Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mealtime Scramble

'Kota might match my wardrobe, but she sure is hard to photograph.

Dakota loves to train. She loves to take long walks. She loves to snuggle. But without a doubt, the thing she loves most is mealtime.

And it’s a race to the finish.

The only problem is, poor Fire has no idea there’s even a competition.

When I first got Dakota, I started feeding her and Fire at the same time, right next to each other. As a service dog in training, she has to sit and wait for the “okay” before she can eat. (Fun fact: The food bowl is an environmental cue for SSD’s dogs. As soon as they see the food bowl, they should sit without needing the verbal cue or hand cue.) At the word “okay,” both dogs would dig into their respective food bowls. Fire ate like the dignified older dog he is, and Dakota, well, Dakota inhaled her food. Almost literally.

She'd gulp down 3-4 bites, then dive into Fire’s food dish and go to town. Poor Fire, dignified old dog that he is, wouldn’t tell her no. He'd just keep trying to eat while this little black blur darted around his dish, chomping his food. When I guided Dakota back to her own dish, she'd eat a few more bites, then sprint back to Fire’s dish. (Or tried to sprint. The kitchen is hardwood—okay, technically laminate—and her legs scrabbled about so she sort of skated to the other dish.)

This would happen at every meal time, which was a problem because I couldn’t gauge how much food she was actually eating. SSD dogs need to maintain a healthy weight, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t know how much food your dog is eating. Plus, poor Fire is ten years old and deserves to eat his meals in peace.

My first solution was to stand between them and physically block Dakota from Fire’s dish. I thought that after a few times of being blocked, she would start to gain the self-control to stay away from other food bowls. But I didn’t factor in just how food-motivated she is. Little dog loves food. Blocking her with my body was not working. Plus, her future partner could not be expected to block their service dog from eating other animals' food.

Okay, so then I tried feeding her in her crate. She’s contained, Fire can eat in peace—perfect solution! Or so I thought. But then Becky, SSD’s Puppy Coordinator, pointed out that once ‘Kota gets to advanced training, she’s going to be fed around other dogs and will need the self-control to stay away from the other dishes.

I needed a new solution—and I think I found one that may actually work.

I prepare both food bowls. Fire gets his food in the kitchen. Both dogs sit, then I tell Fire “okay.” He digs in, and Dakota and I walk (well, Dakota sprints) into the living room. My living room is set up so I can close one of the two doorways, which is great, because it leaves ‘Kota only one way to get into the kitchen where Fire’s eating.

At this point, she really doesn’t care too much about what’s happening the kitchen because she’s focused on her own food. Near the other doorway, she sits and I put down her food bowl and give her the “okay.”

Surprisingly, when she’s not in the same room as another dog, she slows down a little bit. Instead of inhaling her food, she just eats quickly. Meanwhile, I stand in the doorway, ready to block her when she tries to sneak through to sprint to Fire’s food dish.

The first few times I fed her like this, I had to physically block her. But after the third day, she started sitting soon after she finished licking her bowl clean. One big step toward success! She's no longer thinking, "EAT ALL THE FOOD! ALL OF IT. FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOOOOOOOOD!" She's actually thinking and controlling herself. As a reward for her self-control, I currently tell her “okay” once I know Fire’s finished eating, so she can run and lick his bowl clean, too.

Over time, I plan to move Dakota into the same room as Fire and eventually not even let her lick his bowl clean. Together, we'll build up her self-control until mealtime is no longer a mad scramble.

But for now, I’m celebrating the small successes. 

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