters eat in front of them or to stop aggressive behavior toward the slower eaters.
Dogs that miss a meal are often given special attention and offered a variety of treats or human food that further encourages missing more meals. After all, the special food may be better than then the dog food and it is sure to come.
It is important to make meals less social. Save attention and affection for activities not associated with feeding.
Playing, grooming and walking are better times to show your dog affection. They will look forward to those times and not associate food with attention. These are the important times with your dog. Studies show that dogs form stronger bonds with those that walk them than with those that feed them.
Think of meal time like a gas station on a family vacation. It is a time to re-fuel the tank to continue the trip. Nobody brings home pictures of the gas stations they stopped at on vacation. Make play time memorable, not meals.
~Dr. Ken Tudor
THE DOG DIETITIAN