Should I feed before my dog’s walk and should I ‘starve’ to train

Let’s talk about feeding and exercise!

Should you feed before or after your dog’s walk?
What about feeding your dog their full food allowance on the go?

Here’s my opinion, based on my experiences as an academic and my experiences as an athlete. With some science thrown in for good measure.


My answer: Feed them before their walk BUT give plenty of time for digestion!

My reasons: Have you ever tried to exercise on a totally empty stomach/with no fuel in the tank? The majority of athletes will likely tell you that it’s not for them!
You get the odd runner who prefers running on an empty stomach (My source: trail runners forum discussions) but, this is their choice based on their assessment of what works for them! Plus, they’ll probably have an energy gel or something similar.

The majority of athletes recognise that the body needs fuel to perform well. As a climber, I know that the timing of when I eat before a session has a huge impact on my performance. Too close and too full and I’m sluggish. Not enough food and I feel weak, jittery and get scared of falling more than when I’ve got my food intake and timing just right.

On a recent mountain ultra marathon with my partner, I experienced an absolutely EPIC tantrum on a mountain called Elidr Fawr. I mean, it’s a really vile mountain. Uninspiring and relentless, no one likes it. But I totally lost my s**t and Nick turned around and said to me “you need to eat something, you’re bonking!” (Bonking is a term used for blood sugar level crash, before you raise an eyebrow).

So, at the top, on the brink of tears I shoved some food into my face and within minutes was laughing and smiling again.

Here folks, is where we transfer this waffle onto dogs:


Note, Elidr Fawr is a indeed a horrible mountain and I was already challenging myself on an ultra marathon. But, continuing to exert myself without adequate energy in the tank caused my blood sugar levels to crash, and this greatly affected my ability to cope with these factors. I was shouting, swearing, getting grumpy and was kind of taking it out on Nick by getting snappy at his words of encouragement (redirected aggression). Because the mountain wasn’t (strangely) answering me back (and I was really giving it a telling off!!) ……he bore the brunt of my frustration when he dared to try and help me! I must 100% clarify he wasn’t verbally or physically abused, I was just short and snappy and getting very jealous of how easy he was finding it! But he does have gazelle legs, and I have the legs of a shetland pony……anyway, I digress.

Remember also, when I am climbing, I get MORE scared of falling if my blood sugar levels are too low.

I think these behaviour changes are interesting:

-emotional outbursts
-increased frustration
-increased levels of fear
-redirected ‘aggression’ (poor Nick!!)

Take a moment to consider how this information and my experiences may translate to anxious or over reactive dogs. Take into consideration that dogs cannot rationalise, which I just about manage to do when climbing or destroying myself on mountains.

Anyway, I survived Elidr Fawr and we completed the ultra. Nick didn’t dump me thank goodness!

So, what about giving dogs their full food allowance on the go? This seems to be increasingly popular advice that people are following, but I feel it is somewhat flawed.

For a start, the digestive system requires a great deal of blood supply, and when the body is active, blood is steered towards the muscles and heart so the body can respond/move more quickly.
There are two nervous systems, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The two are not equally active at the same time. One will be more active than the other.

So, if a dog is active then their digestive system is inhibited.
If you feed your dog their meal on the go (or too soon before their walk) then your dog’s digestive system is not being able to do its job properly. What the consequences of this may be, the dogs cannot tell us.

I can personally vouch that eating while running (or running soon after eating) isn’t a very pleasant feeling. You don’t get to enjoy your food at all and you can get stitch or painful indigestion. Eating too soon after high intensity exercise can also have unpleasant consequences, where the body rejects the food because it’s not yet ready to do any digestion! I’ve seen this happen in high arousal dogs plenty of times.

The intensity of exercise does make a difference, as lower intensity exercise (amble, walking) has a very different effect on the body than high intensity exercise. I can eat something while walking, but I definitely don’t want to eat anything substantial while running if I can help it.

Secondly, the brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body. Ever craved sweets while watching a webinar or doing coursework? That’ll be why!
While writing my Master’s Degree thesis I ate loads of naughty things in the day! Ever been to a seminar and gorged on all of those biscuits and cakes- that’s your brain needing the fuel to process information and store it.If you are using food to teach your dog something, then starting off with no energy in the tank may be counterproductive.

Yes, you may get increased motivation to earn the food- and as a result you get more engagement. But you may get other undesired behaviours such as jumping, snatching treats and barking. An increased error rate due to the scattered energy and focus that low blood sugar levels bring, or withholding of reinforcement in response to the undesired behavoiurs mentioned above will likely result in an increase in frustration.

Of course, I use treats on my dog’s walks – but I carefully manae their arousal levels throughout. I make a concious effort to follow any high intensity bursts with intensionally slowing them down- providing opportunity for the heart and respiration rate to slow down.

I feed my dogs 90 minutes (or more) before their morning walk- ensuring they have energy in their system to cope with physical and mental challenges and so their brains can process the information I am trying to get them to understand when training.I do feed them smaller meals, so they are not stuffed full of food and so they don’t get over weight from treats in addition to their meals.

To summarise:
– Low blood sugar levels can affect mood and dwindle an individual’s ability to cope
– The body does not digest food well during high intensity exercise
– The brain needs energy to function well

Of course, different dogs behave differently on walks. Some are faster paced and non-stop, others are more slow, ploddy and better at regulating themselves. It’s also worth noting that some dogs simply do not want to eat first thing in the morning. Whilst I think there may be other factors at play, such as the dog’s general attitude or experience of the food they are fed, or their level of positive anticipation of the walk they expect at that time of day, I think we can explore things further to be sure this is generally what that individual needs. In some instances, dogs simply know what they want and when they want it. We cannot force a dog to eat if they do not want to at that specific time of day. But, if we do not offer this choice or explore other potential reasons for refusal to eat, then we do not know for sure.

You can read how I balance food, training and exercise in this blog post:…/getting-routine…/