‘Help! My dog will only eat if I feed him by hand!’: Ben Randall answers your canine questions

Expert dog trainer Ben Randall deals with one of his most unusual problems so far: a dog that will only eat out its owner's hand.

Most dogs (especially greedy Labradors) love eating so much that having one that will only eat from his owner’s hand might be seen as an unusual problem. However, as ever, our resident canine agony uncle, Ben Randall, knows exactly how to fix it.

As there are an estimated 900 million dogs in the world, it’s not surprising when unexpected or unusual conundrums arise. And that’s what we have this week courtesy of A.H., who has written via the Country Life letters page (it’s best to send an email to: paws-for-thought@futurenet.com), to ask for advice on how to encourage her cockapoo to eat from his own bowl, as opposed to being hand fed:

Dear Ben, My gorgeous cockapoo (Henry) won’t eat his kibble unless I hand feed it to him. 

I know I am the author of this problem — but how do I get him to eat all by himself? He eats his treats all by himself and also happily helps himself to the cat’s kibble all by himself, but we seem to have gotten into this little ‘routine’.

Any suggestions as to how I can solve this would be most welcome. Thank you in advance! — A.H., via email

First of all, thank you so much for your letter and your honesty — as you say, you are correct to say that you have inadvertently created your dog’s particular feeding quirk. However, please don’t be overly concerned, as I am confident that we can hopefully swiftly change Henry’s meal-time habit by employing the following techniques.

I’ve been perfecting my BG (Beggarbush) foundation methods for nearly 20 years and understand that even experienced dog owners come up against issues that they are not sure how to handle. However, with a little time, patience and careful handling, I am sure we’ll have Henry eating out of his bowl again in no time. You can learn more via @beggarbush on Instagram and my dog-training app (this link will let you get a free trial) or ask me your own question by emailing paws-for-thought@futurenet.com.

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Ben’s top six tips on how to encourage your dog to eat its own food:

Although this might seem like an extraordinary practice for Henry (and you) to have become accustomed to, it is something that I see a lot, especially with dogs that come into our boarding kennels.

I believe that it tends to manifest itself in homes in which owners tend to overuse treats when they are training or handling their dogs. It can also be exacerbated by any children in the family, who are often prone to giving dogs titbits as and when they please, and not only as a reward for good behaviour. It’s like giving a young child sweets and sugary treats before their dinner: they’ll be far less motivated to eat the proper nutritious meal provided.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like you to focus on the following points:

1. Remove all edible temptations from the floor

Either remove the cat food from the floor entirely, or put it in another room — or a cordoned off area, so that the cat can eat it, but Henry can’t. You need to make sure that Henry does not have access to it 24/7.

2. Stop giving Henry treats for a week

I know you might baulk at this, but please stop giving Henry treats for a week while we work on the basics of motivating him to eat from his own dog bowl again.

3. Begin feeding Henry twice a day

Once you have removed all of the above and are sure that Henry is only able to obtain food from you, make sure you feed Henry twice a day (at roughly the same time in the morning and afternoon and evening, definitely after his walks and not before). Use the daily allowance of his normal kibble in a bowl on the floor, which should have all the nutrients he requires. I cannot stress enough that, if you have chosen a good quality, balanced diet, there is no need to supplement it with any treats, toppings or titbits.

4. Immediately take the food away if he stops eating

If he starts showing any signs of being fussy as soon as you start this new feeding routine, immediately remove the food. This applies whether he turns his nose up at it right from the start, or if he eats from his bowl for a while then wanders off before finishing it.

So, take the bowl away, try again at the next meal time — and under no circumstances put the food back down and leave it for him to graze on. This is crucial: we need Henry to know that he is going to eat when you offer it to him, and not whenever he feels like it. It’s more hygenic and healthier too, especially in the summer when it’s almost impossible to keep flies away from the food during the day.

They key thing though is this new routine: in a matter of days, we want Henry to be thinking: ‘This is my food, my feed time and I need to make the most of it.’

5. When you reintroduce treats for good behaviour, offer his regular food

As regular readers of this column will know, I am not against judiciously using food rewards (or calm praise) for continued good behaviour. However, I only hand out pieces of my dogs’ regular kibble (Beggarbush Champions Choice from Kronch UK) rather than anything else. This not only helps to keep your dog super-keen on its main meals, but it also negates the issue of giving them cheap, high calorie, high protein and often coloured treats, which can cost a fortune and encourage them to be fussy eaters.

6. Once you’ve cracked it, start giving him another reward when he’s finished his meal

Once he is back to normal, no longer only eating from your hand and super keen on his meal times, you can add in a good quality dental chew (there are plenty of good ones on the market), to help to clean his teeth and as a reward for eating his dinner. I see this as being rather like a child being allowed to have a dessert once he or she has cleared their plate and eaten all their peas!

For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit www.ledburylodgekennels.co.uk. For a free seven-day trial of the Gundog app, which costs £24.99 a month or £249.99 a year, visit www.gundog.app/trial