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Dogs, Food, and Human-Dog Power Relations

The ethics of controlling our dogs’ access to food.

Key points

  • When it comes to pet dogs, humans often unilaterally control access to food, a fundamental survival need.
  • One decision point for dog guardians is how tightly to control access to food, both inside the house and when out in the world with our dogs.
  • Efforts by dogs to acquire their own food are often moralistically labeled as "bad" behavior.
  • Using food as a reward during training is ethically complicated.
Photo by Chewy on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Chewy on Unsplash

Arguably, food is the basis of our entire evolutionary relationship with dogs. In the beginning, dogs and humans meant, for each other, access to more and better food than each species might have had on their own. We were partners, collaborators.

Now, food acquisition patterns have shifted dramatically, at least for pet dogs, and things have become very one-sided: We typically control all the food. Our dogs eat what we say, when we say, in what manner we say, and by what rules we set. We discourage any efforts they may make to procure food for themselves. Indeed, one of the key acts of disobedience by dogs is “stealing” food that isn’t meant for them or that hasn’t yet been dispensed by us. We also use food as a mechanism to control our dogs, making food “rewards” a key part of training and even, as some trainers recommend, making sure we withhold food before training so that a dog’s motivation to comply is strong.

Much has been written about what to feed our dogs and whether certain diets are nutritionally or ethically superior to others. This debate is important—but perhaps by focusing only on the content of the food we supply, we gloss over more fundamental moral questions:

  • Is it ethical that we unilaterally control access to a fundamental survival need, as a way of maintaining control over the movement and behavior of another being?
  • What does it do to the psychological well-being of an intelligent, highly capable animal to be so utterly dependent on another for survival? To be denied the fundamental job of provisioning for oneself and one’s family?
  • Because food is an essential need, is it ethical to use food as a reward? Does food serve not as a carrot but as a stick in our relations with dogs?

I’ve been thinking a lot about power asymmetries between humans and dogs and the various ways in which we humans exert our power over the dogs we keep as pets. Until recently, I hadn’t really thought about food as a way in which humans exert control. I had, instead, viewed the feeding of dogs purely as a form of love and care, which it certainly is.

But food is a good bit more complicated than that, too. And I’ve started to wonder about food and its role in human-dog power relations.

Access to Food

One decision point for dog guardians is how tightly to control access to food. Decisions about or attitudes toward access to food spin into our negotiations during walks, meals, and training sessions.

Each of us must decide, for example, whether to let our dogs forage for themselves when we take them outside the walls of our home. It is almost certain that our dogs will try to procure food, stopping to eat goose poop, chew on deer legs, or gobble up a bit of garbage thrown out a car window or left by picnickers. How hard do we work to prevent this? And perhaps more importantly, why do we care so much?

My own answers, when it comes to my dog Bella, are complicated. I have an irrational worry (fueled by real events reported in the news) that some dog-hater will have planted poisoned meatballs in a park frequented by dogs; I worry that Bella will break a tooth or swallow a sharp sliver of bone when she stops to gnaw on a deer’s jawbone or that she will get parasites from eating a rotting carcass, like my friend’s dog Paisley did; I am completely repulsed by the idea (OK… the reality) of Bella consuming human feces, which she sometimes finds in the bushes or behind a tree alongside one of our local trails. On the other hand, I tamp down my helicopter parenting inclinations because I value her freedom and the pleasure she derives from finding her own snacks.

Whose Food?

Attempts by dogs to acquire “human” food resources within the household are labeled by us with highly moralistic language: Dogs are stealing our food; they sneak around behind our backs and try to take what isn’t theirs; they grovel and beg for handouts. These infractions against human rules are punishable offenses. Given that we typically control whether and when our dogs get fed and deny them access to procure their own food, it seems highly unfair to label their food-seeking behaviors as naughty.

Why should we so fiercely do we protect “our” food from our dogs? It feels strange to me that I would mark and protect all the “human” food in my house as mine and never share with Bella, and that she would be relegated to only ever eating “dog” food. Dog food and human food have, for most of our evolutionary history, been overlapping resources.

So, why not share, albeit with an eye to our dog’s waistline? Why not also make the kitchen and dining areas places where our dogs are welcome, where we can eat together? Dogs might appreciate getting to taste a variety of foods beyond what we put in their bowls (as long the food is safe for dogs, of course. See here for a list of foods dangerous to dogs).

Food and Training

Food is one of the best reinforcers of behavior and is the strongest reinforcer for many dogs. But using food as a reward during training is ethically complicated. Access to food is tied to mental well-being; food scarcity or insecurity will generate anxiety.

Dogs already likely experience some background anxiety related to food. When food is used as a reward, we are playing off a dog’s insecurity. Many training books suggest training when your dog is very hungry, because they will be particularly motivated to comply. Is this ethical to withhold food to heighten the reward? We can ask similar questions about other rewards that we might withhold from dogs until and unless they follow a command or engage in a behavior we want to reinforce. What if affection is withheld? Play?

Another quite different problem with food reinforcers is that many dogs, although food insecure because they cannot access food for themselves, are nevertheless suffering from excess. How do you balance using food as a motivator with keeping a dog at a healthy weight, especially an older dog in need of a lot of training but with limitations to physical exercise?

Closing Thoughts

The fulcrum of modern dog keeping is total human control over food resources. We may tell ourselves that we are doing dogs a favor by providing them with good quality, consistent food; they don’t have to worry about going hungry and they don’t have to lift a paw. But it is worth considering what dogs have lost in this transition to intensive food captivity and what unilateral human control over access to food resources does to human-dog relations.