The Hand That Feeds: There Are Better Options Than Hand Feeding

Photo courtesy Alexis Bright.

It used to be standard operating procedure for some dog professionals to advise new rescue dog parents to hand feed said dog in order to effectively create a bond. In some cases, it still is standard. It depends on who you ask. The same protocol is also suggested by some trainers for dogs who resource guard. Many shelters have used or still use this protocol with dogs they admit, who might be fearful of humans. Some trainers suggest that this protocol be used to have a dog ‘work for their meal”. I will attempt to separately address my concerns with all of these uses of what I believe is an unnecessary and outdated protocol.

Truly bonding with a dog involves creating trust. Among other things, this means providing all of their basic needs without asking anything of them in return. Personally, I would not trust someone who was insisting on directly handing me every morsel of a meal that I needed to survive. I would be wary of their motives. See Kathy Sdao’s fabulous book Everything in Life is Free for more on this aspect of this subject.

Allowing a dog to interact with someone new at their own speed is important. This is simple common sense with any species’ interactions with one another. This is always important but never more important than when the relationship is new. It can set the tone for the relationship’s future. Respecting a dog’s space allows them the emotional safety of knowing that they can approach or not. But regardless of whether they do or don’t feel comfortable approaching the new to them human who they will depend on for survival,  they still should get what they need to safely exist: food, water, housing, protection from the elements and being assured of having their elimination needs met. This is what creates a bond of trust. Not being the strict gatekeeper of the food.

Allowing a dog to have a choice is the new normal for most modern dog trainers these days. This choice based relationship momentum is getting more popular for a reason. It’s mutual between human and dog. Allowing the dog to have a choice about interacting with the someone who is providing for their needs creates emotional safety for the dog, instead of conflict. The first and third scenario mentioned above would benefit from allowing choice rather than forcing a dog to choose between life giving food or interacting with someone they are not yet comfortable with.

Forward momentum of a situation without choice creates conflict. Imagine that you are afraid of clowns but you have been placed into a home with one. That clown hands you each bite of your meal instead of placing that meal where you can reach it and then walking away and allowing you to eat on your terms. What kind of internal conflict will that cause in you? Wouldn’t it be much less stress inducing to have your meal given to you and then have the clown retreat and allow you to eat in peace? At some point, you would begin to be more curious about the clown and choose more interactions. Of course, we are talking about kind clowns here, not the scary kind! This is a much better protocol for fearful dogs than forcing them to choose necessary food from a scary hand. Suzanne Clothier created the Treat and Retreat Game, that is wonderfully explained here.

Providing yummy food every time you approach or are nearby a particular dog does far more to create better association as well as invite bonding than requiring that they take said food directly from your hand. Even better, when you come back and collect the dish, bring even yummier treats to toss towards the dog. In a shelter situation, this is the equivalent of the first step of Open Paw program. There is no expectation of the dog. Just good things happen when the human is nearby. This is win/win for both parties. This is how you create trust and bonding.

Hand feeding takes the choice away. There is far less of a chance of a worried dog guard letting their guard down with their choice not being an option. A similar pattern is created by hand feeding for resource guarding. This actually creates less control on the part of the dog, along with a negative association between humans and the food that the dog needs to sustain them. A better option is to perform a simple resource guarding protocol that involves adding higher value food when the human is nearby.

If you have a dog who resource guards, it’s important that you consult with a quality modern methodology professional instead of just reading about this subject online. There are a multitude of subtleties involved and someone on the spot needs see those subtleties for YOUR dog’s situation in order to tweak the resource guarding protocol that would be best for your situation. So please don’t attempt this without professional assistance.

However, you can prevent resource guarding by not taking your dog’s bowl/food/possessions away just because you can. A cute video about that here by expert Michael Shikashio. Instead, add high value treats as you approach/pass by. The distance from you to your dog matters with an active resource guarding situation, as does your own body language, so hire that professional if the situation calls for it please.

There are many situations where hand feeding is appropriate. Obviously, when you are actively training behavior cues with a dog, you will be using treats. In those cases, if you are working with a dog who has a balanced temperament, most of the time, you will be hand delivering a treat straight to your dog’s mouth. In this case, you do want to decrease the amount of kibble/whatever that your dog gets at his or her meals so that you don’t end up with a pudgy dog so you save calories from meals for training time. This is perfect! This is not what I refer to when I say hand feeding is not my preference. This is exactly what hand feeding should refer to rather than strict control of every morsel of a meal for a dog.

A caveat to this subject: I am not talking about a lack of boundaries and manners being dispensed with. Of course those are a necessary part of teaching a dog how to live in our world. This article is about creating trust with dogs having issues with such. Manners are not even part of the equation at that stage of the relationship.

Just say no to being a control freak with hand feeding. It’s not necessary and can damage a relationship more than it can enhance one. Be the giver of all good things without expectations and your dog will pay you with trust. Happy bonding!

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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