I recently read that scatter feeding (scattering food around) is a bizarre fad that will teach your dog to eat everything they find and possibly kill them.
So here’s what I think.
I understand that this conclusion can easily be arrived at, “scatter food and they’ll eat anything on the ground”. However, let’s take a closer look. Given the opportunity, many dogs will eat anything they come across. Quite a lot of dogs will even eat faeces (Coprophagia). Dogs by nature are scavengers; one of the major factors of canine domestication is their ancestor’s ability to scavenge from human settlements. So let’s be clear; they need no training or conditioning to scavenge. It is, however, absolutely our responsibility to do the best we can to ensure they do not come into contact with poisonous substances.
But are we encouraging more scavenging by scatter feeding?
Dogs learn cues and context extremely well. For example, people will often comment that the dog will happily perform behaviour at home but not at the training club, or vice versa. The context is completely different, and to a dog, this is vitally important. When you clear the dinner plates from the table, your dog will instantly jump up and eagerly follow you to the kitchen, assuming they often get a titbit from the leftovers. Picking up the plates becomes a cue to the dog that there’s something tasty coming. So, we can see that there does not need to be any formal or intended training; the dogs figure these things out for themselves (smart cookies).
Dogs are quite expert at reading our body language and learning cues. For example, my dog is well aware that I often stand up after I finish a cup of tea and he notices how I drink the last little bit and he’s up and ready to see where I’m off to. The same happens when I begin to shut down my lap top, he knows by the way I hit the final key that I’m about to shut it down and that I’m probably about to get up and do something else. He certainly has no problem learning my pattern of behaviour when I’m about to scatter some food for him to find. No formal cue is needed, he knows that my behaviour in this context predicts scatter feeding. His behaviour totally changes, he becomes fully engaged in using that outstanding olfactory ability to find every piece of scattered food. Dopamine in the brain rises at the opportunity to gain reinforcement (or appetitives) and this is the big difference between bowl feeding and enrichment feeding; It feels fantastic to the dog and is highly stimulating.
Additionally, the fact that the dog is able to learn the subtle cues of when you are about to scatter food may actually decrease their likelihood to be looking for food items at other times because they have learned the predictors and this is when they go into seeking mode. But let’s not get too high and mighty; we must always be on our guard. If they are gaining reinforcement from finding scraps of food by themselves then this behaviour will continue. But do I think scatter feeding will increase the likelihood that dogs will search for random food items outdoors? Absolutely not.
If you are in any doubt, scatter feeding can be done indoors. Scatter food around the rugs, in snuffle mats or hide it around the furniture. There is absolutely no reason to remove this outstanding form of feeding from your enrichment bag. It is no fad; it’s probably the greatest single thing you can do to improve the life of your dog.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read