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This basic premise prevents problems of picky eaters,
counter thieves & bossy dogs.

It is the foundation of a good working relationship.


In order to make training fun and enjoyable, it must be rewarding. If your dog doesn't care one way or the other about treats, doesn't like to play with toys and won't bother to walk across the room for an ear scratch, how are you going to reward him? If he sees no reason to work for what he gets because it's always available, gets it on demand, or is easily stolen, changing his meals to scheduled feedings and teaching him to work to earn can help repair a rocky relationship.  


Free-feeding vs. regular mealtimes.
If it ain't broke don't fix it - but if:


  • your dog is a picky eater or counter thief,

  • if you have trouble keeping weight on or off,

  • if your relationship with your dog could stand improvement ...



Work to Earn

Will work for food!
Photo courtesy of Bruce Andre, photographer

One of the single most effective changes you can make is to establish a regular meal time and a measured amount. This change is essential if you plan to use food as a reward for work well done! A dog who understands that offering proper behavior EARNS the things he wants and needs in life will appreciate the food and attention he gets and the person who provides it.



No bowl at all? Why hand feed?
If your dog is pushy, bossy, rude, hard to motivate, disinterested, (or even if it isn't) hand feeding can improve your relationship with your dog.

From the day your puppy was born, his mother controlled access to a resource that kept him alive: food. When mom appeared, so did dinner. When mom left, so did dinner. It was critical that the pups knew where she was at all times and that the puppies remained close to her. They would die if they didn't. Puppies are careful not to bite mom too hard or act disrespectfully to her, because if they did she would leave abruptly - and so would their life line.


Wouldn't you like to be THAT important to your dog? You can be!

Hand feeding will improve your dog's:

  • Work ethic

  • Manners around food

  • Regard for you as the best game in town

  • Ability to drop everything and come when called


Fussy eater? Rationing meals and making delivery contingent on a selected behavior increases value of the reward and your importance in the dog's life. Suddenly your dog's world revolves around you - he's looking for ways to please you instead of demanding what he wants for free. He WANTS to work! He WISHES you'd call him!


Not forever, but to set the stage and get the training ball rolling ...

Get the learn to earn ball rolling. For the first week of training (or longer if you have a hard to motivate or bossy dog) stop feeding your dog from a bowl and use the dog's entire day's ration for short and frequent training sessions throughout the day. At the end of the day whatever is left in the container can be fed in the dog's bowl - but be aware that this amount reflects just how little training you did that day! In the weeks to come you will gradually use less food in training and will go back to regularly scheduled meals, but you must still deduct the amount of food that you will use in daily training sessions from what goes in your dog's bowl so you don't create a fat dog.


Measure out the day's ration each morning and put it in a container and leave it in plain view
or put it in a fanny pack or pocket and carry it with you. This will:

Keep you from over or under feeding
Make sure you make time to practice!


  • Free feeding - leaving a full bowl on the floor all the time

  • Responding to begging or bossy barking - don't train when you are eating - no food from your plate!

  • Doling out goodies just for being "cute"


You control the food and hence the behavior that earns it. Food is not free.
Reward, don't bribe. The food appears AFTER the dog has earned it.

  • Don't show the dog what you have to offer before asking for a behavior.

  • Always call the dog for a training session when he isn't bugging you - don't let him decide when it's time. Polite dogs get to work! Work will become reinforcing in itself!

  • Sometimes call the dog when it is engaged in doing something else but only if you are sure he will respond. If he doesn't, don't bribe him. Run away, play with a toy, become more interesting than what he was doing at the time. NO NAGGING. Never call him to do something he finds unpleasant.

  • Give a simple cue or two and then dismiss him - don't respond to impolite pestering to continue. Gradually call him away from more interesting activities as his responses become more reliable. This is how you teach him to come no matter what!


VARY the types of rewards. Your dog should work for "real life" rewards.
Identify your dog's greatest motivators. Toys? Games? Touch? Use them as rewards. What does your dog want? A door opened? It's leash put on? A ball thrown? A ride in the car? ALL of these activities can be more valuable to your dog than a food treat. Don't give them for free. Ask your dog to do something to earn them. THIS is the answer to "how do I get rid of the food?" - replace it with real life rewards!

Feeding a group of dogs - it doesn't have to be chaos!
Eight dogs eat peacefully while the cat looks on.

A well-managed breakfast can set the stage for a well-mannered, well-trained dog.


Each dog has its own bowl, its own specific amount of food and the dogs are not allowed to invade any other dog's bowl.

Start by teaching your dog to "sit" before you will deliver his dish from the counter and "wait" while you set it on the floor and continue to wait until you give permission to to eat. Stay in the room to prevent trading or stealing another dog's bowl ("leave it").


Peace and safety through leadership?
You may have heard that you should feed the "top dog" first. While this might sound good in theory, it's not real in fact. Remember YOU get to decide who gets fed where and in what order. By controlling this valuable resource and the space around it, the dogs don't feel they have the need to steal or guard. You are the peacekeeper. When feeding a group, it is helpful to feed in order of speed of finishing. Give the slower eaters or dogs who get the largest quantity of food a head start so the speed demons finish at about the same time or after the others. Learning to wait and be patient is an art.


Food rewards and the picky eater.
If your dog is a fussy eater, reluctant to take food from your hand or has to take it off and examine it to make sure you aren't trying to poison her, try putting her on a 'hand feeding' regimen to increase her desire and motivation for the food. Instead of feeding her from her bowl, measure her day's ration into a plastic bag and tuck it in your pocket. Randomly call and have her sit and give her three or four kibble and then send her away "all done" and ignore her. If you offer it and she declines, fine. Wait awhile and call her again and make a big whoop de do and offer her another three or four kibble like you are giving her gold. It's her choice if she doesn't want them, don't beg or try and cajole her into eating. No biggie. Probably by tomorrow, she'll be taking them more readily and by day three of turning down more than she eats, she may be really excited about those few kibble!


Does your dog eat too fast?
Place a large smooth stone in the bowl so your dog has to eat around it or divide your pet's food into a muffin tin. This will often slow down the chow hound. Or check out this clever bowl design: Brake-fast dog food bowls. Another excellent solution is to feed your dog in a food dispensing toy like a Buster Cube or Tricky Treat ball. Or you might appeal to his natural hunting nature: scatter your dog's kibble across the yard so he has to search for each one!


Why waste an opportunity for enrichment by pouring food in a bowl? Feed in a puzzle toy!

See also:
The Rule of Rewards

Great article by Sue Ailsby "Teaching Your Dog to Eat"




This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ - 

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