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Dog Behavior Library

Dog Hand Feeding

What is hand feeding?

Canine Hand Feeding is a 1-2 week behavior modification technique that accomplishes several goals:

  1. The dog learns the owner is the only source of food
  2. The dog learns to be calm and gentle when accepting the food or the food goes away.
  3. The dog learns to "earn" individual pieces of food by responding to instructions.
  4. The dog learns the human hand coming near his/her food bowl is a good thing
  5. The dog learns a closed hand might contain food (so follow instructions for any closed hand.)
  6. The dog learns a new routine that builds trust and respect for human hands.

What and when do I hand feed?
Temporarily, stop feeding canned food or scraps, and feed only dry kibble. If the dog refuses to eat dry kibble, allow the dog to decide to fast. Offer kibble, one unit at time, anytime the dog seems hungry. The goal for hand feeding is to feed a minimum of 10 kibbles each time by hand with the remainder being placed in a bowl or food puzzle.

Tip:  Place kibble in screw top glass jars in places around the house as a reminder to take a minute for hand feeding throughout the day!

How do I hand feed?
Measure one day's allowance of dog kibble and try hand feeding for one minute as often as possible. Put one kibble at a time into a closed hand, and gradually open the hand to reveal the food and teach the dog a closed hand might mean food.

What do I do if my dog refuses food by hand?
If you are on a behavioral treatment program, make notes in your behavioral diary on how your dog responds to the following tests. Testing acceptance to different foods of increasing desirability is a measurement of stress, motivation, trust, compliance, and hunger,

  1. Ask the dog to sit, and see if he/she will accept the kibble as a reward.
  2. Drop a piece of kibble in the dog's bowl and see if it is eaten.
  3. Test to see if the dog will except a handful of kibble,
  4. Look in your kitchen for food rewards of high, higher, and highest desirability such as Cheerios, baby carrots, cat kibble, bread, cheese, commercial treats or meat.
  5. Then, test high to highest to see at what point, if any, the dog will eat the treat.
  6. If your dog accepts a food treat, then test in reverse by offering food treats down the scale in desirability. 

In most cases, once the dog accepts any food, the appetite center is aroused and the dog will accept any food. If your dog does not accept kibble, you may try offering one treat to get the process going.

If the dog is overweight, stick to kibble as less food taken means healthy weight loss. If your dog is underweight or normal weight, then go up the scale as needed to gain food acceptance during hand feeding. Click here to determine ideal body weight.

Medical issues
During this or any behavior modification strategy, do not allow more than a 10% loss in body weight. Medical issues trump behavioral strategies

If the dog refuses all food for two days or longer, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian the next day.

If the animal is deemed healthy by the veterinarian, and is refusing hand feeding as uncooperative, do not allow fasting when your dog reaches 10% below ideal body weight.

Anytime food is left uneaten in a bowl, decrease the next meal by that amount.  The dog should lick the bottom of the bowl at least once daily.

What if the dog "grabs" the food or bites at my hand?
Place the food in your closed hand. If the dog is gentle and then slowly open your hand and allow the dog to take the food. If the dog is unruly, rough or demanding, close your hand around the food. If that doesn't work, pull your hand away, then slowly re-present.
If the dog is still rough, turn away, stop the hand feeding session and try again in 5 minutes. The first goal is accomplished when the dog gently takes food from your hand and has learned what "works" to get food is being gentle and respectful.

In behavior modification programs, the hand feeding technique is also used during gentling, learn-to-earn, and invisible dog.

Q:  When can I phase out hand feeding?
A:  By passing  the following test

  1. Will the dog's nose follow a closed hand?
  2. Will the dog take the food gently?
  3. Will the dog wait before taking food when asked?
  4. Will the dog readily perform any known instruction in any room of the house without food involved.

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