From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 25: You can teach puppies to share with each other by making them eat together out of one bowl.
This is a myth that some (lazy?) breeders like to believe in. This myth is not only incorrect, it can also be damaging.
One of dogs’ basic social rules is, ‘We enter each other’s personal zone only with permission.’ There is also the subsidiary rule: ‘You’re allowed to keep what you have in that zone.’ Socially skilled adult dogs don’t normally take things from each other by force. If it’s in your zone, it’s yours until you relinquish it. These rules are not instinctive or innate. Dogs have to learn them. Puppies generally learn these rules with great ease. This learning starts the moment the pup is born. Each pup finds a nipple on Mum’s belly, and gets all absorbed in eating his meal. If another pup comes along and displaces him, the pup finds another nipple just a couple inches away. Once the pups are big enough to accompany Mum to the dump, they find that food is spread about everywhere. They don’t need to steal from each other to survive. (Remember this: the biggest causes of death among free-living dogs are cars, parasites, and being shot, poisoned, or otherwise killed by humans — not starvation.) Given the puppy mortality rate (between fifty and ninety-five percent), they are outnumbered by adults, who will teach them about social distances right from the start. The seed is planted for peaceful social interactions even in the presence of food, for willingness to compromise, and for the willingness to respect the other dog’s personal zone.
If we make the puppies in our household eat from one bowl together, we disturb this natural learning process. We create a situation in which the pups do have to compete, one in which they do have to take food from each other in order to eat at all. We force them to enter each other’s personal zone without permission and take what the other has in order to survive. While they are very small, they might not notice this, because they all fit easily around the bowl at once. However, once they get big enough that it gets hard to fit all their heads in the bowl at the same time, then eating starts to become a kind of war. This situation lays the foundation for two serious problems later in life. First, there will be a problem with other dogs. The pup learns, at the shared food bowl, not to respect the other’s personal zone. He must push into the other’s personal zone in order to eat — i.e. to keep from dying. The other puppies have to do the same. The fact that there’s only one bowl makes compromise impossible. Because the puppy’s brain is growing its basic structures and neural connections now, he will also be forming his basic orientation in life. He will end up oriented to competition instead of compromise. He will not hesitate to enter the other’s personal zone if there’s something there he wants. He will expect the other to do the same to him. As an adult, this dog will be constantly getting into unnecessary conflicts — either because he pushes into the other dog’s space and meets resistance, or because he’s paranoid the other dog will and lashes out in advance. The poor customer who bought the pup doesn’t know the breeder believed in this myth, and ends up wondering what he did to deserve such a difficult dog.
Second, there may well also be a problem with humans. The puppy learns, at the shared food bowl, that the presence of others while he eats forms a threat to getting enough sustenance. The activity ‘eating’ ends up anchored in the pup’s brain as a stressed and competitive business, a fight for physical survival. Someone else around while he eats becomes a learned signal that loss is imminent. And the anticipation of losing a necessary life resource arouses aggression. The puppy will be in an aggressive mood around food, because food is associated with the need to compete with others and with a fear of loss. This dog will, as an adult, remain tense and sensitive when he’s eating. He may defend his food fiercely against anyone who happens to walk by. This behaviour tends to expand itself to inedible objects because the dog is constantly worried about his personal zone. He growls about a sock he happens to be lying near, or a Kleenex someone left on the floor, and his human is totally baffled. He wonders what caused this behaviour, and why the dog lashes out at him about a sock, since he’s never taken anything away from the dog.
Fact: It is a big mistake to make pups eat together from one shared food bowl. They won’t learn to share the way we want our children to, quite the contrary.
P.S. If the pups eat from separate bowls, you can monitor whether each is getting enough to eat and whether one of them is off her food for some reason.
Note: Always watch how the breeder feeds the pups before you decide to buy one.