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I was hoping someone might have some advice for a dog who seems to need permission to eat.

We rescued our four-year-old jack russell/pomeranian cross from an animal shelter last year; we know his previous owners kept him in a crate, alone in their flat, for up to 12 hours a day, which may have shaped some behaviour. He's lived with us for just over a year.

We notice a lot of the time he seems to need permission to eat his meals. It's not consistent - though it has been happening more regularly recently - and I haven't been able to see a pattern.

He will often watch me make his dinner, getting excited for it, even crying or barking if I'm taking too long, even pre-emptively doing tricks as if he thinks I'll give it to him faster, then it goes down and... nothing. He won't eat it.

It's not that he's not hungry. He'll often come up to me crying to be fed. But he seems to need permission to eat it.

If I handfeed him, he'll eat. Sometimes he needs to be handfed the full bowl. Other times, he'll eat by himself after the first handful. Sometimes he'll eat by himself if I just sit on the floor beside him and encourage him without touching the bowl.

But other days he'll just leap in and start eating as soon as I put the food down.


I searched the Stack before asking in case anyone else had had this problem, but the questions and suggestions I've seen don't fit with my dog's inconsistent behaviour.

About a third of the time, he'll jump in and eat no problem. The rest of the time, he either:

  • needs me to start handfeeding him. After the first mouthful, I can leave the room and he'll eat the whole bowl.
  • needs me to handfeed the whole bowl. There is no pattern to why or when.
  • needs me to sit on the floor, near the bowl. Not touch it. Not handfeed. Just not be on the couch.

I've looked through suggestions on other answers and I don't think they fit.

I don't think this is to do with noise or with the bowls themselves.

His bowls are regular metal dog bowls, thoroughly washed after every meal. We've tried with other bowls and puzzle feeder toys (which he'll sometimes solve and gobble up from immediately, and sometimes solve and leave the food in unless I handfeed).

I don't believe noise from his collar bothers him as he drinks from his metal water bowl.

I don't think this is to do with wanting extra affection.

He's so, so rarely alone. I work from home and always have him in the room with me. He spends most of the day asleep on my lap. We're obviously not going anywhere right now, but we always get a dog sitter in when we're gone for more than two hours. And we give him a lot of love and attention through the day.

For the past eight months or so, we've done physiotherapy every night before bed. He gets handfed treats in return for doing some muscle building exercises. He knows the pattern and will bark if we're taking too long brushing our teeth before we start, so he knows he gets uninterrupted, both adults fully engaged, lots of treats and scratches time every night. (And we know he's not afraid to ask for things if he wants them! He'll also nose my hand and drop toys at my feet to initiate play time through the day - he's not shy!)

I don't think it's to do with not being hungry.

He isn't the kind of dog to eat everything he's offered - if he's full, he'll stop eating, even if he's offered treats. (We learned that the hard way in training class!)

We know he will reduce his intake if he's not getting his usual exercise - we saw that last year, after he had surgery - so I'm not too worried that he's not eating three meals a day while we're in quarantine lockdown, but the number of times in the last few weeks that he's cried to be fed when his bowl has been out, and he's not gone near it until I've sat down with him scares me.

I don't think it's something in his environment.

He's the only pet in the house. There are no children, just two loving, sensible adults. The problem happens across different rooms in the house and when we put the food in different positions. He also eats fine some nights with TV on or noise from the neighbours, so I can't spot a pattern with that.

I don't think it's the food itself.

If he was only eating it when he was handfed, it might be different, but because he eats it sometimes when I'm just sitting with him, not touching him or giving him praise, makes me doubt it.

In case it's important, he gets kibble mixed with meat. We make sure the kibble is covered, to make it more interesting. We switch between meats, so he doesn't have three of the same meal in one day, and alternate between pate, jelly, and gravy. While he definitely has favourites, there's no pattern on what he won't eat.

Sometimes a sprinkle of cheese on top will get him to wolf the whole bowl done. Other times, he still won't touch it. I honestly can't spot what the difference is.

I don't think it's a medical issue.

While I can't say definitively, he had severe gastritis over Christmas and had a lot of tests and scans then, which came back fine. (Though we learned he had protruding discs, which we're now treating with steroids.) This behaviour has been happening for a long time, so I think we would have caught it had it been medical.


For reference, he also had luxating patellas when we adopted him, which he's had surgery for, and he'd been diagnosed with lumbar spondylosis, for which he regularly sees a physiotherapist.

While I know he's often in discomfort, it does seem more behavioural to me, as if he'll eat after I give him permission to eat.

Do you have any ideas what could be causing this and what we can do to encourage him to eat when he's hungry?

My running theory is I'm in some kind of The Prestige situation where I really adopted two dogs. Otherwise, no idea.


TL;DR: our rescue dog wants permission to eat. Two thirds of the time, he won't eat without me sitting beside him or handfeeding him. He'll wait for hours and then cry from hunger.

A third of the time he eats fine without me doing anything.

There is no obvious pattern to the behaviour.

  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Dog refuses to eat unless fed by hand – Allison C Apr 14 at 17:24
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    Thanks @allison-c. It's not quite the same - my dog eats fine without needing me at all a lot of the time and, when he is being fussy, he sometimes just needs me to start him off or sit beside him, rather than handfeed the whole meal. It's as if he needs permission, rather than pampering, necessarily. – Mell_O_Drama Apr 14 at 18:30
  • It may be a matter of training. My brother trained his great danes not to eat without his permission. – Learned Man Apr 15 at 21:02
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    Thanks @LearnedMan. He's not consistent with it - sometimes he'll eat fine as soon as it's down. I have wondered if I'm doing something (stepping away too quickly, not quickly enough, eating myself, not eating myself...) that makes him think he has to wait, but I haven't spotted a clear pattern to when he won't eat without special attention. He does have some idiosyncrancies from his old owner - he won't drink for hours, even in bad heat, since they kept him locked up all day. When he does, he'll drain the bowl. So there could be a reason like that from his life before that I'm not spotting – Mell_O_Drama Apr 16 at 8:47
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Short answer:

Reduce the number of daily meals to 2 or 1 and stop worrying. He'll eat when he's hungry and he won't when he's not.

Long answer:

It's exactly the same with my dog and he wasn't a rescue. He's all excited while I prepare his food, then takes a sniff at his bowl, turns around and leaves. Some dogs tend to eat everything they can get, others are better at self-regulating and keep a healthy body weight automatically.

My own dog also prefers company while eating. For us it's enough to stand in his line of sight, but he'll stop eating immediately if we turn to leave. It's no big deal for us, so we keep him company.

For you it's important to understand how wild dogs and wolves eat naturally. They don't hunt a rabbit 3 times a day to have regular meals, they hunt a deer (or similar big animal) or find a carcass every other day, fill their stomaches with as much as they can fit in and don't eat anything the next day or two. Our domesticated dogs have the luxury of a full food bowl every day, but their bodies are still well equipped to deal with irregular meals.

Anecdotal side note: I know that in Germany in the 70's and 80's police service dogs got only 6 meals a week because it was considered healthy for them to fast one day. Don't know if that's still common practice, though.

That being said, 3 meals a day is too much for a self-regulating dog. They honestly get bored with all the food and it becomes less appealing than treats, which are not available all the time.

Give him only 1 or 2 meals a day, wait for 20 minutes, then remove the leftover food. You can either cover it up or put it in the fridge for his next meal, but either let it warm back up to room temperature or put it into the microwave for a few seconds before serving him the next meal. Cold temperatures reduce the smell and taste of food, so it might be unappealing right out of the fridge.

Also, stop hand feeding him. You already found related questions where dogs wouldn't eat without being hand fed. You don't want to add that to your problems.

As to keeping him company, I don't see a reason why you shouldn't if you want. Maybe try keeping a little more distance and don't sit right next to him. The actual reason why sitting right next to him seems to work could be that he perceived you as food competition. He might have thought that you were interested in eating his food, so he ate it himself instead of sharing. This kind of behavior is very common in homes with multiple pets.

To monitor your dogs health and keep from worrying if he doesn't eat, you can monitor his weight. Simply step on a body scale while holding him, then again without him and substract the second wheight from the first. Be aware that different scales have different ranges of accuracy. It might seem like he lost a pound in a day when it's just the body scale being unprecise. Also keep in mind that it's natural and healthy for dogs to loose wheight during summer and gain (some) wheight during winter.

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  • Thank you @Elmy! I think he's too small a dog to comfortably eat just one meal but putting him on two and monitoring his weight to proactively see if there's an issue sounds like a really good plan. Thank you so much for answering! – Mell_O_Drama Apr 15 at 9:11

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