It was a little over 13 years ago that our family brought a little chocolate bundle of joy into our lives. Milo joined our family as a palm-sized pup, but being a Labrador Retriever, he displayed an unflinching devotion to his food bowl and quickly ate his way into adulthood. I like to think he loves us, as we love him, but we also know that when the chips are down, Milo will absolutely snarf up those chips — and plead for more.
Recently, though, his food fixation has become increasingly disruptive. So much so, we’ve had to take action. And, I’m pleased to say, that required a trip to the woodshop.
For years, we have kept Milo on a regular schedule: 1-½ cups food in the morning, around 6, and another 1-½-cup serving in the evening, also around 6. And yet, despite this almost Ripken-esque consistency, Milo seemed ever worried we might overlook one of his feedings; Every morning and every evening, roughly an hour before his appointed mealtime, he would start to shuffle and twitch. He’d watch us to see if we made any movements that could be read as “going to feed the dog now,” which in his mind included breathing, blinking, and existing. If he spotted such an indicator, he’d leap to his feet and head toward his dish.
Annoying as this became over the years, it was tolerable. That is until we moved to our new house, when Milo came to the sensible realization that in his advanced age, he couldn’t go up or down our stairs. That precluded him from sleeping in our bedroom and as a result, he spent his nights alone in the living room waiting for us to wake and feed him.
And by waiting, I mean, yelping, whining and barking at 4 in the morning.
No longer was he content to wait.
At 13, who knew how many days, hours or feedings he’d have left? He didn’t want to chance it.
I’m not going to make it a minute longer. Must. Have. Food!
So, we’d get up and get him his breakfast, cursing him and his speedy metabolism, knowing we were only encouraging him to demand that night’s dinner and the subsequent breakfast even earlier. It was an endless cycle and we were going mad. We had to take action.
I tried to reason with him and explain the concept of time. But he just looked at me with those big hungry eyes. We tried giving him extra food at night, but that only raised his expectations. It did nothing to increase his patience.
What if we just fed him smaller meals throughout the day? Maybe that would help curb his insatiable appetite? It seemed reasonable, but the problem was feeding him during the time we were sleeping. It was clear he was in no mood to wait 8 interminable hours between kibble scarfings.
That’s when I realized Doc Brown had already solved this problem:
And really, I had it much easier. I didn’t need to worry about temporal disruptions, Libyans, or canned food. I didn’t need a DeLorean or a flux capacitor. I just needed something to dispense kibble on a timer. So I looked online and found a plethora of automatic feeders and settled on this one.
It can dispense varying amounts of food up to four times a day and you can even record a message to call your best friend to the dinner table. Perfect.
At first, the feeder worked wonders and Milo was in awe of this new kibble-dispensing deity. We set it for 6 a.m., 11 a.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. We went to bed and didn’t hear a peep from the pup and when we checked on him in the morning, he was satiated and snoozing.
But then Milo learned a secret. He discovered that if he pushed the machine around a bit, he could nudge out an extra kernel of dog food. The more he pushed, the better the chances more pieces would fall out. It wasn’t endless, but he could reliably earn a few extra bites with some aggressive nosing. In itself, this wasn’t a problem, but he became so aggressive that he’d start pushing around other furniture as part of his search for the extra kibble and the noise this created would wake us up, putting us more or less back where we started.
After mulling over this problem, I wondered if I could fix it by elevating the device so that rather than the kibble collecting in a small tray attached to the device, it would instead fall to the ground (or into a dish). That would eliminate the option of pushing the machine to extricate the extra delight.
To test this theory, I placed the machine, with the tray removed, atop an inverted plastic bin. Indeed, the ploy worked. The machine dumped the food onto the floor and our four-legged Hoover sucked it up. It was a bit messy, but the concept was proven.
The next step was to craft a purpose-built stand. The machine would sit on a small elevated platform. Under the mouth of the feeder, I’d place a ramp to catch and direct the food into a dish.
To start, I measured the base and sketched out the concept. I decided to use melamine board for the base and the ramp, as I figured it would be easier to keep clean (from kibble bits and dog slobber) than plywood or MDF.
For the legs, I’d use leftover 2x4s. After I cut those to length and ripped some into 2x2s, I glued and screwed them together to make L-shaped legs. Then I screwed them into the corners of the melamine base. To help keep the feeder in place, I glued and nailed ½-inch sticks along the back and side edges of the platform.
Next, I needed to build the food ramp. Since the feeder had a mouth of about 10 inches and the bowl I’d be sending the doggy delectables into was about 6 inches wide, I used a tapering jig on the table saw to cut a piece of melamine into a trapezoid.
At this point, I realized I also needed to cut one end of the ramp on an angle so that it would neatly align with the front of the platform. Using a protractor, I estimated the angle and took the piece to the table saw. Alas, the angle was greater than 45 degrees, so I couldn’t cut it there. (Well, I could if I stood it on end, but that wouldn’t have been safe.)
I decided the only solution I could safely manage was to cut it on the bandsaw, holding the piece against a mitre gauge. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough. As my dad likes to say, “We’re not building clocks here.” (By the way, read his blog about building a boat.)
With the angle cut, I attached the ramp to the front edge of the platform. Serendipitously, I actually had cut the ramp “too long” and needed to raise it above the top edge of the platform in order for it to fit. It was serendipitous because this provided a lip that helped to hold the feeder in place and prevent it from sliding forward and off the platform. I then glued and nailed two ½-inch sticks to the side of the ramp to help guide the descending delicacies to the dog dish.
Proud of my work, I brought the stand inside, swapped out the plastic bucket, and waited for the machine to do its magic.
At the next appointed hour, the feeder played its recording and opened its mouth. Food cascaded down the ramp and into the dish. It was beautiful.
But it wasn’t yet perfect. It soon became clear that delivering food into the dish was problematic, as kibble would ricochet around the dish and end up behind the ramp. Milo was not about to let a kernel of kibble go uneaten, so he’d root around until he freed and devoured it.
To solve this problem, I removed the dish and let the food fall into a flat plastic tray. This was better, but Milo’s aggressive eating caused the tray to shift and more food would get stuck or lost. I ended up removing the tray altogether and now food just slides onto the kitchen floor, which works well, except for the kibble dust and dog slobber left behind.
I finally hit upon the solution, which was to build and attach a melamine tray with side guards to the bottom of the ramp. That keeps most of the food in one spot and is easy for Milo to eat.
So, finally, we have peace in our time. Milo gets fed every six hours and we get a full night’s sleep. That’s not to say Milo fully understands the routine. It seems that to him, this machine is a bit like a dog food slot machine. Never knowing when it will hit triple cherries, he regularly walks into the kitchen just to see if food has appeared. He’s even taken to sleeping on the kitchen floor, rather than on his comfy chair, just so he doesn’t miss that magical moment when ¾ of a cup of the same dog food he’s eaten for 13 years suddenly rolls down the ramp ready for his drooling maw.
Admittedly, this is not fine furniture. It’s not especially well made and certainly not that elegant. If anything, it’s a proof of concept — and a successful one at that. Were Milo a younger dog, I might refine the design and return to the shop to make a nicer-looking version out of finer materials and with a polished finish. But let’s face it, Milo is 13. He may not be using this feeder for too much longer. But until that sad day, enjoy your meals, Milo. All four of them, every six hours.