Just like when you were sick as a little kid and your caretaker fussed over you, spoon-feeding you soup, fluffing your pillows, or buying you a new quiet activity like a coloring book and crayons, dogs that were sick or picky eaters can easily become accustomed to hand-feeding. We loved the extra attention of soup in bed or new crayons, so it's no wonder your pooch might feel the same about being fed one kibble at a time--by you!
Problem is that dogs who like being hand fed can then refuse to eat from their bowl unless you feed them. And since most of us have other obligations-work, family, etc, hand-feeding your pup may not be high on the priority list in a time-crunched day.
"We have a few dogs that board with us that will only eat if they are hand-fed," says Dr. Sara Ochoa, veterinary consultant for doglab.com with a small animal practice in Texas.
She says, "they may be unsure of their surroundings and not happy being left and this is the only way we can get them to eat when they stay with us."
Why your dog wants to be hand fed
Sickness. Dogs who are sick really don't want to eat but they will if you hand feed them.
Bully sibling. Dogs who have an alpha canine companion that shoo them away from the food bowl.
Owner-induced. It's a habit you created by trying it when they were sick, when you switched dog food, or the dog came from a situation (shelter, foster, breeder, previous owner) who hand-fed.
Trauma. A traumatic event happened near the food bowl and now they associate eating out of the bowl with the negative event.
Separation anxiety. If you feed them close to leaving for the day, they figure if they don't eat, you can't go.
Anxiety or fear. Something scared them at the bowl, like another dog or a loud noise.
Too busy. Dogs who are vigilant watchdogs may be too busy to take time away from looking out the window or watching the birds to eat from their bowl.
How to get your dog to eat from the bowl
Anytime your dog stops eating, even if he solely wants to be hand-fed, it's likely a reason to see your vet to rule out any medical problem that may be going on. Once you've got a clean bill of health, you'll have to play a little canine psychology to figure out why the habit started and find some things you can try to get your pup back to the bowl, such as:
If it's an issue with a canine companion, "many times feeding these dogs in a separate room will allow them time to eat," says Dr. Ochoa. You may even have to supervise mealtime and stay with your hand-feeder to make sure she finishes.
If it's location-centered, move your dog's food bowl to a "safe" location. "An excellent place to feed your dog is in their crate with the door closed and possibly a blanket over it," says Dr. Michelle Burch at SafeHounds Pet Insurance. This new location can become their safe eating zone that provides enough security that allows them to relax and eat up.
You can try adjusting their feeding time slightly to a more relaxed hour, instead of when everyone is rushing around to leave the house or busy with dinner prep. Choose a 30-minute stretch when the family is home and relaxed.
Enrich mealtimes. "I recommend making mealtime an enrichment period for your pet to help prevent boredom," says Dr. Burch. Use a slow feeder, puzzle feeder, or Snuffle Mats, a brain game that makes it challenging for your pup to pick out the kibble. These products encourage your pup to use their sense of smell and provide mental stimulation. They can help make mealtime fun.
Rotate dog food flavors so that with each bag of dog food you buy, you select a different protein choice, like salmon, chicken, or beef flavors. Plus, make sure you're not overfeeding. You'll need a hungry pup to learn how to eat out of his bowl again.
Slowly make the change to the bowl
"I had a dog that loved to be hand-fed," says Dr. Burch. She broke the habit by letting her pup eat pieces out of her hand, then holding the bowl up and letting her eat a piece out of the bowl. You can switch back and forth until most of the feeding is coming from the bowl with very few hand pieces. You can do this over time at each meal.
Is it ever acceptable to hand-feed?
It is OK to hand-feed if needed. Sometimes if your dog has been sick or is undergoing medical care, and you need to encourage her to eat, a little hand-feeding can help. Plus, if you're working with a trainer who encourages this, it's a helpful training tool when working with dogs that guard their resources, like food, or who don't let owners or the family get close to their food without showing negative traits like growling or nipping.
Hand-feeding teaches them that owners provide the food and can help break these more serious negative habits. But remember, you might have to then break the hand-feeding habit sometime down the road when they're well again or have improved their negative behaviors around food.