Is it time for dinner yet?

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I took just one training session to teach Matilda how to show me when she was hungry, way back when she was a puppy, and she locked in this extremely useful communicative skill.

It stemmed from my concern that I may someday forget to feed her. Or, that she might be in someone else’s care, and they may not know when she needs to eat.

You would think that any perpetually hungry dog would take advantage, constantly communicating their hunger over and over again, expecting an endless supply of meals. And you’d be somewhat correct. Matilda does ask for food hours before mealtimes, and sometimes I oblige with a snack to hold her over. But mostly, it’s a handy way for her to express herself, and builds upon her realization that humans will do their best to help her if she communicates.

How To Teach Your Dog To Let You Know She’s Hungry

At mealtime, stand by your dog’s empty food bowl. Wait for her to approach it. Most likely, she’ll sniff it to see if anything is there.

When she approaches the bowl, mark her in your usual way, by saying “good girl!” or clicking a clicker. Then, place one small morsel of food in her bowl.

Continue doing this with her entire meal. She’ll probably stare at you. Wait until she makes some movement towards the bowl. She’ll try different things to figure out what causes you to deliver the food. You may encourage her to tap the bowl with her paw by tapping or pretending to scratch at it yourself.

If your dog is large enough to carry her bowl, you can have her hold it in her mouth for a moment, then mark and reward. Then, gradually encourage her to walk towards you while holding the bowl, just a few steps at first. A more complicated “feed me” signal will probably take a few sessions to master.

You will probably only have to do this once, but you may practice a few more times before your dog starts to offer the behavior without prompting.

Is My Dog Hungry, Or Just Trying Her Luck?

You don’t necessarily have to adjust your dog’s mealtimes based on her signals. She’ll definitely signal early and often to test her newfound power. Simply ignore your dog when it’s truly not time to feed her, but occasionally offer her a snack if it’s an appropriate time for one.

You don’t have to say “no!” or “it’s not dinnertime!” to get your dog to relax. The concept of extinction is psychology will take care of any nonsense signals. If you ignore your dog when she signals inappropriately, she will eventually stop when it does not result in an early feeding. At first, she may have a behavior “burst,” in which she’ll signal more intensely, kind of like how you mash the button on the TV remote harder when the batteries are dying.

You may very well regret teaching this skill. It’s hilarious when 4-pound Matilda slams her bowls around, proving that she’s much stronger than she appears. It might not be so funny when your larger dog throws their bowl across the room. Ok, that would be funny, too, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere!

Lindsay Pevny
Lindsay Pevny lives to help pet parents make the very best choices for their pets by providing actionable, science-based training and care tips and insightful pet product reviews.

She also uses her pet copywriting business to make sure the best pet products and services get found online through catchy copy and fun, informative blog posts. She also provides product description writing services for ecommerce companies.

As a dog mom to Matilda and Cow, she spends most of her days taking long walks and practicing new tricks, and most nights trying to make the best of a very modest portion of her bed.

You'll also find her baking bread and making homemade pizza, laughing, painting and shopping.