Doggy Dinners Deconstructed

As you watch your pooch gulp down its dinner, consider the expression “wolfs down its food.” Your dog, its relatives and all of its distant wolf ancestors have at least one thing in common: They love to eat. At mealtime, you are your pet’s waiter, busboy, chef and cleanup crew all rolled into one. Unlike a restaurant, which must go through health inspections, your makeshift doggy diner has only you for quality control. Here, American Kennel Club spokesperson Lisa Peterson offers suggestions for setting up and running the perfect pet-feeding station for your favorite canine customer.

Shopping for China
The first step in setting up your dog’s feeding station is choosing its “china,” aka water and food bowls. Since the bowls that you select could affect your dog’s health, this step is critical. Usually bowls come in four basic materials: plastic, rubber, stainless steel and ceramic. Each has advantages but possibly some major disadvantages, too.

  • Plastic As a lightweight material, plastic is easy to move and transport. Some plastic bowls can also go into the dishwasher, making cleanup a snap. However, Peterson, also an experienced dog breeder, says that “Many dog owners have reported that their dog’s nose changes color after the dog often eats out of a plastic bowl.” Debra Eldredge, DVM, a veterinarian at Burrstone Animal Hospital in Vernon, NY, suggests plastic may very well be the culprit, as it appears to turn some dogs’ noses a pinkish hue. While it’s unclear if the color change hurts dogs in the long run (and no firm cause for the phenomenon has yet been established), it’s possible that some canines are allergic to plastic, which is an oil/petroleum-based material. Peterson advises to pass up the plastic.
  • Rubber Like plastic, rubber is lightweight. It’s also more durable, bouncing back into shape after dings. Dr. Eldredge indicates that, as for plastic, it may also lead to allergic reactions. This is particularly true for synthetic rubber, which is made from a bunch of chemicals. It’s best to give rubber the rub and choose something else.
  • Stainless Steel “It’s durable and doesn’t dent easily,” says Peterson, who believes stainless steel isn’t a bad option. One downfall is that some steel bowls fare better than others after going into the dishwasher. Since she advises to clean bowls once daily, you might have to manually wipe such bowls clean, rinse them and then let them air-dry.
  • Ceramic Ceramic is Peterson’s material of choice for dog bowls. It has all of the benefits of stainless steel, in addition to being dishwasher safe. “Plus, it’s heavy,” she says, “so it doesn’t move all over the place when your dog is trying to eat.”

Bowl Placement
Peterson advises all dog owners to begin feeding their pets inside their crates. This serves as training, so that whenever you need to transport your dog, it will “be anxious to go right in,” she says. Once your dog learns to associate happy mealtime with the crate, you can then place the water and food bowls in their permanent position.

Since dogs will eat almost anywhere, Peterson says you have many feeding-station placement options. The kitchen floor works well for most owners, since cleanup is usually easier there, and dogs can possibly share mealtimes with owners. Pantries and even bathrooms, preferably with a tile floor, also work well. She did, however, share the following three bowl placement no-no’s:

  1. Don’t put your dog’s feeding station in a high traffic area. This could disturb your dog, family and guests.

  2. Don’t locate your dog’s bowls in places frequented by young children. Peterson says, “Kids may bother the dog and might even try to eat its food!

  3. Don’t feed your dog near your garbage can or other potentially hazardous materials. Your primed-to-eat dog might be tempted to sniff around your garbage, not realizing that a tasty meat scrap could be covered with old ink or some other harmful, disposed item.

Chow Time
Free-feeding is another no-no, according to Peterson. She instead advises the following feeding schedules, based on your dog’s stage of life. Refer to your dog food of choice for recommended daily portions, since these depend on multiple factors, such as breed, weight and activity level.

  • Puppies Young pups should be fed 3-4 [style: three to four?] small meals daily, or preferably, they should eat every couple of hours. “Remember that if they were with their mother, they’d have access to her milk all day long,” she explains, adding that pups also have small stomachs, which cannot hold a lot of food at one time, hence the tiny, multiple portions. Additionally, puppies need to eat frequently to keep their blood sugar in balance.
  • Dogs, Six Months to a Year Peterson says that when puppies reach the age of six months, they should be fed around two times daily. When you feed is up to you, but she suggests treating them as a member of your own family. “I like to feed my own dogs at breakfast and dinner time so they feel like they’re eating with us,” she says.
  • Dogs, a Year and Older Adult dogs should be fed once or twice daily. You could even feed your dog more often, so long as the daily portion remains the same. For example, if your dog should consume 1 cup of food each day, but you’d like to feed it three times daily, serve three meals consisting of about 1/3 cup. Peterson says it’s also very important to take treat consumption into consideration. “This is especially true if you’re trying to cut back on your dog’s calories,” she says. “Always keep in mind the calorie and nutritional content of treats that you feed your dog, and calculate these into the daily total.”

Make Mealtime Fun
Treats to a dog can be like dessert to us. By their very nature, treats are a tasty reward associated with good behavior and good times. Kathy Miller, director of ForPaws Corgi Rescue online, advises that you buy nutritious treats, formulated especially for dogs, instead of feeding people food. Better yet, “We use the dog’s regular food as their primary treat!” Peterson also does this with her own pets.

Feeding time can be training and playtime all at once. Miller, for example, begins by asking her dogs if they want a “yummy dinner.” Her dog Bart knows what this phrase means “and goes nuts.” Miller then runs him through a short battery of basic commands, such as sit and lie down, before Bart gets to chow down. The routine reinforces good behavior with good food, which benefits both dogs and owners.

To avoid boredom, Peterson also sometimes hides her dog’s kibble around the house. “I place it under the sofa, behind the TV, just anywhere where my dog can easily retrieve it but will face a little challenge finding the food.” The edible hide-and-go-seek serves as behavioral enrichment, stimulating your dog’s natural food-finding skills.

Five-Star Service
While dogs have their own special needs, at the end of the day, they want what you desire from a memorable meal: good food served on quality dishes; clean and sanitary conditions; friendly, reliable service; and most of all, fun. You needn’t take your pet to a five-star restaurant, though, to experience such a meal. If you’ve set up the feeding station properly, chances are your home is Michelin Guide-worthy to your dog.

10 Dog Feeding No-No's

Some dogs experience motion sickness. "We started taking our pug to my mom's on Sunday mornings, and we'd get in the car more or less just after she'd finished eating. Three weeks in a row she threw up," remembers 30-year-old dog owner Casey Johns of Baltimore, Md. "We asked the vet about it, and he told us we needed to wait four hours after she ate to take her for a car ride. My husband and I don't get car sick and can drive after eating with no problem, so it hadn't occurred to us."

Lisa Peterson, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, concurs: No car rides after meals. Peterson weighed in with 10 additional rules for feeding your dog.

1. Don't let your dog guard its food.
Some dogs are like vacuum cleaners. Walk them and you'll notice: any scraps of food (or discarded chewing gum, cigarette butts, etc.) go straight from the sidewalk into their mouths. "You need to be able to step in and remove food from a dog when it's necessary for safety's sake," says Peterson. In order to help your dog tolerate your behavior, it's necessary from puppy-hood to train your dog to let its food go. Feed your puppy, and then remove the food after a few bites. Replace the dish and remove it again. You can train your older dog in the same manner, giving it a reward for sitting calmly until you replace the food.

2. Don't feed your puppy at the same time as your adult dog.
If you've got multiple dogs, the older dog will most likely want to be treated like the king of the castle. "I tell people with an older dog to feed the dogs separately until the puppy is a year or so," says Peterson. "The puppy should be trained to eat food in his crate." The puppy needs to learn its place and this feeding style will facilitate the process.

3. Don't tease a dog when it's eating.
While you may not be tempted to pull your furry friend's tail during dinner, your toddler or young child might. "Parents need to be aware that children shouldn't be near the dog when it's eating," says Peterson. The child may jar the dog or get in its face. This can lead to a dog choking, gagging or simply becoming frustrated enough to lash out at the child -- not a safe situation for your dog or your toddler.

4. Don't walk your dog after dinner.
Your dog should not have a walk right after a meal. Peterson advises waiting at least 15 to 30 minutes after feeding to exercise your dog. "Just a little time to digest," she says. This is important for all dogs, but especially crucial for deep-chested dogs such as German Shepherds, Great Danes, Boxers and Dachshunds, all of who are prone to bloating, a dangerous condition that can have severe health consequences.

5. Don't give your dog people food.
A begging pooch can be hard to resist (that sweet face, those sad eyes), but your dog doesn't know how dangerous the meal you're eating can be. Grapes, raisins, chocolate and onions: each of these can be toxic to your dog in large enough quantities. Sometimes excessive fat in meats or dairy products can cause digestive distress. Given that it's hard to know how your dog will react to people food, the best rule to follow, says Peterson, is no table scraps whatsoever.

7. Don't prepare your dog's food yourself.
Commercial dog foods are prepared with the right amount of calories and the necessary combinations of vitamins, minerals and proteins. Achieving that combination yourself is unlikely. Dogs are carnivores. Their bodies are made to assimilate protein. Says Peterson, "Prepared kibble or canned food is balanced nutrition."

8. Don't mix prepared foods.
Trying to save money on your pet's food? Don't do it by mixing a high quality dog food with a lower quality one. Often, premium foods are packed with nutrients and require less food to be fed, making them a good buy.

9. Don't feed from plastic.
Casual observation has demonstrated that dogs prefer ceramic bowls, followed by stainless steel. Plastic bowls are too easy to chew, especially for puppies, likely to gnaw on anything in sight. The bowl should not be a part of your dog's meal. Plastic dishes can also harbor bacteria and retain odors, leading to allergic reactions, or even your dog's rejection of its food.

10. Don't over-treat or over-supplement.
Too many treats will lead to unhealthy excess pounds. Too many vitamins can also have unintended consequences. Ask your veterinarian about whether your dog needs any extras before starting it on a regimen of supplements.

When Good Dogs Consume Bad Things

An enjoyable jaunt around the neighborhood with your dog can take a decidedly unpleasant turn when your beloved pet enthusiastically buries his nose in garbage, rotten food or . . . something worse. Repulsed, you wonder, what's wrong with this animal?

The answer: probably nothing. As off-putting as this behavior is to us humans, it's normal for dogs, according to Tina Cheng, DVM of the Animal Clinic of Encino, Calif. "Dogs explore their world through their noses," she says. "They want to check everything out." That includes all kinds of garbage, waste products of other dogs or animals, rotten food and dirty water.

Why They Do It
For us, one of the most upsetting behaviors is when a dog eats its own stool. But even that, say experts, is normal and not necessarily harmful. One theory maintains that dogs do this so that predators will not find evidence that they're in the area, says Dr. Cheng. When dogs eat grass, they may simply need some fiber, she adds. Eating grass is not harmful for a dog.

Another reason why a dog would eat non-food items, such as wood or even rocks (a condition called pica), is that he may have anemia, diabetes or a digestive disorder. Talk to your vet about getting your dog tested if he or she feels it is necessary.

But even if there is no underlying illness at work, it is best to prevent your dog from eating and drinking outside of the proper diet you provide.

Keep Your Dog Safe
"Your dog could pick up parasites from another dog's feces, food poisoning from rotten food and could get very sick from drinking dirty water that has antifreeze in it," says Dr. Cheng. "Whenever you're on a walk, keep a tight grip on the leash." If you visit dog parks regularly, make sure that your dog keeps up with his vet visits. "Dog parks are like nursery schools for kids," says Cheng. Your dog will be exposed to many more parasites and could pick up more diseases.

Of course, dogs can find plenty to get into at home, too. They will drink toilet water and eat out of the kitchen garbage can. Dogs can eat all kinds of objects when they're bored, as well. "I've had dogs in this office who've swallowed gloves, socks, a bouncy ball, corn on the cob, a mango pit - you name it," says Dr. Cheng. Dogs will swallow something if they can, but if an object is too big to pass through the intestines, it can cause serious injury or death. Keep all such objects away from your dog.

Dr. Cheng suggests the following tips for keeping your pet out of trouble:

  • Provide high-quality dog food for meals and offer appropriate-sized chew toys
  • Play with your dog often, so he's not bored
  • Keep toilet seats down
  • Make sure garbage cans, indoor and outdoor, are latched shut
  • Always put your dog on a leash while taking a walk
  • Do not let your dog drink from puddles or eat any kind of garbage

Although you cannot keep an eye on your dog all the time, it is important to take these steps so that your canine's natural instincts do not get him into trouble. "It's perfectly normal for dogs to want to sniff everything, kind of like window shopping," says Dr. Cheng. "But you always need to watch what they get into and make sure they don't eat something that could make them sick."