When working with a new client, one of the first changes I make is I have them switch from bowl feeding to hand feeding. To a lot of people, it can seem like a tedious switch to make, but there are so many advantages to adopting this routine with your dog.
First of all, hand feeding reinforces a leadership dynamic and teaches your dog that all good things in life come through you. This has nothing to do with outdated ideas about the domination/submission principle – it is simply a way of re-asserting to your dog on a daily basis that you control the resources. This would include food, treats, toys, affection, attention, access to areas like the couch/bed, freedom to greet dogs and people, and any other thing/object that your dog values. When a dog understands that he doesn’t just get what he wants all the time, that he must earn what he wants, behavioral change and learning occur rapidly. On the same token, people behave better when they feel that good things must be earned – it engenders a sense of discipline, focus and desire to perform. Sound like qualities you would like to see in your dog?
A true dynamic of leadership between you (and your family members) and your dog comes in handy in many situations that you will encounter in everyday life. When you open the front door, does your dog just go darting out or does he look at you and wait for your release word? When you sit down to dinner, does your dog circle the table like a hungry shark or does he go to his bed and settle down? When you find yourself in a potentially challenging situation with another dog, does your dog take it upon himself to handle things and become reactive, or does he look to you for guidance and security? Beginning a hand feeding routine can help improve countless situations that have nothing to do with meal times, simply because the dog is learning to respect you and is understanding that you are in control.
Another benefit of hand feeding, especially during training, is that we avoid over-feeding the dog and causing nutritional imbalances. This is especially important for dogs that are naturally predisposed to putting on weight. Nutritionally speaking, many dog treats are the canine equivalent of McDonalds – full of all kinds of junk that has no business being in a dog’s regular diet. The last thing we want in training is to help the dog become psychologically and behaviorally healthy, while creating a total mess of his health. Dog treats and human food are used exclusively as high-value rewards when we are working the dog in a particularly challenging/distracting situation. Otherwise, all training rewards are the dog’s regular kibble.
There is another benefit to not over-feeding your dog that has nothing to do with nutrition. It’s a fact of life that dogs are more willing to work if they are driven by hunger… assuming food is being used as a reward. A dog that has just eaten a meal is far less inclined to work during a training session. So of course, you could just avoid ever training the dog after a meal, or you could turn the entire day into an extended meal, giving the dog opportunities to work and eat over the course of the day. Doing so creates a dog that is more consistently in ‘work mode’ and is generally more responsive to commands. It also keeps YOU in work mode, looking for opportunities to reward good behaviors that occur organically.
So, what exactly does this hand feeding business entail, you ask? It’s pretty easy once you get into the habit. You will first need a way to keep track of your dog’s daily portion of food. Grab an appropriately-sized jar, and fill the jar every morning with your dog’s food for the day. If your dog eats two cups for breakfast and two cups for dinner, for example, you would have 4 cups in the jar. This gives you an easy way to tell if you have fed the correct amount of food. Now you’re ready to begin. I suggest turning breakfast and dinner times into training sessions, 10-15 minutes a piece. You will also conduct mini 3-5 minute sessions throughout the day as needed. And be sure to bring some food along on your walks as well and stop every so often for short training interludes. You can feed each piece of kibble one at a time, or you can feed several pieces, or even fistfuls if need be. Find a routine that works for you. It may seem like a lot of work up front, but when you are training in such short intervals, you will find that it is far from time-consuming, yet has a major effect on the dog’s behavior.