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The Ethics Of Ditching The Bowl

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Ditching the bowl is a fantastic way to enrich the lives of dogs and cats. It can offer mental stimulation, engagement, calm occupation and training success. Feeding pets by alternative methods other than a bowl can also help build positive relationships with their human family. The benefits of ditching the bowl are being increasingly recognised by modern trainers. However, there are fewer people who acknowledge the ethics of ditching the bowl. Doing it badly can result in-

  • Negative emotions
  • Emotional conflict and stress
  • Damage to the relationship
  • Unwanted behaviour
  • Training failure

For good welfare and mental health it is important to try and avoid the problems listed above. So let’s discuss the ethics of ditching the bowl…

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The Creation Of Emotional Conflict

Ditching the bowl should be a positive experience for both the animal and owner. It shouldn’t be a way for humans to manipulate behaviour purely for their own advantage. You may have heard trainers suggest that you use all of the daily food allowance for training. This can be beneficial, however it can also be unethical in certain circumstances. 

For example, if a dog is hungry and can only access food through human interaction, this may create emotional conflict. If a dog can only acquire food by fulfilling human requests, this too could create negative emotions. It is vital that fair choices are offered. 

DON'T put your pet in a situation where they have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

DO facilitate good choices through fair opportunities and positive rewards.

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A practical example of creating emotional conflict would be crate training. If a dog is unsure of entering the crate, or being shut inside, then this shouldn't be the only way they can access food. Whilst food could be used to build value inside the crate, the opportunity to eat shouldn't be dependant on compliance with going in.

If a dog can only access their daily food allowance by being somewhere they are concerned about, this could easily cause emotional distress. It is an unfair choice- do something you don't like or you don't eat. A hungry dog may well choose to go inside the crate but this doesn't mean they are are happy, they have just chosen what they are most comfortable with. Being most comfortable with something doesn't equate to acceptance, learning or contentment.

So to avoid emotional conflict when ditching the bowl, it is important to assess whether your requests are fair and that the animal is not fulfilling them just because they are hungry. 

Working For Food- Contrafreeloading

Our collie Milo loves working for food, he will choose a puzzle feeder over free roast meat sat right next to it. He prefers to eat out of a Toppl rather than a bowl, even if they both contain exactly the same food. So for him, working for food is great enrichment. It provides mental stimulation and positively engages his working genes. Our other dog Murphy is quite different! Whilst he enjoys a low level challenge, he gives up more easily and would take the free food first before having to work for it. So for him, some methods of ditching the bowl could create negative emotions, frustration or stress. If Murphy was expected to only gain food from lots of effort, this would not be as successful and could be detrimental to his welfare.

We therefore treat each dog as an individual and ditch the bowl accordingly, it's not one size fits all. We have also gradually expanded Murphy's desire to work for food, he's learning it can be fun and worthwhile. By progressively ditching the bowl and teaching him to try, this has created more calm behaviour as it occupies his brain. But neither dog are forced to ditch the bowl, they have the choice to participate or not.

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The Ethics Of Ditching The Bowl For Training

Both our dogs are rescue dogs, Murphy came to us with severe travel anxiety and a fear of cars, as well as being scared of other things such as thunder. Using food has been invaluable as part of the training process, to create positive emotions around situations he's usually scared in. There is however a BIG FAT BUT!

The training process has been broken down into tiny, tiny steps and he has only ever been set up for success. At all times I have aimed to work with him in a positive mindset, keeping him below his stress threshold and gradually expanding his positivity. Food is used as positive reinforcement but not a bribe. Ditching the bowl has been to help him, not to make him do something. Tux has been used in the car to make it a positive place to be, not to try and distract him from his surroundings. His daily food has been used to help change his mindset from negative to positive, not to reach a goal.

With Ditching The Bowl, Focus Should Be On Income For the Animal, NOT Outcome

Ditching the bowl shouldn't be a replacement for the required training and time it takes to achieve success positively. For example, ditching the bowl unethically would be me keeping him hungry, then using food to bribe him to get in the car. Once there he could be given a lickimat as a distraction, whilst I shut the doors, forcing him to stay inside. Instead, to be more ethical, he has been given choice to participate at every stage. He has been allowed to leave at all times and he has been given access to free food both inside and outside the car. Once he has been happy to jump in, we've done ACE Freework inside the car or he's had a stuffed food toy. These are activities we also do outside of the car in neutral situations, they are not just for working on something that worries him.

It is important to be mindful of coercion and extortion. Ditching the bowl should be about enrichment, building positive emotions and enjoyment for the individual animal. It shouldn't be solely about human gain, achieving goals or creating training 'success' via giving unreasonable choices.

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For Ethical Success With Ditching The Bowl....

  • Choose the timing, method and frequency for the individual animal in the individual situation
  • Make challenges progressive
  • Set your pet up for success
  • Offer trustworthy and honourable choices within the animal's capabilities at that moment
  • Focus on income for the animal, not outcome

Ensure it's fun, fair and frustration free!

If you're interested in learning more about contrafreeloading and the ethical considerations too, this is a great podcast with Hannah Brannigan and Chirag Patel.

Thank you for reading.

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved dogs, cats and chickens. SHOP HERE 

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