I’ve been pondering about this for the past couple of months. I’ve heard so many people over the years, “My dog starts wanting their dinner at 2pm! (or other time) But no I’m not feeding dinner until 5pm! This is getting ridiculous.” And the years of hearing such has gotten me to wondering, “So why not listen to your dog and try feeding him at 2pm?”
Over the past decades I’ve had a range of dogs. From those who obsess about food and meals to those who appreciate food but take it when it’s offered and trust the next meal will come when it comes.
Monty was my resource guarder, but Niche was my meal obsesser. He was an anxious dog to begin with who needed (NEEDED!!!!) routine and structure. At a time when my life wasn’t very consistently structured. So Niche fixated on meal times as a way to try to create consistent structure every day in his own brain. He fixated on trying to figure out environmental cues that would mean meal time. Such as if I happened to come home 2 days in a row and immediately feed the dogs (because when I happened to come home coincide with 5pm) for the next 2 weeks anytime I came home (even if it was at 10am) he assumed it was now dinner time. Or if I happened to take a shower right before feeding the dogs, for the next 2 weeks regardless of the time of day I took a shower he’d think it was time for a meal. It could be any little thing he’d try to create a pattern and causation from. Niche had such a need for structure and routine that if we were home and I didn’t feed him in his crate out of a metal dish he would be convinced I hadn’t fed him dinner. Such as if I fed him out of a puzzle toy, or fed him out of a dish but it was in the kitchen, then in his head the meal had not actually occurred. If I simply tossed a handful of food into his dish in his crate, then wa-la all was now good. (when we traveled he was more relaxed on his ‘rules’ for what constituted a meal, thankfully).
I tried a number of ways to manage it over the years and ways to convince him that his bugging me had no impact on when he’d be fed. But over the years, I realized, “you know what, it’s ok. If he wants dinner at 2pm, let him have dinner at 2pm. If he then starts to obsess about dinner again at 5pm, well give him a ‘pretend meal’ (ie a small hand full of food) and call it good. There are worse things in life. And if it makes his life less stressful, then let him eat dinner whenever he thinks it’s meal time.”
And sure enough it did make life less stressful. Instead of living with a dog obsessing over his next meal for hours, I lived with a dog content to snooze on the couch after I fed him dinner whenever he started thinking about it. It worked. Really well. And yup it some days meant he got 2 or 3 ‘dinners’ (1 main dinner and a couple of ‘pretend’ dinners), but it also meant his anxiety decreased vastly and he stressed less about changes in routine and structure. And it meant I didn’t have a dog bouncing off the walls asking me constantly ‘Are you going to feed me now? how about now? Now? What about now? It’s dinner time, so now? Now? Now?’
To help Niche in the mornings (it took until he was 7 years old before he choose to sleep past 4am. The word people used to describe Niche most was “Intense.” They weren’t joking.), I made sure I was incredibly consistent with my morning alarm. Regardless if it was a weekday or weekend, I set an alarm. It was a consistent cue Niche could use to realize unless the morning alarm has sounded, you won’t be fed. Not at 4am, not at 5am, not at 6am, not if I happen to get out of bed before the alarm, not if I’ve taken you outside then gone back to bed. Only after the alarm goes off will breakfast happen. This made my life each morning saner. Meant he had a consistent cue to work from (and one I had control over so I could vary when the alarm actually went off) and not try to convince me I should get up and feed him at 4am. Instead if he woke up at 4am he learned to do his own thing quietly until I happened to wake up.
Niche has been gone for a couple of years now (though I still miss him near daily. He was such a special BrownDog. An awesome dog. Intense, awesome dog.). And until recently Tom and Zora have been content to eat their meals whenever. But a couple of months ago I noticed Tom began asking for dinner, sometimes at odd times. I heard myself saying to him, “No, it’s 3, I’m not feeding you till after 5.” a couple of times. Then asked myself, “Why? If he wants to eat at 3 he probably has a good reason for it.”
So now, if Tom politely asks me to feed him dinner at 3, I feed him dinner at 3. If he doesn’t ask me at all, then dinner is the usual sometime after 4:30. And so far that’s working. Sometimes he asks me before 4:30, and all things being equal (ie I don’t have any pressing reason to not feed him dinner when he asks), I feed the dogs dinner then. Often he doesn’t and they eat when I prompt “You guys want supper?”
My dogs trust me to help them meet their needs. Who am I to try to tell them they’re wrong when they work so hard to clearly communicate to me? If he’s asking for dinner at 3, he probably has a good reason for it. Let go the desire to control and trust the dog knows what he needs.