The Cure for the Picky Eater
I’m referring to dogs here.(I can not help you with your children.) Dogs who won’t eat. It’s completely contrary to our image of the average chow hound. And totally maddening. You cajole. You entice. You cook. You change things up. You top. You soak. You stir. You waste money. You waste time. At best, success is usually occasional and fleeting.
In my experience, which I’ve talked to a whole lot of people with this problem over the years, there are two types of picky pups: Those with a breed issue and those with an owner issue.
Breed Issue. Some dogs just aren’t genetically predisposed to be ‘eaters’. Great Danes specifically, and also many giant breeds. I wonder if they are so big as to be detached from their appetites. Some working dogs, border collies and herding dogs in general, have been known to show no interest in food as long as their is activity about. Conversely there are dogs who are bottomless pits, pretty much across the board: Pugs (Hugo!), beagles, labs. The point here is, our dogs can be pre-disposed to be ‘eaters’ or ‘not eaters’. Much like us.
However, just because your dog is of one persuasion or another doesn’t mean you can’t encourage or discourage eating by how you interact with them. Most often the case of the picky eater is not a breed issue. Most often, 90-something percent of the time I would say, it is an…
Owner Issue. How do I put this as gently as possible? I’m not judging. I’m not talking down to. I’m talking about the dogs I’ve interacted with in my home and the customers I’ve interacted with as a Pet Store employee. Both of those categories number in the many. The many, many even. Take this for what it is.
All that futzing, that adding of wet food, that cooking of chicken, that soaking in broth, that addition of an enticing morsel, that leaving of the bowl out all day so they can nibble at their leisure. All that. That behavior. Everything I listed here and above, plus everything else you’ve done which I can’t even imagine. It is enabling the behavior. You are making your dog picky.
I’ll let that sit for a minute. While it ruminates, let’s examine food as it operates in the dog world.
Food is a resource. Heck, food is THE resource. (Some) dogs will guard food. (Most) dogs can be rewarded with food. Food is the ultimate resource. Which you control. I’ve written about this before. Long, long ago (in DorD time). It’s a lesson worth repeating, and expounding upon further.
Imagine, if you will, the lightbulb moment for a dog. When they realize that by NOT eating the plain old kibble, that kibble is whisked away to magically become kibble plus something awesome. Today it’s a scrambled egg addition. In a week, how about we hold out for yogurt? Then, filet mignon because really the sky is the limit! Every time you add something extra because they won’t eat, you are rewarding the behavior of not eating. Attention is it’s own separate reward. Fussing and pleading with them for not eating? Also reinforcing the behavior you don’t want.
A Healthy Dog. Lady, you crazy! My dog hasn’t eaten in 3 days! I’m busting out the beef stew! A reasonable response. I’ve had foster dogs and dogs I pet sit (who are very, very good at this game), try to outlast me. I revert to a truth I hold dear: A healthy dog will not starve itself.
Once more for the cheap seats, A healthy dog will not starve itself.
Either we are going to the vet, or the dog is eating what’s in it’s bowl on my schedule. These are the potential outcomes to this scenario. The only potential outcomes. That’s the difference. It’s all about your mindset.
I offer meals of my choosing at times of my choosing. With very little pomp and circumstance (other than the antics of dogs being excited about food). Meal time occurs in designated locations and lasts approximately 10 minutes. Think of it like mess hall.
If after 10 minutes, dog has not eaten, food is removed. Dog will now wait for food until the next designated meal time. There will be no snacks. No cookies. No food stolen from children (if you can at all help it). Or cats. At next feeding, food will look exactly the same as it did the last time. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. With an emphasis on NO FOOD in between.
When the dog is hungry, they will eat. I had one very picky poodle hold on out on me for 2 days. She danced around the food bowl and acted disinterested for a full 48 hours. When nothing changed, she ate. Like a champ.
Starvation. The longer the pattern of getting what they want through avoidance has gone on, the longer you can expect them to hold out. That said, if you are concerned take your dog to the vet. There are serious health reasons which could cause lack of apetite. In fact, had Abbey suddenly not eating was a key sign to diagnosing her Addison’s Disease. Especially if it isn’t typical behavior for your pet, get a clean bill of health first. Then start a new world order of feeding. If you’ve got one of those breed who aren’t big eaters, maybe they will never clean their bowl. That’s ok. Change your expectations, but don’t cater to their behavior. Encourage them to eat when you want them to by holding fast to a schedule, picking up those food bowls in between, and only offering extras for health reasons.
My dogs get a lot of ‘extras’. People have often referred to them as spoiled, especially in regard to their diets. I would beg to differ. My dogs get all that variety because it’s good for them. Because I feel strongly that offering them a diet of real food is important. But, they eat what they’re given when it’s given. End of story.
Got a picky pooch? How do you handle it? Or not? Ever successfully reformed non-eater? What are your tips and tricks?