One of the big focus point lessons in Wags’ Puppy Foundation Skills program is built around toys, retrieve and tug: the concept of sharing: building human-dog play skills – but also addressing resource guarding and starting some prevention work with the young puppy participants.

Talking about “sharing toys” leads to “sharing food” and inevitably there are always questions that come up when the topic of eating arises: questions about food, bones and guarding are brought up.

Sometimes it’s about “dominance” and who should eat first? Sometimes the question goes “shouldn’t we punish the puppy if he growls at a human when he is eating?” or “we’ve been told we should repeatedly just practice taking the puppy’s food bowl away from him so he gets used to it”…and last night there was a question about raising a puppy in a multiple dog household and the advice that one of the students had heard that “the oldest dog should always be fed first”.

While each of those questions should be a separate post, I decided to share here what I said – and also wrote this morning – in our conversation about what to do with multiple dogs and how to arrange meal times and whether the oldest dog should eat first?

First off; the concept that “the oldest dog should always eat first” is a statement much the same as “You should always eat before your dog eats”, or “the oldest dog should always go through doorways first”, or “You should always go through doorways first” or “make sure You always greet the oldest dog first”, “don;t give any attention to the youngest dog until You have petted the oldest dog”…etc etc…variations are plenty.

They all come from that long-living Wolf-model Myth. While there are slowly some changes happening (at least to some degree) regarding that old wolf-model, these are ones that do seem to be alive and well.

So while I won;t go into a long essay right now on why the Wolf model is outdated and not applicable to our dogs – Let me try to shed some light on a different way of looking at these questions, rather than being so pre-occupied with considerations of the VERY abstract label called “rank”.

Here is a completely different way of looking at statements like that and deciding how to address them. In my opinion, what I am about to describe makes so much more sense and is a “program” that builds nice impulse control, beautiful household manners and reinforces OBSERVABLE BEHAVIOUR – rather than the very obscure hierarchical way of attempting to reinforce “rank”.



The question to ask, is as simple as:  Am I reinforcing BEHAVIOUR in my dogs, or am I addressing an Abstract Label?

So, for the sake of illustrating the multiple dog eating question: let’s say you have an old dog and a puppy and you are trying to keep the older dog’s “rank” by always feeding him first.

In that situation – your actions are based on an abstract label – such as “dominance” or “higher rank” – and what gets overlooked are the behaviours that are happening in the moment, in the NOW. And, as a reinforcement trainer – the exact thing I am interested in – is BEHAVIOUR, in the Now. What is the older dog doing to earn him his meal? What is the younger dog doing to earn him the wait? What behaviours are being reinforced, period?

So, the short of it is – take the time to train and teach, each dog individually first – WHAT BEHAVIORS will result in getting access to their meal – so that you start to incorporate plain old manners into how you go about giving out the dog’s food.  As long as you have eye sight and can see what your dog is doing – you are able to pick and choose and decide on whether the behaviour you see is one you like, or not.

When we brought home the very excitable sheltie puppy Pinot about 4 years ago now – there was a big change for us, and for the older dog, Maggio in how we would handle mealtimes. For Maggio – it meant really proofing his down-stay on his bed: getting him to maintain position during meal prep – no matter what – so that I could work with the wild puppy.

For Pinot – I VERY quickly decided I needed to make sure we worked through her excited barking when food came out. Within a few days of arriving at my house as an 8 week old puppy she knew the meal-time predictors and started leaping and barking in excitement to get fed! I never found that particularly attractive so promptly put her on a “you get food for being quiet” program, while the older dog was on a program to hold a long down on his mat and be fed in small portions waiting patiently while I worked with the puppy. That was one of the “nows” we worked through when the two of them were getting used to a new side-by-side routine. I adapted and worked on what I needed to work on: in that particular moment.

As they both learned about what works and what doesn’t, I continually adapted and changed my plan and was able to “up the bar” and work on more solid skills. Today, Both dogs will wait and listen for verbal release – sometimes it’s Pinot who gets released to her food first, other times it’s Maggio – on occasion I might test their listening skills and say “Potatoe!” or “Muscleboat!” just to see that they’re still listening and not assuming 🙂

So, instead of being so preoccupied with “rank” and how to maintain “rank order” –  I approach all of these questions with a concrete goal of “What is it I actually want to see?” and REINFORCING good polite manners and taking note of DESIRED BEHAVIOURS. And in doing that; I don;t have to worry about that abstract label of “rank” and how to handle it?!

SO – that should actually be liberating?! No?!! What this means in my household for feeding time/ or going through doorways/ jumping out of cars/ anything where I want impulse control and nice manners/ containing ones excitement 🙂 and I showed this as a lovely little demo in puppy class last night – is that I will take the time needed to teach each dog individually that what works for:

  • getting access to your food
  • getting access to that amazing – OMG – toy
  • getting a front door to open for going for a walk
  • getting a car door to open to hop out in a new and fun location
  • getting a crate door to open to come out and greet me

is BEING CALM, containing oneself to the point of being able to HOLD a sit until released with a verbal “OK” or “Get it” or “Fido! get it”

Make sure that is completely established —- that piece MUST be in place first. With multiple dogs I *would* encourage you to teach the OK-go:release with their NAME so you can start to do individual releases – not a “mass release/ mayhem” (as “OK” will have a tendency to do)

THEN – when you have great impulse control, a VERBAL release with the dogs’ own name – THEN you start to train both dogs side by side. Now – as always – I start to look for behaviour. Who gets released first? Who gets sent to their food bowl first?

The dog who is DOING what I have asked or behaving in a way I want to reinforce, is the dog who gets released first or is getting access to pieces of his meal! Can you see now why I don;t think it makes any sense to release by age or “rank”?!

So it will always vary – and be directly equatable to BEHAVIOUR RIGHT NOW – never an abstract label.

Certainly what I’ve seen in my own household by doing things this way as well as clients who are doing the same – is that as the rules on behaviour become clear, eating and deciding who is going to eat and in what order does not have to be stressful at all and you can really create a harmonious and peaceful household. It’s not about any kind of “rank” (which is so incredibly abstract) – but ALL about observable behaviour – which every member of your family can see.

What’s the dog doing? and do you want to reward that?

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