Healthy Feeding Habits To Start While Your Dog’s Still A Puppy

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK; DESIGN: DANI HARTLEY

Chubby puppies may be adorable, but it’s important to establish healthy eating habits before their cute squishiness becomes a weight issue as they grow up. Puppies are constantly learning, so every choice you make can point them in the right direction. For some tips on how to ensure your puppy grows up lean and strong, we spoke with Dr. Amy Pike of the Animal Behavior Wellness Center. She gave us the overview on feeding, treats, and how to help train them the right way.

Know how often to feed

Each dog will have their own likes and dislikes, and that could change as they grow older —especially as it applies to food. Pike said that you can actually just feed your puppy throughout the day using the ongoing reinforcement mentioned above. But if you’re looking to do scheduled feedings, make sure the regularity makes sense for the breed. “The smaller the puppy, the more frequently they will need to eat because they cannot maintain a steady blood sugar like larger dogs can,” Pike told The Dodo. That usually means three to four times per day for small breeds, and two to three times per day for medium and large breeds. 

When it comes to treats, be SMART 

Treats can be tricky because of their high calories, so Pike uses the “SMART” system to make sure you’re using them effectively. SMART stands for “See the good behavior, Mark And Reward the good behavior, and Training.” That means staying observant for all kinds of things, whether it’s just staying calm (tricky for puppies) or sitting when asked. Make sure you’re using verbal and nonverbal positive reinforcement to go along with these treats as well.

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK; DESIGN: DANI HARTLEY

Use “high value” treats selectively

Typical dog treats are considered “high value” rewards. But not all rewards have to be a peanut butter snack, Pike says. For difficult behaviors like learning a new trick, staying especially patient, or developing skills that have been hard for them, that kind of treat works well. However, for tricks they already know well or just general good behavior, just a piece of kibble can be a good reinforcement without giving them too many calories, she says. According to Pike, the upside of this is that you can (and should) do this 50 times a day without it being too much for them — depending on their recommended food serving size, of course. This gives them constant feedback on their behavior, establishing habits rather than just teaching tricks.

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Give them ample space 

A lot of the same courtesies you’d apply to a person eating apply to your puppy, too. When feeding, try not to disturb them or get in their face. Put their bowl in a quiet, low-traffic area in your home, so they can eat and digest in peace. And, somewhat counterintuitively, don’t try to pet them while they eat. “We can create dogs who resource-guard by trying to ‘mess’ with them while they are eating,” Pike said. This can lead to aggression and overeating when they get their food. So do your best to leave them be while they eat, then give them all the cuddles you want once they’re done.

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK; DESIGN: DANI HARTLEY

Establish good table manners 

Besides just guarding their food, dogs can inadvertently be trained to behave badly in other ways. The biggest one is begging. If your dog begs and then you feed them scraps from your food, they learn to keep it up — which can lead to imbalanced nutrition and poor training. If they’re feeling left out from family dinnertime, you can keep them distracted by giving them a wobbler-style snack feeder or puzzle-style feeder. These will draw their attention away from your food and let them focus on their own.

Practice active feeding

Puzzle feeders don’t have to only be employed as a distraction, though; they can keep your puppy active and engaged when eating their normal food. Pike recommends snuffle mats and puzzle toys that slow down feeding. Wobblers are another good option. With each of these, you’ll still need to be mindful of how many calories they’re consuming, but they should help curb overeating. When used with treats, these same feeders teach your dog that rewards are something to be worked for rather than begged for, and can also help calm your pet down in stressful situations, like while crate training, and keep them occupied while you’re busy.  

Watch out for signs of overfeeding

Counting calories isn’t just for humans. And just like you would talk to your doctor before starting a new diet, you should talk to your vet about how many calories your pup should be consuming daily. Then, check the nutritional information on your dog food to make sure you’re feeding them the correct amount. You’ll also want to look out for the signs of over- or under-feeding on your puppy. As Pike said, “you should be able to see a ‘waist,’ an indentation behind the ribs.” If their ribs seem too defined, they might need more food. If they’re not visible or can’t be felt easily, it may be time to revisit these tips.