Some dogs will pick at their food and eat their kibble piece by piece. My dog does this. She has to be fed outside by the same tree, in the same spot, or else she will drag her full bowl into the living room and eat her food delicately under my feet. She has her comfort zone when it comes to eating, and enjoys taking her time with her meal.
She didn’t always use to be this way. As a pup she would scarf down her dish before I even got her food all the way on the floor and look at me like I hadn’t fed her. Even worse, she would come at me like a shark when I gave her a snack, leaving me with deep bruises on my fingers from her snapping at me like a dervish.
I curbed this behavior with a tactic that I’ve seen work well with others, and it works on both puppies and dogs to curb quick and snappish eating. Dogs don’t mean to snap; that’s their instincts at work telling them to eat it all now before it’s gone, like how wolves have to scarf in the wild for survival. That doesn’t mean you can’t quickly train your dog out of it.
It starts with snacks. If your dog gets a finger every time he gets a treat, this is a great training tool for you. Take the treat and make it visible to the dog. Then close your fist around the treat and offer it to the dog. They will initially come at you mouth wide open, so quickly pull your hand back and say “no” before they make contact. Try again. Offer them the treat. They should then approach your hand with their mouth closed, sniffing urgently for the treat. Allow them to lick your hand and search for the treat, praising them for not rushing at you. When they are to the point of calmly inspecting the treat, open your palm and they should take it without snapping. It worked after just a few tries with my dog.
Dogs are not stupid creatures, so when they have to go around your hand to get a treat they will learn that contact with your skin is a “no” and will quickly learn not to snap when you treat them. Another tactic is holding the treat out in your fingers, but with your knuckle in the way. Your dog will sense your knuckle and gingerly take the snack. I can successfully give my dog a hot dog from my mouth and she will be so gentle she will kiss it off of me. But it takes a few tries with having your hand in the way before your dog will get it.
For food scarfers, sit down with your dog with their bowl between you. Take one kibble out of the bag, offer it to your dog, let them take it, then place one in the bowl. If they rush at it, tell them to “wait” or “get back” (whatever command you use for making a dog stop). Take the kibble out of the bowl and place it back in your hand. When the dog has calmed, take one kibble again, offer it to your dog, let them take it, and place one kibble in the bowl. Your dog should by this point be very focused on the food but not wanting to be rejected from it and should leave the kibble in the bowl alone. After a few repetitions of kibble offered and kibble in the bowl without your dog eating the kibble in the bowl (the point of this tactic is to train your dog not to immediately scarf food and teach him how to resist that snapping urge to eat it all at once) fill the bowl with food completely but do not allow your dog to eat it.
Now, feed your dog one kibble at a time from the bowl, praising him for his good behavior. You are teaching your dog that he is getting food and you are not taking it from him, easing his urgency to scarf it all down frantically. You are also teaching him to trust hands in his bowl, which allows your dog to not snap when people approach his food dish while eating.
When your dog has gotten the hang of eating from the bowl via your hand one kibble at a time, give him the go ahead to eat on his own from the bowl. If he dives in, pull the bowl away, state your command, and begin hand-feeding him from the bowl again. Once he has calmed, again offer him free use of the bowl. As he should be now calmly chewing, put your hands in the bowl near his mouth, picking up and placing back pieces of kibble. Praise your good dog as he chews without growling or reacting to your presence in his bowl by increasing his eating speed. This tactic is SO important for you and your dog as it teaches him that you are not only his feeder, but that he can trust you not to take his food from him, and he will allow you to be near him as he eats and even pet and handle his food without him reacting.
Do this tactic for a few days and it will make a huge difference. To this day I can give my dog a bloody delicious meat bone, leave her with it for a few moments, and then go and take it from her and she will release it gently, knowing I am going to praise her and give it right back. This training is essential as it allows you to gain trust with your dog and food, and on the off-chance your dog is eating something they shouldn’t (like a dead bird), you can retrieve it without reaction from your dog and replace it with a different, suitable treat. I very often take away her bone treats and give them back to her to reaffirm the training and trust, and she will often come up to me and offer me her bloody treats all on her own.
Teaching your dog not to snap or scarf food is incredibly easy and not too time consuming if you are patient, gentle, and don’t yell or hit. You can quickly train your dog to trust you and others around their food and make them comfortable in knowing they don’t need to scarf to survive. Before long, you can take a hot dog straight out of your dog’s mouth without any repercussion because your dog has full trust in you.