Hand feeding your dog their daily meals is one of the most powerful tools to train your dog new skills. In addition, you will build motivation, develop a stronger bond, and improve their behavior. I use it to teach dogs new behaviors in all of my training.
The reason hand feeding your dog is so powerful is because you become the bearer of one of their most important life necessities–food.
Dogs need food to survive, and therefore, they will be more motivated to perform and learn when they are hungry.
When you feed your dog from a bowl twice a day, then they become less motivated to work. Not only are they full, but they also know that you’ll just deliver another bowl of food later that day.
Imagine if you showed up to work every day and there was a check waiting for you on your desk.
Would you then work for eight hours?
Probably not, because there’s no motivation. You’ve already been paid, and you know there’s going to be a check waiting for you the next morning, so what’s the point?
Feeding your dog from the bowl is a wasted training opportunity! Hand feeding is hands down the one of the best ways to develop an obedient, go anywhere, do anything dog.
Using Treats vs Hand Feeding Meals for Dog Training
Many dog owners and trainers use treats for dog training. However, treats are like dessert.
Unlike food, dogs don’t need treats to survive.
Using treats for training, on top of already feeding your dog their daily food poses a few issues:
Your dog isn’t hungry. As I’ve mentioned earlier, if you provide your dog with their daily food served in a bowl twice a day, they won’t have any motivation to work for more food. They’re full.
As a result, the consequence of not working is to remove the food and try again later. However, if the food has no meaning, then the punishment is pointless.
However, when they’re hungry, you bet they’ll be motivated and engaged to earn their food.
Treats are essentially dessert. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some dessert, but I don’t love eating 45 cookies in a row. It makes me feel gross and eventually, I don’t want anymore.
Treats can contribute to obesity. If you’re not accounting for the amount of treats your dog eats in addition to their daily meal, then the extra calories could be leading to weight gain. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56% of dogs in the US are overweight or obese.
Obesity is a serious and increasingly common problem in the pet world and leads to a number of preventable health issues.
How to Hand Feed Your Dog for Training
Hand feeding is quite simple, really!
Instead of feeding your dog their daily amount of food in a bowl, add it to your treat pouch to use during your training sessions.
Before you start training commands, you need to first teach your dog marker words. This lays the foundation for training and builds engagement with you as the handler.
If your dog does not yet know the command by name, then they are still in the learning phase. Set them up for success by rewarding for effort and engagement as you progress toward the new skill.
Use your dog’s daily amount of food to train
Training sessions can happen throughout the day, multiple times a day. They don’t need to occur during your dog’s typical feeding time.
The benefit of feeding your dog throughout the day is that they don’t become accustomed to eating at specific times and then they don’t demand food at certain times.
Training sessions can last anywhere from one minute to 20 minutes. If you’re pressed for time, put the food in your dog’s bowl and make them work for it (aside from just sitting and waiting), then reward them with a jackpot.
Note: You don’t have to feed one piece of food at a time. In fact, it’s beneficial to vary the amount of food you give your dog because it leaves them guessing whether the next command will result in more food!
My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated!
This may be true right now, however, all dogs are food motivated.
Because they need food to survive. They have to have food motivation.
If your dog doesn’t show interest in working for their food, then stop the training session, crate your dog, and try again in a few hours. It’s ok to drastically reduce the amount of food your dog eats in the beginning in order to build that food drive.
It’s important not to cave in and give your dog their food from the bowl if they haven’t eaten after a few meals.
Now, I’m not saying that you should starve your dog in order to build food motivation, however, I am saying that in order to build food motivation, then a dog might choose to go without food for a period of time.
Let me say that again. A dog might choose to go without food.
If you offer food through training and they don’t want to work, then that’s on them. Some dogs will go 3-5 days without food. That’s ok.
If they do not want to work, then we take the food away. That’s the consequence of not working and the negative punishment that pairs with positive reinforcement training, something many +R trainers do not talk about.
If a dog doesn’t want to work, then the only way to build motivation to work is to create hunger by removing the food. This is negative reinforcement that pairs with using food for training.
When we offer our dogs food delivered to them on a literal silver platter twice a day, then what motivation do they have to work for their food?
Without motivation, then all you have left to train with is force, and that’s not fun or ideal.
Existential Feeding and Motivation
According to humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, all humans are motivated to fulfill basic physiological needs before moving on to more advanced needs. He introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in 1943.
His theory explained that humans are born with a desire to be self-actualized. That is that they want to serve a purpose and seek personal development. In order to achieve self-actualization, however, people are motivated to fulfill basic needs first. He created a pyramid demonstrating the hierarchy of needs that has become one of the best-known theories of motivation.
The five-tiered pyramid is divided into deficiency needs and growth needs.
Deficiency needs are physiological survival needs and are categorized as: biological, safety and security, and social needs.
Biological survival needs are: food, water, shelter, air/breathing, and sleep.
Safety and security needs include: physical and mental health, employment, law and order, freedom from fear.
Social needs are: family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, and community groups
Growth needs are those which help an individual realize their full potential through creative and intellectual means.
Growth needs are those related to self esteem, and include confidence, achievement, and respect of others.
At the top of the pyramid are self-actualization needs, which have to do with the realization of full potential in creative and personal development endeavors.
What does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs have anything to do with dog training?
According to Maslow, when deficiency needs go unmet, people are motivated to fulfill those needs because they want to survive.
The longer they go without those needs, the more motivated they are to fulfill them.
How to Hand Feed Your Dog without Getting Bitten
This is a pretty common occurrence I see in a lot of dogs and it can certainly be annoying and painful!
If you have an enthusiastic eater on your hands, simply hold the food in a fist in your hand and slowly open your fist once your dog stops being so mouthy. Then, you can slowly let them lick the food out of your hand.
Refrain from delivering the treat pinched between your thumb and forefinger. That is just asking to get bitten!
Instead, tuck the food into the pocket of your thumb when it’s pressed against your hand, let your dog nose it out of that space.
I Feed My Dog Raw, Can I Still Hand Feed?
Absolutely! I feed my dog raw and still hand feed him a lot of his meals.
There are a couple of ways to do this. One is more messy and requires a bit more planning, the other is perhaps more expensive.
The first option is to feed your dog their regular raw meals and train where you know the food won’t become warm.
To do this, you’ll want a few accessories to protect your hands and to store the food:
Gloves – Nitrile gloves are ideal for hand feeding raw (I even wear them with client dogs who eat kibble because dog saliva mixed with kibble is gross!). For a more sustainable option, look into reusable silicone gloves.
Silicone Treat Pouch – Silicone is great because it can pop into the dishwasher. I’d recommend either this one from Dexas or, use your regular treat pouch and just use a silicone zip top bag to store the food, like these from Stasher.
The second option is to use freeze-dried or air-dried food, which is what I do. I feed Sitka one meal that is his refrigerated raw, and his training meal is air-dried.
I personally use Max Meat from Only Natural Pet. I’ve found that it is the most affordable option, especially if you do auto delivery. Freeze-dried and air-dried raw can be pricier than refrigerated raw, so just play with different options if you’re committed to raw!
Other brands I’d recommend include:
- Northwest Naturals Freeze Dried Raw (this is the brand I use for Sitka’s frozen raw)
- Steve’s Real Food Freeze Dried Nuggets
- Stella and Chewy’s Freeze Dried Meal Mixers
- Primal Pet Freeze Dried Pronto
As you can see, hand feeding your dog their meals through training sessions has a ton of benefits! It’s fun, easy, and doesn’t take much more time than feeding them from a bowl, truly.