Free-feed vs Scheduled feeding for dogs and other options

When it comes to feeding a dog, the food options are varied but what is the best way to feed a dog?

By Laura Pakis, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Cynologist

When it comes to feeding a dog, the food options are varied: meals in a crate or loose in the kitchen, free feed, or meals served only at a certain time?  What about food dispensers?

It turns out that there’s a lot to think about when it comes to feeding your four-legged friend.

Here’s a quick rundown on feeding options for your dog. Of course, there are pros and cons to each method (as well as variations to each). Check them out and decide which way of feeding is right for you and your pup.

Free-feeding

Free feeding is a method in which you leave a bowl of food out for your dog at all times.  Your dog has constant access to this food bowl and can eat whenever he feels like it.

Pros

  • Convenient – especially if you have a busy schedule
  • This method allows the dog to eat on its own terms.
  • You can use food dispensing toys 
  • You can leave the food in the crate if your dog is crated for the day

Cons

  • You will need to watch your dog’s condition carefully and pay attention to how much he eats each week.  Since one of the signs of illness in a dog is being off its feed, a free-fed dog wouldn’t show illness very quickly unless the owner is very observant.
  • Can lead to obesity
  • This method works best in a one-dog household where there is no competition for food.
  • works best on a dry dog food diet
  • Many dogs pick up the habit of taking food from their bowls and eating it somewhere else.  Kind of messy.

Scheduled feeding

Scheduled feeding is when you give your dog meals at set times every day (ideally, twice a day for adult dogs and three times a day for puppies).  It also limits the time the food is down (15 minutes to an hour)  If the dog doesn’t finish the meal, it is given to him at a later meal.

Pros

  • This method is much easier to know how much you are feeding your dog.
  • It’s the most suitable way to feed wet or fresh foods that might go bad if left out for too long.
  • Meals can be used as a reward or bonding experience.
  • It gets your dog into a routine, which can help calm anxious pooches.
  • This method helps with housetraining a dog since you know when you fed the dog and when to take it out to eliminate.
  • Bloat is one good reason.  The man across the street let his dog have free food all day and night in the basement….with stairs…he would shut the basement door…I told him his dog could get bloat from eating and then running up and down the stairs….sure enough …it happened.
  • Many dogs look forward to that second feeding and I have found, especially with my older girl, Autumn, she seems to do better as she gets to sleep on a little fuller stomach.

Cons

  • You need to be around at the time to feed your dog.
  • You may accidentally be feeding your dog too much or too little.
  • Your dog might feel pressured to eat, even if he’s not hungry.

Final Thoughts

From the pros and cons, you can see there are clearly more advantages to feeding scheduled meals than allowing your dog to free feed. Most pet-care professionals will also agree that feeding scheduled meals is the healthiest option for your pet. However, I understand that scheduled meals might not work for everyone so I am sharing the thoughts of trained professionals below to help you with your decision.

“There are those who insist that dogs will self-regulate their weight if free-fed.  I’ve not found that to be so. I feed morning and night (one dog has a sensitive stomach and this regimen keeps the urps from occurring) and measure it in the bowls. If they don’t eat it within 15 minutes, I pick it up until the next meal. That way I know if a dog is off food right away,” Lyn Kalinoski of Fireside Tervuren, Toledo, Oh

“When my two 5/8yr old neutered sheep guard dogs’ bowls are empty we fill them with high-quality kibble and I’m considering buying a demand feeder.  Both are skinny/fit. I put down a full bowl for my five inside sheepdogs in the am after they’re walked and pick the half-full bowl up at noon or when I think of it. None is overweight. I don’t think our method would work with all breeds; not even with ill-reared or confused Border Collies. Many of our boarders are obese and I measure their food,” Donald McCaig

“It depends on what “free feed” means.  My last two dogs, I’ve had never adapted to scheduled feedings (to the point of dropping weight when I was hard-nosed about it), I’ve free-fed with no weight or housebreaking problems. They were also “only dogs,” so no competition.  Premium kibble, no additions/toppings, dry.

However, my “free fed” doesn’t mean dumping a 10 lb bag in a bowl and eventually noticing when it’s gone.  The maximum allowed 2 cups are measured out in the AM, and 1/2 put in the bowl.  When that is gone, more goes in until the day’s supply is finished.  That way it is easy to tell if a dog is off its feed or what its eating patterns might be,”  Andrea Eardley, MA of Canine Behavior Modification, Columbus/Plain City, Ohio

“I’ve free-fed and schedule fed and combinations over the years.  When I had a single dog, free-feeding worked just fine and I did not have overweight dogs.  With multiple dogs, there seems to be a contest evolve and one doesn’t know which dog is eating what.

In a wild situation, dogs and their relatives engorge when food is available and may go a long time without eating again.  Our dogs are a bit removed from that environment and can live longer if food is a bit more regulated than that.  I think there are a lot of feeding methods out there, and you have to find the one that works for you and your dogs.  It is not true that all free-fed dogs remain slim and trim and the reverse is not true either.  I could play devil’s advocate either way, but right now I schedule to feed my dogs two meals a day, and frequently mealtime is a part of training time.  The two feeding times are done differently with dif. types of food.  I let things get away from me and am currently trying to take excess weight off a couple of them.  That’s easier to do on a schedule.” Tawni McBee, PDTI, Animal Attitudes Dog Training

“As for weight control, I found that if I have a problem with gaining weight, I feed a smaller meal in the evening and the larger portion in the AM so they are more likely to work that off.” Helen Marie,  Companion Dog Specialist

“Some dogs won’t over-eat, but the vast majority will. Why? It’s hard-wired into instinct. Predatory animals must gorge when they can because there is no telling how long it will be until the next meal. Domesticated canines may have lost some things along the road being with us, but there are fundamental things that haven’t changed.

Wild canids must work for their meals- they don’t have a bowl set out at all times. So, it’s also psychologically important for our dogs to have to “work” for their food to be content. Obviously, this doesn’t mean they have to run something down and kill it, but it does mean that they should have to do *something* before being fed. It also has everything to do with pack status- if the dog has access to food at all times, that is one less thing the pack leader has a say-so in. The leader decides where to go when to sleep when to eat, and who to hunt….. this is about rank and status, not just weight.”  Kim Walker, Cactus Canine Center & Tucson GSP Rescue

Let’s talk dogs, or even better, let’s learn about dogs.  Gain more canine knowledge through Acme Canine’s social media:  websiteFacebookYouTubeInstagram

 

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