Mealtime Manners for Puppies

We feed our puppies and dogs all of their meals in a crate and they wait before eating until I say Okay which is our release command.  I often have as many as 5 dogs sitting with a bowl of food in front of them giving me total attention until I release them to eat.  Then they all dive into their food at the same time.  Before they are a year old, they will wait even when I leave the room.

I teach them this not only because it makes for a more pleasant feeding experience for me, but because it is one of my methods for teaching pack leadership.  The pack leader always controls the food.

The only exception to this is food fed during training sessions.  When training a dog for serious competition or when I’m doing a lot of training with a young puppy, most of his food is fed as rewards.  My dogs love obedience training and love to be fed in this way.

Both of my methods for feeding are teaching pack structure along with providing physical nourishment.

The first step in mealtime training with an 8 week old puppies is to teach them to go in crates at mealtimes. Almost any puppy can easily be enticed into a crate with a bowl of food.   And it won’t take long for him to associate the fact that when he sees the food bowl, you’ll be requiring him to get in the crate before you put it down.  At first, put the food bowl in the back of the crate.  Your puppy should go in after it.  Don’t close the door at first but watch until he finishes as you’ll need to take him outside after every meal.  Within a day or two, close the door while he eats but be ready to let him out as soon as he finishes.  Within 2 or 3 days, you should stop putting the food in the back of the crate but instead lure him into the crate with the food bowl and put it down at the front end of the crate.  Within 3 days, most puppies will go in the crate just at the sight of the food bowl so that the they are going in before the food.  At this point, I begin training our puppies to not only go in the crate but to wait for a release command before eating.

Training this behavior takes a little more work, time, and patience. Before this training, all puppies will struggle to get to their food when you sit a bowl in front of the. Keep them away from it and gently say wait.  As soon as they give eye contact, say okay and let them have their food.  In the initial stages, I say the okay release word within a second of eye contact.  Gradually I will increase the length of time that I require eye contact before I release them to eat.  Gradually they will stop struggling to get to their food and will realize that it is a futile endeavor.  They will begin giving eye contact as soon as their food is put down.  It will take some puppies days to get to this point.  It will take others weeks.  When my puppy is no longer struggling to get the food and is giving consistent eye contact for several seconds before being released to eat, I will begin requiring them to sit.  The puppy must already know the sit command well which is initially taught separately outside the crate.  It is only when both the sit and the wait with eye contact are reliable that I require the puppy to combine both behaviors.  When first combining the wait and the sit commands, I only require a short sit with eye contact (about a second) before releasing the puppy to eat.  I gradually will increase the time to about 3-5 seconds.  When the puppy is consistent with that, I will begin closing the crate before releasing the puppy to eat.  If your puppy should attempt to eat before you’ve given your release command, you must stop him from eating very quickly.  Sometimes a tap under the chin is enough.  The puppy is reminded to wait and gives immediate eye contact.  You need to be fast so that the puppy isn’t rewarded by being able to eat a few bites.  If the tap doesn’t work and the puppy continues trying to eat, push him away from the food with one hand and take the food away and out of the crate with the other. Set it on top of the crate and close the puppy in the crate.  Don’t give it back until he gives good solid eye contact and a willing attitude to comply.  Sometimes puppies will try eating before the release the first few times you attempt to close the crate while he is still waiting.  Be prepared to quickly open the crate and intervene.  Training the wait command can be a slow process. By far, most of our puppies are well-trained to it by 10 weeks, but some puppies aren’t consistent with it for a month or more of training. Don’t give up.  Teaching this will make feeding time for the life of the dog so much easier.  It can become a messy job to put a bowl of food down in front of a grown dog that is trying to eat the food before the bowl even hits the floor. Allowing a puppy to grab food from you like this is teaching them that they are in control and not you.