If you’ve ever worked with a trainer, they will have suggested at one point or another that using mealtimes to train is the gold standard. Not only does this help decrease canine obesity by limiting the need for additional treats, it speeds up the learning process by requiring them to participate in their education for EVERY morsel. No more “free lunches,” they’ll say. But does that mean you need to have an hour training session with your dog for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? NO! The following are the 5 aspects of a GREAT mealtime routine that will mentally stimulate your dog, add to their energy outlet for the day, advance their obedience goals, and take no more than 10-15 minutes MAX!
Every Mealtime Routine should have the following:
#1 One Old Command (4 mins)
It’s great to start with things your pup knows. This could be as simple as asking for a few “Sits” and “Downs” in a row (or what we call, Puppy Push Ups) OR maybe your dog is stellar at “Place” so you do 3 “Place & Releases” in a row OR maybe your dog has been acing their “Heel” so you go on a short walk around the house or up and down one block. This should take 2 mins max, time yourself (it’s both longer and shorter than you’d expect hahah)! THEN spend another 2 mins Leveling Up this command in 1 small way (you will be doing this routine every day, multiple times a day, so slow and steady is going to win the race juuuust fine).
Sample of simple Level Ups to choose from:
- Sit/Down – getting into a Sit from a Down (instead of a stand), eliminate hand lure for Down
- Place – decreasing dependency on hand lure, increasing distance from the place, adding height to the place, add distraction (like toy toss, door knock, treat drop)
- Heel – decrease reward frequency/dependency, add distractions
#2 One New Command (5 mins)
What’s next on your list of commands you want your dog to learn? Add it in here. Maybe you haven’t taught Touch yet, or Look/Watch Me, or Stand? Get started now! You have 5 minutes.
#3 Old Trick(s) (2 mins)
Eventually… everyone has a trick routine. The one you trot out for your friends to show off how cute your pup is? That’s the one! This should be a series of 2-5 tricks that your pup already knows like the back of their paw and has committed to physical memory. This is a break from the extreme mental focus and a chance to just fly through the easy section. If your pup needs a slight challenge, change up the order of the tricks each time you go through it. If you are just starting your routine and your pup doesn’t know any tricks yet, combine this time with the next section and use it to learn!
#4 One New Trick (4mins)
How fun was that last one! Super fun, right? THAT’S why trick training is so important to add in, in addition to obedience. It may not be useful in the traditional sense, but it decreases anxiety, promotes focus, and increases overall confidence.
#5 One Intellectual Project (Set and Forget)
This last step is optional. It will depend on if you still have any food left in the bowl. If you DO, don’t waste everything you have done for the last 15 minutes by just putting the food down on the floor. BORING! Instead, end the Mealtime Routine with an intellectual session your dog can enjoy all on their own, extending the length of your routine without you having to facilitate it!
Some suggestions include:
- Stuff remaining food in a Kong
- Pour remaining food into an interactive toy or puzzle (I have been folding the rest of my dog’s kibble into a towel and leaving it on the floor… like really… it doesn’t need to be fancy…and even my 4-year-old child can do it)
- Hide and Seek – ask dog to stay while you disperse remains of food around the room. Release dog right before you walk out.
That’s it! Now GET TO TRAINING!
Follow Up Questions and Answers:
Can this be done with raw food?
YES! Use a spoon or a reusable squeeze bottle to disperse the food for the training portion (for examples of a bottle – search on amazon for silicone condiment bottle or cosmetic bottle or even squeeze pouch! Lots of options!)
Is it worth it if I only have 5 minutes?
YES! Honestly even if the only thing you do is the Intellectual Project, you’re a winner in my book!
Is there an age minimum or maximum for mealtime training?
NOPE. Adjustments may need to be made (physical adjustments for the elderly or starting at the very beginning with the youngest of them – maybe adding in handling or socialization exercises instead of the new tricks.)
Can my kids participate?
YES! Assuming your pup doesn’t have any aggression issues, mealtime training is a great time to work on bonding a pet with a human and a nice, structured way for a child to interact with your pup in a positive way (versus snuggles and chase games… which we discourage).