“Ditch The Bowl” … Should we really?

The phrase “Ditch the Bowl” has become a popular term in the world of dog training and enrichment, with the idea to make mealtimes more fun and enriching for our dogs. The concept encourages us to stop using a regular bowl to feed our dogs and instead replace it with games or activities which involve our dogs working for their food, for example, snuffle mats, lickimats, training sessions or all kinds of other toys or food dispensing activities.

Are we at risk of going too far with this?

If we, as humans, had to work hard for each of our meals, we would start to find it frustrating and tiresome. Those days where you’re exhausted and you just need an easy meal or a quick snack, if you had to spend time using your brain or solving puzzles before you can access your meal, you’d probably be left feeling rather stressed.

So why is it any different for our dogs? I suppose you could argue dogs were bred to work for their food (to some extent anyway!) and it’s true they do have different motivations and reinforcements to us. Where we might find it exhausting to solve puzzles in return for food, they might find this fun and rewarding.

Where do we draw the line and how do we know whether our dogs truly enjoy the “ditch the bowl” games?

The answer is, like many things in dog training and behaviour, IT DEPENDS.

Every dog is an individual, they will have different motivations and they will all find reinforcement in different ways. Enrichment activities and feeding routines will impact different dogs in different ways too. You have to look at how your dog responds to the activities you provide and whether it’s beneficial to them or whether it’s time for a change.

How to keep “Ditch the Bowl” positive

There will be some dogs who really benefit from working for their food. They can engage in an enrichment activity to gain their food and then settle calmly afterwards, feeling relaxed and satisfied. They thrive off ‘earning’ their daily food allowance in training or other games, perhaps a mixture of self-engaged activities like snuffle mats or Kongs, and some activities centred around working with their owner (for example, trick training sessions). Some dogs will eat better when their food is ‘earned’ in some way, a bowl of food is boring, but hand-feeding via a training session makes the food far more interesting.

Even if your dog really does love working for their food, it’s always good to consider a few points to keep it positive:

  • Feed some daily food freely – perhaps part of each meal fed in a bowl or scattered on the floor for them to easily access. Having some food given without having to work hard for it can provide a positive boost to energy levels and thinking capacity
  • A hungry dog always having to expend energy in order to gain food can lead to frustration and stress, so allowing some easy access to food helps keep a balance and ensure it remains fun to work for the rest of their food
  • Give plenty of choices – it might look like your dog enjoys the daily food activities but if that’s their only way to access food, it’s hard to be sure if it’s enjoyment or simply necessity. Give them choices and see what they prefer. Some dogs will genuinely choose to use activities or engage in training for their food, taking this option over the food freely available in a bowl, if your dog chooses the free food then make sure to add this in as an option alongside the games
  • Mix it up – just because your dog is an enrichment expert now, doesn’t mean you always have to make it harder and harder. Keep some of the easier games in the mix too. It’s all about balance. If your dog is constantly having to problem solve for their food, it can be stressful, so give them the harder activities but combine it with some free food or easy options

When a routine change might be needed

There is a risk of pushing our dogs to work for everything they eat. To keep them busy and enriched all day. Having a rotation of activities throughout the day. By doing this, are we simply encouraging our dogs to be alert and ready for the next activity? Are we stopping them from fully relaxing and switching off? And are we keeping them at a constant ‘hungry’ level?

When we move away from feeding set meals, our dogs are likely to be eating smaller portions but at various intervals in the day, which for some dogs isn’t a problem, some can live like this and still feel satisfied and settled. But for others, it creates a level of constant stress and frustration, they’re always waiting for the next opportunity to gain some food or the next rush of excitement from the enrichment activity.

If you have a dog who finds it hard to settle and switch-off, it’s tempting to fill their days with more activities or find harder enrichment activities which keep them busy for longer durations. We often feel that by making them work for all their food, they should be more tired and more fulfilled. However, in some dogs it can actually have the opposite effect.

There are a surprising number of dogs who benefit hugely from a more consistent feeding routine and considerably less ‘enrichment’ based activities. This isn’t to say we need to stop all those games and activities, but it’s about finding the right balance for your dog. If you have followed a ‘ditch the bowl’ approach for a long time, it can be a difficult transition to move away from this but it’s worth trying if your dog is struggling to relax and seems to always be waiting for the next activity, or if they finish an activity and don’t appear relaxed or satisfied:

  • Bring back regular mealtimes – you don’t have to feed their whole daily allowance in mealtimes but feed a decent breakfast and dinner, either in a bowl (I know!!) or scattered on the floor so it’s an easier meal
  • Use some food through the day but keep these as very clear sessions, for example, take their food on walks and use it for training, or go into the garden to play some games with the food. Having clearer boundaries between ‘activity time’ and ‘rest time’ can make it easier for them to switch off
  • Take a step back from the harder enrichment activities and return to some easier ones which can be used after mealtimes or as a lunchtime activity. The more challenging enrichment might be adding increased stress so see how your dog responds to a period of time with easier feeding activities
  • If your dog looks like they need an activity, think about whether they actually need a good sleep or they need to rest for a while. Often our dogs aren’t sleeping enough and it can appear like they need more activity, when actually they just need sleep!

While ditching the bowl can have really positive impacts on our dog’s lives, we have to be mindful that it isn’t always the best way for every dog. Like everything in life, there is always a balance. For some dogs it creates too much frustration or it sets them up to anticipate the next activity, keeping them on edge and hungry for more. Ditching the bowl may help in the early stages if you need to build food motivation but keep it in balance so it doesn’t become a negative thing.

Some dogs who are labelled as ‘not food motivated’ or those dogs who turn their nose up at daily meals, will benefit hugely from having more enrichment from their food. It can be life-changing when you remove the bowl and start hand-feeding or scatter-feeding. But that doesn’t mean every meal has to become increasingly harder for them to work for, you can still mix it up and keep it balanced between easy meals and some more activity-based ones.

Some key points to consider:

  1. Give your dog choices in their enrichment activities and mix it up
  2. Feeding from a bowl or having easy access meals doesn’t have to be a bad thing, for some dogs it’s essential
  3. Having set mealtimes is not a crime! A routine can be hugely beneficial and some dogs really do need a decent breakfast and dinner in order to be satisfied
  4. Enrichment activities can be stressful, frustrating or highly arousing so choose the right ones for your dog and keep it varied. Some challenging ones are great, a little stress and frustration won’t be harmful, but keep it in moderation
  5. If your dog is in need a rest day and time to de-stress for any reason, choose activities which aren’t going to cause more stress, frustration or excitement. On a rest day you may actually find feeding from a bowl or an easy scatter feed is much more beneficial to aid calmness and rest

“Ditch the Bowl” is brilliant in so many ways and it can be life-changing for many dogs, but always remember to keep a balance there and make sure your dog is enjoying it too!

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