Should You Always Eat Before Your Dog?

dog dish istockphoto cropPick up ten books on dog training and you’ll find ten different opinions: you should always eat before your dog; dogs should never be allowed to sleep on your bed; you should always go out of doorways before your dog; and, you should never let your dog walk ahead of you on leash. That’s an awful lot of “always” and “nevers.” And they all have one thing in common: they’re meant to teach your dog who’s in charge.

I just finished feeding my dogs. I haven’t eaten yet. Are my dogs gleefully celebrating this obvious clue that they’re about to inherit the kingdom? I doubt it. It might shock you to know that at my house—the house of a professional canine behavior specialist—my dogs often eat before I do. And, hold on to your hats, they sometimes go out doorways first. Sometimes—gasp!—they even walk ahead of me on leash. The trick is, it’s up to me when those things happen. If I open the back door of the house, I don’t mind if my dogs race out ahead. That is, most of the time I don’t mind. If I’ve got something in my hands or there’s another reason I want to exit first, I’ll give them a cue to wait, or let them know with my body language to hang back. But when we’re going out the front door for walks, all bets are off. I expect them to sit on a mat and wait until I’ve clipped their leashes on, and then wait until I open the door, look around, and give the release word. The routine never varies, as we have rattlesnakes out here and I do a careful porch scan each and every time before we go out.

Everyone’s rules will be different, based on their lifestyle and needs. It doesn’t matter what your house rules are, so long as you have them. Just as one parent’s mandates on curfews or borrowing the car will differ from another’s, some owners allow their dogs to sleep on their bed, while others don’t. Although our dogs aren’t allowed in our bedroom at all (my husband’s choice), I don’t have a problem with anyone’s dogs sleeping on their bed so long as there’s no aggression or related behavior issues, the dog is invited up, and there’s no snarkiness when they’re asked to get down.

Rules and boundaries are important, but some people are just working too hard. A man who emailed me years ago always spit in his dog’s food before serving it, to prove he was boss. (All I can think of is that dog’s incredulous expression and the canine equivalent of “Eeuuuu!”) A woman I know of always chews a cracker before feeding her dogs to show she’s eaten first and is therefore in charge. The thing is, we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs, therefore we control all the good stuff. We can open doors; clip on leashes for walks; open containers of food and treats; and a lot more. Sure, I eat before my dogs do—sometimes. Our dogs are allowed on the couch, but only when I’ve put a large, woven blanket over it first. Those are our choices, and the way we run our home. Your mileage will vary. But don’t believe all of those “you musts” that are still floating around out there. You absolutely should be the one in charge, but it’s not about following someone else’s ideas of what’s right for all dogs. It’s about setting your own rules, creating boundaries, and teaching your dog to respect them. 

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19 Responses to Should You Always Eat Before Your Dog?

  1. I’m actually really surprised by the whole “eat before your dog” thing to show them who is boss. Spitting in their food, or eating crackers first? I mean, SERIOUSLY! To me that is just an owner on a power trip. My dog knows that he is a member of our loving pack, however, he is not Alpha.

    We have rules in our house, and before he leaves the gate, he always looks to us to make sure it’s ok. Isn’t that the point? It is about what works in your house. What keeps the peace.

    Are you and your dog happy in the house and well behaved outside of said house? If the answer is yes, then isn’t that what matters?

  2. dotsie924 says:

    You are by far, the best trainer I know of. People are ridiculous..spitting in food? Really? Walking in a door before me? So what. I want to make sure my baby bulldog gets IN the door, and don’t care if she walks in ahead of me, in fact, I step back so that she DOES walk in before me. My dog eats when she is hungry, and stops when she is full, often leaving food behind in the bowl. By the way, after she eats, she sleeps in my bed. She also plays in my bed…it’s OUR bed. I do spend a lot of time washing linens, though 😉 what can I say…everyone is different, My dog is my companion and I love her more than I love humans.

  3. Derek Snow says:

    Excellent article, and a very similar philosophy I teach my students. Thank you for this I will be sharing it’s wisdom.

  4. Alex Strain says:

    I love this. I am no expert but when I was in dog rescue used to tell people this all the time after some other rescuer scared them into thinking they were horrible people for not running their house like an Army base.

    My issue is I feed my dogs before I do but then they won’t eat their food until I am done. Completely my fault b/c I used to be horrible about sharing my food with them. Will it just take time for them to realize I’m not going to do that anymore? I stopped because one dog needed to lose about 8 lbs and both need to get their nutrients. I started home cooking for them maybe a year ago. With all my chores and limited time if I fed them after I ate they wouldn’t eat until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.

  5. When we got our first dog a few months ago, the first few weeks were so full of anxiety for me because I felt like I was doing everything wrong and I wasn’t “in charge.” As soon as I relaxed and looked at my dog as a family member, things instantly improved. I actually stopped the training book I was reading mid-chapter and never went back to it. My dog still has rules that are set by me, but I’m not worried that every little action will contribute to a debate over who’s dominant.

  6. threenorns3 says:

    the door thing – the door does not open until all bums are on the floor. period. but honestly, i can’t go out first! how the heck am i supposed to juggle leashes, purse, cell phone (which i’m usually cradling on my shoulder), a kid, bags for shopping, etc? if i go out first, then all that happens is a big ol’ mashup at the door with everybody’s legs macraméd together bec the big one’s trying to squeeze past me, the little one’s running under his belly, my daughter’s trying to push back in bec she forgot her lunch, and my hubbie’s yelling not to forget to shut the door properly this time.

    no – much better that all doggie butts are planted, daughter goes out door first, i open the door and i hold it (if they try to go through, i start over again), and after a random length of time i say “let’s go” and they go through. still working on the hairy explosion (how the neighbours described seeing us come out one morning).

    no dogs on the furniture – but only bec hubbie turns green at the thought. he’s not an animal-in-the-house kind of person.

    walking on the leash, i don’t care if they’re in front, behind, on my head, or on my back so long as they’re not under my feet.

    most of the time i prefer them up front bec a) i can see immediately when someone’s going to be a problem; b) i know immediately if there’s an animal in the vicinity; c) i often need help up slopes, stairs, and inclines; and d) i have extremely poor night vision, which is a serious problem living in a small country town (black bears and the like). at night, the dogs act as guides although we’re still working on the “don’t let mommy step in puddles and poo” thing.

  7. sunshine13 says:

    What a great read. This is so true, it is about setting the rules that work for you. Thank you

  8. Pat says:

    Your posts are a breath of fresh air in the dog training world! Why is common sense becoming so uncommon? If my Siberian Huskies weren’t comfortable in going ahead of me, how would they ever pull a cart or sled? My dogs know the command to “wait” when I open a door and “back” if they are getting a bit too eager. I always feed them first so my husband and I can sit and eat without “sad eyes” following our every forkful. They are as well mannered as we want them to be and all sleep in our bedroom at night, but only one is asked up on the bed..They accept that because they know that good things fall from the sky when they are good. 🙂

  9. firem4njoe says:

    Never let dogs sleep in your bed? I do. I go by the knowledge that they are pack animals and want to be nice and close. They haven’t eaten me in my sleep yet, plus my bed’s always warm.

    Here’s how doors work in my house. The back door – if the dogs hear it open they charge out whether i’m walking through it at time or not.
    Front door – they know that leads to the big bad outside world. They sit, wait, and watch every little movement while i’m out the front incase the boogy man attacks. If i put their leads and harnesses on however, they are like greyhounds waiting for the race gates to open. The day they walk out the front door casually i’ll something’s wrong lol.

    And as for feeding. That happens when I decide… unless a bird falls dead out of the sky… Because I am the one with opposable thumbs and can open the fridge/freezer. 🙂

  10. Sean says:

    Huzzah for common sense.

    I have a dog who often marches to the best of his own drummer (quirky is the nice word for it) and I figured out that he behaves better when he gets to sleep in the bed with me than when he doesn’t.

  11. Sheri Cassens says:

    It must be difficult for many people to understand the big picture rather than focus only on the details. When a client says they never use “people food” in training class because that will cause the dog to “beg at the table”, they are surprised to hear that if they fed their dog dog kibble from the table, they would create a “begging from the table” dog.

  12. Well said! People are funny, animals knows who the leader is. Great article. This is my philosophy when it comes to my dog and my horses. They are intelligent animals and knows exactly what’s going on, as long as I spend enough time with them. I really enjoy your blog. Thank you!

  13. Good question. Very well written.

  14. That just sounds mean to me. It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to make sure there are rules to keep their animals safe and respectful, but more like they’re on a power trip and in reality are insecure in some major ways.

  15. Evelyn Haskins says:

    With multiple dogs and being a lazy owner, I soon found out that for peace to reign at dinner time, it is Big Bossy Boots who must eat LAST.

    Big Bossy Boots is quite comfortable to wait for his/her own meal while the underlings are fed, in the sure and crtain knowledge that his/her own meal is coming, but woe betide an underling who hasn’t finished his/her meal when Big Bossy Boots has finished his/hers.
    They get the “You don’t really WANT that do you!” evil eye.

    When my Princess was alive, she refused to do anything BUT eat last, in the mistaken idea I think that the last bone/biscuit/scrap was going to be bigger and better than the others. She also insisted on sitting last 😦

    We eat when we want to, because all the dogs know the difference between people meals and dog meals, and they ONLY get to lick people’s plates when they are placed on the floor.

  16. Gina Gaines says:

    Great advice! Our fur-babies (dogs and cats) are fed free choice, meaning they have dry food available at all times. They all get super excited when I’m in the kitchen because they know a people treat is coming. They also are excited about going to their kennel-castle because they get critter treats there too. Most dog books, breeders, & trainers say you should be strict about how much, when and how to feed and treat. With the exception of 2 animals out of the dozens I’ve loved, their weight has never been a problem. Sometimes I think common sense has gone out the window… and then I read a like-minded blog like yours and all these sensible folks’ weighing in and realize that there’s hope after all. 🙂

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