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Mealtime Etiquette Helpful Hints

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My Chihuahua, Jasmine, has developed a strange ritual at mealtimes. She is not a morning eater and prefers to have her main meal in the late afternoon, while my other dog, Bella, would love it if she could eat all day. Jasmine eats on an ottoman next to her favorite chair because she generally feels more comfortable being elevated on a piece of furniture than eating on the ground.

This has nothing to do with her wanting to exert dominance over Bella; she just feels happier being higher up. The world can be overwhelming when you’re that small; being elevated makes her feel safe, and she can look out the window and watch the world go by from the comfort of her own chair.

During mealtimes, Jasmine will wait to eat her food until Bella has finished eating hers. I feed them both separately — Jasmine on her ottoman in the family room and Bella in the utility room just off the kitchen, because I’m a great believer that however well dogs in multi-dog households get on with each other, they should have space at mealtimes. Bella appreciates eating by herself, but Jasmine will not touch her food until Bella has finished and walked over to the ottoman.

I should also mention that Jasmine is a resource guarder. She has a tendency to guard locations, toys and food bowls, and I do think this tendency plays a part in the ritual. Waiting for Bella to walk over makes Jasmine’s food even more valuable and worth defending. On the other hand, she might not feel safe enough to eat her food until she can actually keep an eye on Bella as she eats. I tested this theory by putting Bella in another room entirely, because my utility room leads into the family room, but Jasmine would still wait for her to come back and stand near the ottoman before she touched her food.

While eating is an enjoyable social activity for people, it can cause tension between dogs.

Helpful eating hints

©lucato | Getty Images

Dogs develop rituals around many things, including food, because rituals are comforting and predictable, particularly in multi-dog households.

  1. All dogs need to feel safe when eating, so I encourage my clients to either stay in the room while their dogs eat or feed them in separate locations.
  2. The same goes for feeling safe during chew time. Schedule a time and place when dogs can chew on a toy or bully stick to allow each dog to decompress and enjoy some time alone. This helps to minimize squabbles and ensures every dog feels safe doing an enriching activity.
  3. If your dog is eating too fast, use a slow-feeding bowl or ditch the bowl and feed a few meals through interactive toys instead. You can also try hiding food in your house or backyard and send your dog off to hunt for her meal. (I do not recommend doing this if you have a multi-dog household unless all dogs can search separately). Encouraging your dog to forage for food means she gets valuable enrichment and takes in food more slowly.
  4. Pay attention to when you feed your dog. Even though Jasmine prefers to eat once a day with a small snack in the evening, most dogs do better being fed twice a day so they do not get so hungry between meals. Feeding on a consistent schedule also helps to regulate toilet breaks and prevent accidents.
  5. And finally, let eating dogs eat! I never stick my hand in a dog’s bowl when they are eating and do not even get close to their eating area unless I am working with puppies and dogs to prevent resource guarding issues. Possession is nine tenths of the law for most social animals, and just as you would hate it if your dog stuck his snout into your plate, the same is true for your dog if you were to put your hand in his.

While eating is an enjoyable social activity for people, it can cause tension between dogs. Take time to understand your dog’s habits and make a plan to encourage healthy eating. Food helps build bonds between dogs and people, but it can also cause issues. Even though Jasmine trusts me completely, I understand that food makes her a little tense, so I take steps to ensure she is comfortable at mealtimes by managing her environment and taking both my dogs’ different needs into account.

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