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Why I Don’t Own a Dog Food Bowl + The Power of Hand Feeding

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Dog Training By Kayla Fratt 10 min read March 8, 2021 103 Comments

“Throw out your dog’s food bowl.” It’s one of the first things I tell my clients at Journey Dog Training to do.

It’s a first step for dogs with over-excitement, fear, reactivity, or separation-related issues. It’s also what I do with my own dog.

My dog, Barley, has never owned a food bowl. He has puzzle toys and a treat pouch, but no dinner bowl of any kind.

Barley is a dog who earns his meals. He’s not a working dog, and I’m not some sadistic owner, but I recognize how boring his days can be. Asking him to “earn” his dinner is a great way to work his mind and body!

Your dog probably spends a lot of time hanging out alone, waiting for his human to come home. Utilizing a food dispensing toy when you’re not home or food-based training when you are around is a great way to enrich his life and add some excitement to each day!

Alternatives to Food Bowls: More Delightful Ways to Enjoy Dinner!

There are plenty of different options to use instead of a food bowl. Instead of just dumping your dog’s food into a dinner dish, why not try:

Puzzle Toys Make Your Dog Work For Dinner

Puzzle toys work your dog’s mind and body as they earn their food. They’re different from slow feeders in that they encourage your dog to use his nose or paws to crack a problem of some sort.

However, just like slow feeders, they will slow your dog down as he eats, which can be helpful for dogs that wolf down their food and water in seconds. They also provide much-needed mental stimulation to keep your canine’s brain sharp.

Puzzle toys have other advantages too – for one, they make your dog appreciate his meals more. Working for something actually increases its value. This is called the IKEA effect in humans. Basically, by having your dog earn their dinner, you’re actually making dinner better!

dog eating from floor

Use Dinner Time as a Training Session

Why not teach your dog something new while you’re doling out dinner?

I throw Barley’s breakfast into a treat pouch for our morning walks so that we can work on leash manners every morning. In the evening, I pull a fun trick out of a jar and we work on learning something new! He loves our training time.

Taking 10 minutes to teach your dog something new is far more valuable than just tossing kibble into a food bowl. Some fun ideas to teach your dog include:

Practical behaviors like sit, down, stay, heel, and come.

Basic tricks like shake, high five, speak, and roll over.

Fun, challenging tricks like weaves, play bows, sitting pretty, crawling, hopping onto or going under objects. I recently started teaching Barley to open a suitcase and hop inside of it!

dog in suitcase

Mat training which works by teaching your dog a specific routine that can help him relax and calm down in stressful situations.

Box tricks that involve challenges like nosing a box, stepping into a box, or carrying a box. For more info, see this great article by Karen Pryor on 101 Things to do With a Box!

Functional games like Look At That (which teaches your dog to look at distracting objects or people. Despite seeming counter-intuitive, this exercise is said to reduce reactive behavior from the trigger), It’s Your Choice (an exercise which helps teach your dog self control — see video below), and Exchange Games (teaching your dog to exchange a non-desirable chewing item for a tasty treat. Eventually this exercise can lead into teaching take it and leave it commands).

Handling Practice. Practice letting your dog handle his sensitive bits by feeding him for letting you check his paws, ears, teeth, and private bits. This becomes an especially valuable skill set for veterinarian visits or show handling.

 Hand Feeding

Feeding your dog out of your hands is a great way to promote bonding and work on bite inhibition. This is especially great for puppies, as they’ll learn to control their teeth around your fingers. New and shy dogs also benefit tremendously from hand feeding – definitely give it a try!

  1. Start by putting some of your dog’s kibble in your cupped hand.
  2. If you feel the sharp end of a canine or incisor on your hand, close your hand. It’s ok if you feel the flat side of teeth as your dog eats.
  3. Open your hand enough that your dog can easily lick kibble out of the opening in your hand.
  4. Your puppy will quickly learn that she needs to be gentle in order to earn her meals!
  5. I think of my hand like a Kong and shape it so that puppies need to lick instead of bite to get the kibble out of my hand. I’ve actually used this to teach bite inhibition to sharky puppies!

The Benefits of Throwing Out Your Food Bowl

Think about how much time your dog likely spends alone. Many of us work and can’t afford canine daycare, so we’re forced to leave our best friends home alone all day. What does your dog do that whole time?

Giving your dog as much stimulation as possible helps with their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. An easy way to give them more stimulation in their life is to stop giving dinner away for free. Dogs like a challenge just as much as we do!

why hand feed a dog

Having your dog earn his dinner can help reduce unwanted behaviors, such as:

Chewing and Digging. Dogs that are destructive are often bored. Giving your dog something to do while you’re away helps give him a positive way to focus all that pent-up energy, so why not try a puzzle toy?

Food-dispensing toys are still helpful even if you’re doling out meals through training or when you’re present. The more mental stimulation, the better!

Barking. Dogs that bark a lot are often bored or need more attention and stimulation. Throwing out your dog’s food bowl and opting for unorthodox methods helps for these dogs for many of the reasons listed above.

Separation Distress. Being alone is hard for many dogs. But if being alone means they get to play fun games to earn their food, many dogs will start to relax when left alone.

Dogs that have adequate exercise – mental and physical – are also less likely to be stressed, so make sure to give your dog plenty of exercise in addition to a puzzle toy for a real winning combo. Dogs that have a very hard time being alone may be too stressed to eat. In that case, I’d recommend hiring a trainer or going to see a veterinarian who specializes in behavior.

Hyperactivity. Young and high energy dogs also really benefit from having something to direct that energy towards. It’s no harder for you to put their food into a puzzle toy, but it gets some of that energy out for your pup. Puzzle toys are not a substitute for exercise, but they’re another way to augment an exercise program for high-energy dogs.

Eating Too Quickly. Earning your dinner means you can’t swallow it all in one gulp! Dogs that eat so fast that they choke will benefit from the deliberate slowdown that earning their dinner provides.

Even dogs that don’t have specific behavioral issues benefit hugely from working for their meals. Many dogs enjoy having a job, even when the job is digging around for their dinner.

Trainer’s Top Favorite Dog Puzzle Feeders

I have not yet found a puzzle toy that I don’t like. As long as they’re safe and not too difficult for your dog, it’s hard to go wrong.

Barley has progressively harder puzzle toys to work through. When his stomach is upset or he seems lethargic, I might give him an easier puzzle toy. If I cut our morning walk short or know I’ll be working a long day, I pull out the college-level options.

To get you started, here are some dog puzzle feeders that come especially well recommended:

Kong Wobbler. The Kong Wobbler is a great food toy to start with. It’s inexpensive, easy to clean, and most dogs get the hang of it quickly. I batted mine around for Barley a few times, and within a few minutes he was well on his way to earning his dinner!

The classic Kong works great as well, since it can be stuffed with frozen meals (just check out our collection of Kong dinner recipes).

CleverPet. CleverPet is an expensive, but amazing, option. The CleverPet teaches your dog to press colored lights in patterns to earn his food. It can be programmed to go on throughout the day, spreading out the interaction throughout the work day. You can track your dog’s progress and it gets more difficult with time. This is a great next step when your dog is bored of toys like the Kong Wobbler. It’s pricey, but the reviews are glowing.

Just check out how much fun this pup is having!

SnuffleMat. Yes, it looks like a sleeping Sesame Street character. But the SnuffleMat helps tap into your dog’s natural sniffing abilities. It doesn’t have moving parts and just helps teach your dog to search through it to find dinner. This option isn’t too challenging. Dogs also find sniffing relaxing, so it can help sooth stressed dogs. Be careful using the SnuffleMat with big-time chewers though!

Various Amazon options. There are all sorts of great options available on Amazon for puzzle toys. For more recommended products, check out our lengthier guide on the best dog puzzle toys, where we review some of our top picks. Just make sure you order the right size and keep in mind your dog’s skill level.

The bottom line is that it’s hard to go wrong with throwing out your dog’s food bowl – there’s a huge selection of awesome food challenge toys on the market that can make dinner time fun and exciting for your pooch!

Make sure that your replacement is a safe option and monitor your dog’s eating habits. If your dog is struggling with a puzzle toy, try an easier option until they get better at it.

Are There Dogs Who SHOULD Use a Food Bowl?

In general, I believe most healthy dogs will benefit from getting their food bowl tossed in the trash. bowl.

That said, there are some dogs who may be better off with a food bowl:

Dogs with very specific diets. If it’s imperative to his health that your dog gets his exact meal every day, a food bowl might be the easiest option. That said, you can still try to hand feed or feeding through training – that way you can ensure he’s getting everything he needs!

Dogs that need soft food or are fed raw diets. Some types of food simply aren’t well-suited to puzzle toys, training, or hand feeding. I like to freeze Kongs full of wet food, but some dogs can’t handle the frozen food. Dogs that are fed raw diets of chicken and peas may not do well being fed through most puzzle toys. Shop around and see if you can figure something out that works with your dog’s diet!

Dogs with disabilities or very limited mobility. For some dogs, the challenge presented by throwing out their food bowl is just too much. A coworker of mine has a deaf and blind dog dog that enjoys very simple puzzle toys. I worked with a three-legged deaf dog who still earned his meals through training. But some dogs just won’t thrive living this way. Do what’s best for your dog.

Dogs that are struggling with their weight. Dogs that are severely underweight or lose weight quickly might not be well-suited to food bowl alternatives. Talk to your vet to be sure!

Even if your dog isn’t well-suited to throwing out their food bowl, you can always just put some extra-tasty treats into a puzzle toy or take some time for training.


Throwing out Fido’s food bowl is a great shortcut to giving your dog more mental and physical exercise. Take advantage of daily feedings to give your dog something to do all day!

What does your dog do to earn his dinner? We want to know!

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a dog behavior consultant and freelance writer. She is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and is a member of Dog Writer’s Association of America. She travels full time with her border collie Barley and her boyfriend, Andrew. Before coming to K9 of Mine, Kayla worked at Denver Dumb Friends League as a Behavior Technician. She owns her own dog training business, Journey Dog Training and holds a degree in biology from Colorado College. When she’s not writing or training Barley, Kayla enjoys cross-country skiing, eating sushi, drinking cocktails, and going backpacking.

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103 Comments

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Nora

I started hand feeding my now 14 month old new about 2 months ago. He was losing weight eating raw and was not eating nearly enough. Now he ONLY I mean won’t eat out of a bowl his kibble. He lays downs and I hand feed him or he uses a food dispensing ball. No matter how I try he won’t eat kibble from a bowl, but if I put a piece of chicken in it, gobbled up.
Should I continue the hand feeding??

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Chris

Two feeders recommended don’t even exist any more. And this article is only a month old. How about some current recommendations?

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Ben Team

Hey, Chris.
We try to keep our product recommendations current, but products are removed from the market all the time. The link for the KONG Wobbler should work now, as should the one for CleverPet (but unfortunately, CleverPet is currently out of stock — nothing we can do about that).
Thanks for checking out the site!

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Greg

In the video around 30 seconds you say Good boy then correct yourself and say Good job. Have not seen your other training tips yet but is there meaning in using the word “job”?

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Sadie

This method worked wonderfully when my dog was on dry food. He would rush and eat the entire bowl without chewing once and then would throw up after almost every meal.

He is on raw food now so has no choice but to chew, but the hand feeding method is definitely one I recommend for food aggression/insecurity.

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Carl Snyder

I agree 100%
Every one of my kids have been fed the same way for years, they have to earn it. And they have done wonderfully in my eyes!

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Cat

Really bad advice Close this down.

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Josh

No dog nor kid should have to “earn a meal”, that’s in most eyes neglect and malnutrition…. nobody, not a soul deserves this “practice”, to be hungry….

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Amanda Selby

So many judgemental replies. With any article it won’t apply to everyone. An article is an idea. We as American’s or even human beings should uplift one another not shame or call names! I thank you for this information and ideas I never would have had

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John

Terrible advice. The only thing I learned was never to use the author to help train any of my dogs.

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Meg Marrs

I’m sorry your dogs won’t see the benefits of canine enrichment, but I sure hope other more open-minded folks give it a try!

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Gautam Mohata

Absolutely ridiculous. There are much better ways to train dogs not to be food aggressive. What about dogs who are on a raw diet? Puzzle toys are great but not as a daily way of feeding dogs. What about households with multiple dogs?

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Meg Marrs

Hey Gautam, there are plenty of puzzle feeders that work for multi-pet households. Getting a couple of Kong Wobblers or Bob-A-Lots would work for kibble. Frozen Kongs would work great for wet or raw food. Hope that helps!

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Deborah Robinson

Stupid article. Throw food on mat or floor or hand feed? My mother hand feeds her dog. Spoiled brat. Feed them in a dish
Just by being our puppy or dog they’re earned their food. Treats,for training. I have had well balanced, behaved and healthy dogs for 35 years. They all ate from a bowl. You are off your rocker

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Meg Marrs

I can say first hand as someone who feeds each and every meal to their dog from a puzzle feeder, dogs ADORE these things. You have to remember Deborah, most dogs sit around all day doing nothing. They are bored out of their minds. Providing enriching mental challenges and stimulation benefits your dog. Feeing your dog out of a bowl doesn’t mean you are a bad owner, but when you have the opportunity to enrich your dog’s life, why not take it? Meal times are an easy win.

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Kathleen

Where can I purchase the Cleverpet Hub. Tired Amazon,don’t see it.Help.

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Ben Team

Hey, Kathleen.
You can try checking CleverPet’s website.

They appear to be out of stock at the moment, but they have a place where you can add your email address to be notified once they’ve replenished their inventory.
Best of luck!

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David Hower

Yeah right….if you have one dog and want make sustenance a learning experience great. I have nearly 300 lbs of dogs…..i would think you should preface you article for single dog households. My dogs sit and potentially are asked to obey another command, but that’s it. They earn that night or morning’s meal.

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Meg Marrs

Hey David – you could try using puzzle feeders or frozen KONGS, those work great for multi-pet households!

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Manish

Absolutely stupid idea ..give them their food properly as meal not some kind of divided treats. Spare some time for play with your dog or else don’t own one if you don’t have time for care.

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Meg Marrs

Hey Manish – not sure what you mean here. Taking the extra time to create fun and engaging ways for dogs to enjoy their food is what shows you care about them! I hope you’ll give it a try!

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Bradley W. G. Gavin

Sounds nice, but not for my 85 pound Golden Retriever. Food is already TOO HIGH value. Making him work for it just makes his food aggression worse. I have hand fed him, for weeks at a time. Yes, I am retired! Nothing changes. I have worked with licensed trainers. The consensus is, unless I want to use shock therapy on him, leave him be, quit harassing him, let him eat. BTW, he IS a working dog…

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Meg Marrs

Hey Bradley – having a dog engage in mental enrichment via food puzzles does not increase food aggression – which is more commonly referred to as resource guarding. We have a great guide here on how to work on resource guarding. Definitely don’t use shock training, that would be a big mistake. As you say, leaving him be to eat is a perfectly adequate solution!

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April

I should add that hand feeding is also a way to increase transmission of parasites and zoonotic infections/infestations.

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Ben Team

Hey, April. Obviously, you should wash your hands after feeding your dog by hand.
Thanks for reading!

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April

This is a horrible idea. I never learned or have heard about this technique in my animal psychology classes or as a veterinary technician. This is irresponsible because people with food aggressive dogs should not try this technique. This much involvement in your dogs eating has created issues that I see at the animal hospital. If an owner goes out of town, or something happens with the owner, dog’s can stop eating with this way of doing things. As in nature. Dog’s can eat from the ground with a bowl.

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Deborah Garceau

I agree with the tone of the article that as custodians of our animal companions it is our responsibility to enrich their lives which means spending time with them. One of my hopes is that more owners switch their pets from kibble to raw or home cooked diets. The concepts laid out do not require hand feeding the dogs every kibble meal. In fact most households would not have the time at meal time to hand feed or do training. A couple of minutes at meals for a few training tricks is realistic. Let’s all spend time with our furry friends, long walks every day, sports activities, fun in the yard set up your own activities and move indoors when the weather weather changes.

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Little Maltese

Dogs should be able to eat when they are hungry and not feel like they have to scrounge for it or win a puzzle to feel fed. I totally disagree with this article. Puzzles are for treats. If your dog is misbehaving then spend more time with it. Main food sources are a necessity of life, not a Training tool.

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Meg Marrs

I’d suggest giving a puzzle feeder a try – you’ll quickly witness how much most dogs enjoy these. A misbehaving dog is often due to boredom, which is where additional enrichment and engagement via puzzle feeders come in! I sure hope you’ll consider giving these ideas a try, your dog will thank you for it.

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Paul

My 200lbs. wolfhound would require most of my day to ‘hand feed’ the correct amount. and anybody with a large breed is laughing at the prospect of this article. this method is more suitable for someone whos a professional with dogs and more over gets paid to work with dogs and come up with this “stuff”. Maybe a retiree, stay at home parent, or somebody on disability has that kind of time on their “hands”, i don’t.
great concept though.

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Meg Marrs

Hey Paul – there are a lot of other options detailed here besides hand feeding. Did you read the entire article? Even a 200 lb Wolfhound could easily be fed via a puzzle feeder through the use of stuffed Kongs or a Kong Wobbler!

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Marty

That’s great if your dogs weigh 10 lbs soaking wet, but I have four 60 plus pound dogs. For me, that’s not even approaching realistic. I really love the idea, but are there any options for me & my kids?

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Meg Marrs

Hey Marty – one potential idea is sectioning off each dog to a room and letting them loose with a treat ball! Do you think that would work for your crew?

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