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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.

Jaime is as close as we get to a finicky eater in this house. He’s not a fan of rabbit or certain vegetables.
You’d never know it.

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?

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laura h

Well said. :-)


This does work with children as well. You don’t eat your eggs at breakfast they will be in fridge and you can have them for lunch.
So far my dogs have adhered to the schedule but I am just stubborn enough that if they didn’t I could hold out.
My Chihuahua will pick all the spinach out of her bowl but no worries because the Shih Tzu will take care of it for her.
We do give cookies but it has never stopped them from eating dinner.
By the way do you feed twice a day? Or is that another post.


Twice a day. Probably not another post… or maybe it is. Competition amongst dogs definitely helps too. Dogs get a lot of cookies and treats around here. Never diminishes the enthusiasm over dinner time.

Karawynn @ Pocketmint

Haha, Tracy beat me to it: I was going to say, sounds like a good rule for children to me. Or cats, or whatever.

When my younger stepdaughter was in preschool, she learned a useful (from the parents’ perspective) rhyme: You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.


oh my I used to tell my Girl Scout troop that all the time!!


Throw a fit or get upset, either way a tidbit of childhood wisdom very appropriate to dog management.


I’ve heard that rhyme as: you get what you get and you don’t get upset.


Yep, the same goes for cats and children. I have never seen a healthy dog, cat, or child starve themselves when there was food (any food!) available. In fact, I wish my dog was maybe a tad more discerning. Ten minutes to clear a food bowl? Haha, try 30 seconds flat. It’s definitely harder to let a child go without, but mine eats what I make. He always eats throughout the day, so I know he won’t starve if he skips dinner. And eventually, he’ll try it! We’ve been putting broccoli in front of our son for as long as he could eat solid food, and just last week he finally tried it and then ate it all! It is always amazing to me just how similar dogs and toddlers are…


Cats are a different story as I understand it. Bad internal organ juju can happen as a result of multiple day hunger fasts. I’m not as willing to go toe to toe with pinicky cat.

Yes, 10 minutes is a gross exaggeration for dogs just getting used to the schedule. 30 seconds is a lot more realistic.

BTW – Hooray for kids who like broccoli!


That may be true for cats; I’ve never had a cat hold out more than an hour or two; I must be lucky!


That’s right, cats can develop a disease called Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) if they don’t eat – I had one cat develop this when I moved and she got out, and it took me 4 days to find her. Apparently she hadn’t eaten at all for those 4 days, and she quickly got very sick. The vet had to put in a stomach tube (through her side) for me to feed her. This worked fabulously well, BTW – it sure beats trying to force feed a cat!!! She did recover but it can be a really serious disease.

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