Hand-feeding Fearful Dogs: Fool-Proof or Faux Pas?
Updated: Apr 2
Is hand-feeding a scared dog beneficial to him and a sure-fire way to build trust and achieve connection? Or, could it possibly backfire and have the opposite effect? Let’s explore this.
When I read through the comments on any social media post pertaining to fearful, shy, and anxious dogs, one of the most common recommendations given is to hand-feed them treats in order to win their trust, overcome their insecurities, and forge a bond with them. Some will go further and promote feeding all of their meals by hand too, in order to create that much sought-after positive connection.
Guardians of dogs who are nervous or scared of other people are often encouraged to allow strangers to feed their dog treats, with the aim of helping Fearful Fido become the stereotypical social butterfly, and be able to meet and greet everyone in a friendly manner, enjoying all interactions.
On the surface, this line of thought seems fairly logical, doesn’t it? After all, most of us would be pretty chuffed to receive a nice bottle of wine or a fancy box of chocolates as a gesture of friendship from a stranger, so surely this should translate to our furry friends; how can it possibly fail to succeed? Let’s take a closer look at how it could actually affect the dog…
Approach Avoidance Conflict
For a non-fearful dog who trusts his human, hand-feeding can be an enjoyable way for us to create connection, reward good choices and behaviours we would like to see more of, and help us teach them new skills. However, for those dogs which are hesitant around or wary of people, this can actually be quite detrimental.
Using food to encourage, coax, or lure a dog to interact with someone or something they are worried about can cause an internal struggle, known as Approach Avoidance Conflict. This places the dog in a position where he has to decide whether his desire for the food outweighs his worry and uncertainty of the person, and if he chooses to go for the food, he might well find himself too close and outside of his comfort zone. This may cause him to panic, and might even lead to a bite if he is very frightened.
If meals are fed to a fearful dog in this way, he faces the bleak choice of either not eating and remaining hungry, or being dependent upon and having to approach the person they fear, which really is no choice at all. In some cases, this scenario may completely “poison” the food, deterring the dog from eating at all. Unfortunately, there is further danger afoot for the hand-fed, fearful dog…
So, what does flooding have to do with hand-feeding? “Flooding” is the term used for fully exposing our dogs to the things which frighten them, whether it is done deliberately or inadvertently, in a bid to prove that there is nothing to be frightened of. It is a technique sometimes used in human exposure therapy to help overcome fears, and is a practice to which the patient consents, fully understanding what the process involves. However, when applied to dogs, who cannot give consent and have no understanding or rationale, it becomes extremely unethical.
Despite the common belief that this approach will result in habituation (the dog becomes used to something over time), repeated over-exposure will not help a dog become comfortable with something they fear; it is more likely to only sensitise him to it further and he will react increasingly to a specific stimulus, becoming more fearful. By removing his ability to escape, he will either shut down emotionally, or he will opt for the fight response in desperation.
To avoid flooding, the dog should always be given the choice to move away from a trigger and have a clear escape route to help him feel safe, and exposure should always be carefully managed and controlled at a neutral level. This will allow him to think clearly enough to process the situation and will facilitate learning.
With these points in mind, it is clear to see how attempting to hand-feed a dog who is not comfortable with a human in his personal space could cause him a lot of stress and force him beyond his comfort zone; this is not the way to gain their trust. It isn’t all bad news, though; we have more dog-friendly options available to us when gaining the trust of a worried dog…
What Can We Do Instead?
Our number one goal should always be to help our shy, fearful, and anxious dogs to feel safe, and this should start from the moment that we bring our new furry friend home. If he has been re-homed from a rescue shelter, it might be that he has never lived in a home before, so he will need his own little safe haven and hidey-holes that he can retreat to so that he isn’t forced to interact if he chooses not to. Being able to watch goings on from a safe distance and eat his meals in private will do wonders for his sense of security and confidence.
For dogs which struggle around strangers, having a good understanding of counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation is a fantastic way to help build a positive association with people, whilst keeping your dog feeling safe. However, it is well-worth having some lessons with a qualified professional to help you get to grips with the mechanics of it, as the timing of the food delivery and use of distance is very important. In addition, they will coach you in reading your dog’s more subtle body language so that you can keep him below threshold. Teaching your dog a “let’s go!” cue is also extremely valuable so that you can increase distance quickly when needed.
You can read more about counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation in the following blog posts:
It is always best if the food comes from the dog’s trusted person, but when that isn’t possible, another option is the Treat and Retreat game, as coined by Suzanne Clothier. This involves gently tossing food away from you and behind the dog, so that he moves away to get the food, which places no pressure on him. As he feels more confident, he will approach in anticipation of the food. As always, it is always best to enlist the help of a qualified professional who uses force free training and behaviour modification techniques to show you the ropes. You can read more about the Treat and Retreat game here: Treat & Retreat-befriending the shy dog | diamondsintheruff
It is very difficult to maintain a hands-off approach and not fall into the trap of using food in ways which may negatively affect our dogs in our desire to make friends with them, but we owe it to our fearful, furry friends to be patient and keep them feeling safe and secure, no matter how long it takes for them to learn to trust. Being able to eat their meals in peace and not having to “face their fears” in order to do so will go a long way towards achieving this.
Even with the best of intentions, flooding can occur by entering and remaining in the dog’s personal space, or by luring them to us with food. We need to be aware of not pressuring them nor placing unfair and unrealistic expectations upon them by invading their personal space and moving at too fast a pace, causing them to feel uncomfortable. They need us to advocate for them, protect them, and teach them ways to cope with everyday life and its challenges. We need to nurture and support them, always using food thoughtfully so that we help them flourish, without flooding them.
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