Dogs, like humans, are social animals. It’s perhaps one of the reasons we get along so well. This innate characteristic leads to a phenomenon called social facilitation. While this can play into a variety of relationships, social facilitation can have quite an impact on eating behaviour. It can work for you or against you, depending on what food-related issue you may be facing.
Obesity is a growing problem in our canine companions as well as for us humans. While in a healthy dog, obesity is caused simply by the intake of more calories then are needed to maintain body functions and daily activity, the problem can be aggravated by social facilitation. The same can be said about us humans. Dos that live in house holds with more then one dog or sometimes even more then one pet, tend to eat more or eat faster than those in single dog homes. Sometimes even the presence of a human companion can encourage a dog to pay more concentrated attention to its food.
The eating faster possibility can be a worry for owners of dogs that may be more susceptible to bloat due to their breed or body type, as inhaling air while gulping food appears to be a contributing factor to bloat.
So what can you do if you have a multi-dog home and are faced either the worry of bloat or the problem of extra pounds? There are several strategies to try.
First, separate the dogs at mealtime. This is no big chore with two dogs, but it can get a bit overwhelming with four or five dogs. It means not just putting food bowls down in separate rooms, but keeping the dogs separated until mealtime is over. Of course, this assumes you are feeding portioned meals rather then free feeding. For calmer. For others, the competition will continue.
Another option is to stagger mealtimes. Again, this is easier with a couple of dogs than it is with a larger pack. Only the dog being fed a meal is allowed in the room, with the rest of the pack banished outdoors or to another part of the house. Allow plenty of time for the dog to eat without feeling rushed (15 to 20 minutes is usually more then adequate). Try the strategy for a couple of weeks, to allow the dogs to settle into the idea that everyone will have a turn.
If neither of these yields entirely satisfactory result, your can use some mechanical means to help. Add a little plain caned pumpkin to the dog’s food and mash it into the bowl. It’s just sticky enough to make the dog work to get it loose and it’s mostly fibre, so helps to give the dog a more ‘full’ feeling after eating. You can also buy special bowls with knobs rising up from the bottom to impede the dog’s eating, in a effort to slow things down.
But social facilitation doesn’t always work against you. It can actually help in some circumstances. The presence of another animal can encourage fussy eaters to show more interest in their food. The same strategy can be used when you want to (or have to) change what you’re feeding the dog and the dog is reluctant to go along.
Perhaps the most useful circumstance for social facilitation is when a dog is ill or grieving the loss of a companion. Dogs in either condition often lose interest in their food. Bringing in another dog at mealtime can get them to pay some attention to their food.
Some people, pointing out that their dog waits for them to start eating before diving into his or her own food, say their dog is being polite. What is probably really happening is the dog is not particularly hungry, so not overly eager to dive int and eat. When their human starts eating, social facilitation kicks in and the dog also eats. Our two species are that tightly bound, that we can be social facilitator to an alien species. Aren’t dogs wonderful?