Most puppies wolf down their puppy chow without much chewing, which is something that most dogs grow out of. Some dogs are picky eaters, either because they don’t like their food or because they’ll only eat it under a specific set of conditions. If you adopt an adult dog, or your dog grows up to become a picky eater, you may have had to try to coerce your dog to eat. Some flat-out refuse to eat a single nugget unless it’s fed to them by hand. Why do some dogs insist on being hand fed? What can you do about it? Is hand feeding spoiling your dog too much? Is it healthy?
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The Root of the Behavior
There is a lot going on when a dog eats. Eating, to a dog, is a lot more than just taking in food to satisfy hunger. Eating is also an extremely social event, meaning that there’s a lot of hidden cues your dog is picking up on that you might not be thinking about. For example, your dog values privacy and space while eating. Dogs don’t like to share their bowls or their eating space. Dogs who are forced to share their eating space may become protective of their food or aggressive toward nearby pets. Some dogs may be naturally more protective of their food and treats than others. Hand feeding your dog discourages resource guarding—your dog protecting their food. Your dog learns that you are the only pathway toward food and that you are the source of rewards and goodies. Some have suggested that taking your dog’s bowl away during training teaches your dog the same thing, but taking their bowl away while they’re eating may actually reinforce those food guarding behaviors, making your dog feel like they have to be on guard all the time to make sure their food isn’t disturbed.
You can also use hand feeding to teach your dog patience and control. If you place a bowl in front of an over-excited, circling, barking, jumping dog, they learn that excitement is rewarded with food. By controlling when you allow them to eat, you can teach them that food will only be given once they are calm and sitting patiently. If you bribe your dog to eat—by letting them refuse their own food and later giving them table scraps or other treats, you may be doing more harm than good. For starters, that kind of bribery reinforces that skipping a meal will resort in yummy treats. For those dogs, weight gain or other health concerns can be a result. Or, your dog may just stop eating altogether, believing that whatever you’re going to give them later will be better than the kibble you’ve offered.
Encouraging the Behavior
Hand feeding your dog is actually a
great tool for training and getting your dog’s attention to stay focused on
you. If you start early on with your new dog, whether you have a new puppy or
an adult rescued dog, the same thing applies: hand feeding improves the bond
between you and your pet. Starting early is especially important, as it will
help you with training as well. Hand feeding your dog keeps their eyes and
focus on you without much effort or persuading necessary on your part. While more
time consuming than providing your dog with kibble in a readily available bowl,
it’s a great way to gain a better bond with your dog and a great way to gain
and hold your pet’s attention. You can use these mealtime moments as great
opportunities for training as well. Use kibble to work on teaching your dog to
come when called, stay, sit, and more. Another perk of hand feeding your
dog is controlling when and how much they eat. Dogs who are permitted to graze
all day are unpredictable when it comes to potty needs. If you are the only available
venue for your dog’s dinner, you’ll know exactly when their walk should be, which
keeps late night potty trips—or accidents on your floors—to a minimum.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your dog suddenly stops eating, you should take them to a vet.
Loss of appetite or sudden weight loss may indicate a deeper problem at hand.
Make sure your dog is otherwise healthy if they won’t eat. If you don’t want to hand feed your dog, you should still limit
the amount of time they’re permitted to eat. Dogs who graze are harder to
monitor when it comes to how much they’re actually eating. It also may create
competition or food stealing between dogs, often without the owner being aware
of it. If you give your dog a set time and duration for meals, they will
appreciate the routine and you can still use meal times as training
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but the truth is, it is actually the way to a dog’s love and trust. Hand feeding might seem like a pain, but the benefits are many. If done right, hand fed dogs can be happy, healthy, trusting, and entirely focused on you.