Eating was never a problem for our Newf Baywolf and Aussie Davie, or for any of our foster dogs. Many dogs like food; not just treats, but their daily dinners and gobble up eagerly what is served. Furthermore, many dogs - once again reflecting our society - overeat on empty carbs and are pudgy, of course not by choice. Dogs can’t research ingredients or read food labels, shop or prepare their own dinners. They depend on their people to do that, and because we did it conscientiously, our pooches were enthusiastic eaters, but never overweight.
Not all dogs, though, scoff their meals up with gusto. During our 15 years preparing dog food commercially, one recurring reason why owners approached us was because their pooch lacked appetite, and ironically our feral born and imprinted on garage dump waste Will is our own dainty diner. Then again, she does everything other than “educating dogs” delicately, so it is no surprise that she is her typical self when it comes to food. And it is not that she isn’t eating. She does: regularly twice a day plus snacks, provided we give her what she likes. If not, she walks away, or spits the veggies she objects to blatantly on the floor.
Will’s prissiness amuses us, but being fussy can reach a problematic level when a dog refuses food to a point that it affects her weight. Such was the case with my friends’ one year-old hound. Already a sleek breed to begin with, and although lively and healthy, she was eating so little during her developmental stages that my friends were a bit concerned, and asked for my input. Dog pros themselves, they had already addressed the issue from all possible angles, and so there wasn’t much I was able to contribute, but it reminded me of all the reasons I came across over the years that can cause food refusal; reasons often overlooked by laypeople.
An obvious one is that the dog doesn’t like it. Regarding some kibble, no surprise. Seriously, would you? I mean, kibble have come a long way and there are some very good ones on the market, but also some that stink going in and coming out. You might think that an animal that finds crap appetizing shouldn’t turn the nose up at cheap kibble, but fact is that many dogs do, despite the added-on fat as flavor enhancers.
Aside from smell and taste, kibble consisting of fillers and processed, unfit-for-consumption, junk can make a dog feel unwell after consumption. We know how unpleasant we feel after we wolfed down something that didn’t agree with us. Is it so far fetched to believe it could be the same with dogs? We can reject that food-thing in the future, although foolishly we don’t always do that and rather pop an anti-bloat, anti-cramp or heartburn pill that instantly takes the pain away. Allergies are easily detectable – scratching and biting paws are common indicators, but the signs of general malaise after a meal are not so clear, and dogs can neither voice their discomfort, nor open the medicine cabinet.
My advice always is to purchase the best dog food one can afford, while keeping in mind that just because it is expensive doesn’t automatically mean it is the right one for your pooch. Diet really is an individual thing – for people and dogs, and finding the perfect chow can take some investigating and experimenting.
Food refusal is not always physical in nature, but can have emotional causes. Competition, for example, can express itself in resource guarding, resource hoarding, or an unwillingness to eat when the dog is very nervous of another in the household. In our home, I make sure that dogs can eat feeling safe. I never take their grub away, but ensure that each one minds her own bowl until the others are done and leave. I don’t tolerate any type of bullying, but especially not around food, an existential need. Not even a wanting, dirty look in the direction of somebody else’s meal is allowed.
If a dog is really timid and scared, feeding her at a separate place can help. Another option is serving dinner in the each dog’s respective crate; a solution many of my multi-dog-owning trainer friends choose.
Some people, including breeders, make food accessible at all times. Free feeding is controversial; some arguing that dogs become fat and bratty, others that it prevents resource guarding. I am generally in favor, but concede that it is not suitable for every dog. My main pro argument is that, indeed, unlimited food availability creates resource security, which counters resource guarding. I met a good number of rescued dogs that came with food aggression issues and mellowed out when they experienced abundance. Things that aren’t a big deal typically aren’t defended – it can be that simple.
The practice of free feeding can cause a problem when the dog is switched to scheduled meals, for example when she moves from breeder or foster home into her forever one. Eating in a set amount of time is simply not in the dog’s behavior repertoire, and it can take awhile before she understands that the bowl disappears after 15 or 20 minutes.
Although I am a big fan of life in paradise, in the case of the finicky Fido small amounts at a time can be perceived as a limited resource, which might entice her to eat up when it is available. One way to accelerate a successful switch is putting a small amount of food in the dish, and adding more as soon as the last piece entered the gob. Incrementally, increase the portions until the dog devours the full ration in one setting.
You can also put part of the daily ration in interactive toys. I recommend that anyway for dogs that are easily bored or home alone a lot, but working for food can also hit the target with the delicate nibbler.
Eating out of a bowl not being part of the behavior repertoire was also my guess with a case I had recently. The dog, plucked off the streets, was eating anything, including stuff he found outside, but the food given to him twice a day in a dish. In addition, he had stinky farts, so the kind of food was likely not working for him either. Like our Will, who was born on a reserve outside of Calgary, in his mind being served was not the normal way of consuming food. For dogs who have a strong seeking desire because it is habitual, hiding food around the house and yard, and interactive food toys can satisfy that need.
And don’t forget that stray and feral dogs forage on human waste, not kibble. The humane society I volunteered for once trapped a dog who was very emaciated even though piles of donated kibble was left around the garbage dump site once a week. When these dogs are homed, some accept new foods readily, others don’t.
We always cooked for our dogs, using human grade, often organic, ingredients. It is probably the reason why we never had an eating problem. Except for Will who, in June, began to refuse her breakfast. We took care of a friend’s German shepherd during that time who is on top quality kibble, and free fed by the way. Will wanted what he had. In fact, she insisted to get what he had, and so for the first time I thoroughly investigated brands to find one our 10-year-old Will likes and I can agree with. I decided on Fromm, which has become Will’s breakfast, while her dinners are still home-cooked. She eats eagerly without being ravenous, her eyes are bright, her coat looks great and the poop does too, she has no body odor and is energetic, keen on joining me wherever I go. Those are all signs that the combination works. If food is a problem in your home, don’t be afraid to explore and make changes, even if your dog is older.