Imagine this: you’re sitting in the kitchen, watching your dog chow down on their dinner. Suddenly, you get up to go to the living room for a moment, and when you return, your dog has stopped eating and is staring at their bowl.
You try to coax them back to their food, but they simply won’t budge…
Generally, a dog’s desire to eat with its owner may be due to ancestral pack-eating habits or a result of the dog’s dependence on its owner. To encourage independent eating, owners can try feeding the dog from its bowl, finding particularly appealing food, and gradually teaching the dog to eat alone by leaving the room while they eat and removing the food if they become anxious. It is important to consider underlying health issues as a potential cause of the behavior.
In this article, I’ll explore the reasons behind this behavior in more detail and provide tips on how to encourage your dog to eat more independently.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Believe it or not, your dog wanting to eat with you is actually a primitive instinct that comes from their wild ancestor; the wolf!
Wolves are community animals, living in a pack with comrades, siblings, and parents. Every aspect of their lives tends to be shared, including hunting and eating. This instinct is a powerful one, and even though our domestic dogs are far removed from the wolf, those biological traits can still remain.
As such, your pup may feel like eating is a social endeavor and want to eat alongside you.
However, there are also less-positive reasons for the lack of independent eating. Where dogs and wolves differ significantly is dependence: our domestic dogs are bred to be entirely dependent on us.
This dependence manifests in great things, such as trainability and the desire to please us. Unfortunately, it can also manifest in severe attachment, such as separation anxiety or requiring validation for every move.
Sometimes the inability to eat alone reflects the dog’s lack of confidence and desire for you to be confident for them.
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety will fully lose their appetite when you are away and, instead, turn to anxious and destructive behaviors. Forget about having them eat when you’re away!
Now, on the topic of domestic dogs and breeding, some breeds are predisposed to a great work ethic. But this work ethic can be rather intense sometimes. For example, guard dogs may not eat when you leave the room because they immediately go into “guarding mode” and can’t focus on food - they must make sure the house is safe when you’re not there! As such, the dog can only relax when you’re in their presence.
Generally speaking, dogs not wanting to eat alone is not necessarily something that needs to be remedied unless you feel it impacts your life and theirs.
If time is the issue for you, you can schedule your dog to eat at the same time as you (such as for breakfast and then for dinner once you return from work) so that you’re not spending valuable time standing over your dog while they eat.
But, if you find that dependent eating is truly causing a problem, don’t worry; you’re not stuck having to nanny your dog forever when they eat. There are ways to encourage independent eating!
Avoiding feeding your dog from the table is a big way to encourage independent eating.
By feeding your dog from the table, you are unwittingly teaching and validating dependent behavior. If you really do feel the need to share your food, make sure you give it to your dog in their bowl with the rest of their food rather than from your hand at the dining room table.
You can also find something irresistible to your dog to help in the process.
Finding the type of food that they drool over (no pun intended!) can encourage them to want to eat whether you are there or not. This also goes for any sort of treat you can potentially sprinkle into their food to encourage eating. Freeze-dried organs and such healthy treats tend to be super delicious to dogs, full of healthy vitamins and nutrients, and can easily be sprinkled over food in a moderate dose.
Next, with patience, you can teach your dog that they don’t need you to continue eating.
Once your pup starts eating, slowly leave the room or do something else (paying no mind to your dog). If your dog starts looking for you, take the food away and offer it again in a few minutes. Once more, start leaving the room when your dog begins to eat. Rinse and repeat; your dog will start to associate that they don’t need you to continue eating!
For dogs that aren’t taking to the independent eating training or encouragement, you need to identify and address whatever underlying issue contributes to a dog’s refusal to eat unless watched.
If your dog lacks confidence, and that is the issue at hand, you’ll be able to see this manifest in areas beyond just food time. Dogs who lack confidence will look to you for every step they make, seeking validation. These dogs will also be unable to solve problems well and immediately run to you to seek assistance. Equally, a lack of confidence can manifest in fear of various things and anxious behaviors on walks.
The way to fix this is pretty apparent: build confidence back in your dog!
You can enroll your dog in a sports activity such as nose work or scent work, which requires your dog to rely on their own instinct to play the game. The more they progress in the sport, the higher their confidence becomes.
Focus on relationship-building training, such as tricks and games. Play with your dog and build that bond between the two of you! Start desensitizing your dog to scary things by offering yummy treats whenever your dog tackles a new obstacle without anxiety. When you train your dog with positive reinforcement, you show him that making choices and interacting with you and his surroundings will result in rewards like cookies and praise.
Dogs with anxiety will also show anxious behaviors outside of their meals. Anxious dogs can bark and whine, be destructive, pant heavily, and display other panicky behaviors. If you suspect your dog can’t eat without you because of separation anxiety, consult a canine behaviorist or trainer specializing in anxiety to assist!
It may be something as simple as your dog just hasn’t been trained to be okay alone. Or it could be as complex as a triggered reaction causing a fear response. In either case, a professional can help navigate these tumultuous waters and ease your pup into not having anxious behaviors anymore.