For most people, their dogs seem like they’re always ready to eat – anything, anytime. If it’s food, the dog wants it.
But for others, they are constantly trying to convince their dog to eat like a parent with a toddler refusing to eat their broccoli.
For some people it has been a constant source of stress from day one with the new puppy. She didn’t eat on day one and the owners got worried and tried to make the food more appealing again and again until the point the dog won’t eat unless she’s in a highchair at the table being hand fed fresh roast chicken and gravy that must be precisely 48 degrees celsius and served on a ceramic plate.
So why are some dogs so fussy? And why should we care?
Why should you care if your dog is fussy?
It’s only natural that some dogs are more food motivated than others, so why should you care if you have a fussy dog? From a behaviour perspective, there’s two main reasons that I wouldn’t want a dog to be overly fussy. These are:
1. As the owner I get to choose what I’m feeding my dog. I will choose the healthiest option I can and then I want the dog to eat it. End of story. I don’t want my job to become a constant challenge of searching for food my dog will eat today.
2. Training with food is useful and I want to be able to use it. For this to work, the dog needs to be motivated for the food ie hungry for it.
Dogs That Are Taught To Be Fussy
(aka dogs that are teaching their owners to feed them tastier food)
Fussy eating is most often a learned behaviour. This is a common problem I see and this is how it usually happens:
The day the owner brings home their new puppy or recently adopted dog, the dog isn’t keen to eat what is presented to them. They turn their nose up at what is offered. The owner leaves the food out for them just in case they get hungry later.
Later, the dog still hasn’t eaten and the owner begins to worry. The dog must eat! Some owners are so concerned that the dog must be sick or that the dog is starving itself. As their concern takes over, they try to offer the dog something more appealing. Wet the food, put gravy on it, try chicken. Each time the dog refuses food, they try something tastier until the dog finally eats!
The dog has just learned a lasting lesson: if you refuse food, better food will come. I’ll hold out until I get something better. The dog has trained the owner!
Why did the puppy or dog not eat the first time then? Usually when a dog is settling into a new home they’ve gone through quite the change, they’re a bit stressed, or just too overwhelmed or distracted to worry about eating so much. Within a few days, they’ll settle into their normal eating patterns.
Are Some Dogs Born With Less Motivation For Food?
Some dogs just aren’t as food driven as other dogs – for example, a sighthound may be less food crazy than a labrador. This doesn’t mean that they need special diets or effort to get them to eat though. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you can’t increase their motivation for food or train them using treats.
While you may never expect your dog to be as food crazy as the neighbour’s Lab, you can improve the food drive of just about any dog if you so desire.
How to Increase A Dog’s Food Drive
When it comes down to it, all animals need to eat.
If you don’t eat, you don’t poop, and if you don’t poop, you die.
Increasing food drive may start with making the dog hungrier, aka feeding them less. The biggest struggle here is people feeling bad or worrying that feeding their dog less is going to instantly starve their dog to death.
I have yet to meet a dog that couldn’t be taught to have a stronger motivation for food if the owner complies. The ONLY time I have not been able to increase a dog’s food drive is when the owner just can’t bring themselves to stop giving the dog free treats and leaving food out for them just in case they get peckish.
But Won’t He Be Hungry??
Yes. That’s the point.
This is how you cure fussiness and stop having to bend over backwards trying to get your dog to eat.
Plus, being able to use food as a reward makes training easier. If all we have to do is make sure the dog isn’t being overfed or spoiled to achieve this, why wouldn’t we?
Most pet dogs are overfed and overweight too. It’s healthier for a dog to be lean and to work for their food. Your dog will actually live longer and be happier if they’re using their brains to work for food through training or enrichment activities.
How It Looks In Reality
If you need to make your dog hungrier (and therefore less fussy), how is that going to look? It depends how much food they’re currently eating, what kind of diet it is and whether your dog also needs to lose weight or not.
For some dogs the only thing that needs to be changed is to stop leaving food down for free feeding and only feed at set times. For other dogs, a reduction in quantity of meals is required, or switching from 2 meals per day to one.
If you’re training with food, you can train with the dog’s morning meal instead of giving it to the dog in a bowl and then give nothing else until the next meal. The quantity may be the same, but is fed through the dog working for it and learning at the same time.
As always, take into account the entire daily intake of food. Many people make the mistake of feeding meals in bowls and then adding in chews, treats and bones and thinking it doesn’t count towards the entire daily intake. Everything your dog ingests counts! This includes dental chews and pigs ears, in fact these common extras like pig ears are usually high in fat content and filling!
What To Do At Feeding Times
If you put down your dog’s meal and they turn their nose up at it or sniff it and walk away, immediately pick the food back up and put it away. Offer it again ten minutes later and do the same thing but this time, it’s put away until the next meal with no extras in between!
I once had someone tell me her dog was extremely fussy and I suggested this strategy. She said she’d tried it for days and it didn’t work, the dog didn’t eat for days! Well it turns out the dog did eat – it was being fed shortbread biscuits by another family member the entire time, but no one really thought that would count. They still got worried that the dog didn’t eat it’s dog food and gave in once again to offering more enticing foods.
As the dog’s owner, you can decide what the dog is fed and how much. If you need to make a switch from your dog being so fussy that you change to a more appealing food, to giving the dog whatever you decide, you need to be more persistent than the dog. You need to be firm with your decision! A dog can go three days without eating and then they will give in if you’re consistent.
If you need reassurance that your dog won’t die, think about this: dogs are descendant from wolves. All dog species can live in the wild and survive by scavenging and hunting (working for their food). They are adapted to only getting a meal here and there – no set times and sometimes days between food. Your dog is still living a lavish life in comparison and no healthy dog will let themselves starve.
Remember, making the change is healthier for your dog in the long run. A few days of being hungrier will be worth it long term and over time, your dog will learn to appreciate their food.
Disclaimer: Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but if your dog suddenly goes off their food and it is unusual, take them to the vet.
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The Importance Of Mental Stimulation For Pets
These days, everyone is busy. This means that many dogs spend a lot of time at home in the house or yard with not a lot to do. Yet at the same time, our dogs have often been bred to work and use their amazing brains to do jobs for us. Like people, exercising the brain can help a dog to feel tired, even more than physical exercise. It’s important to leave your dog with things to do when you’re gone but also very important for a dog’s health and wellbeing to spend time exercising their brain when you’re home. This doesn’t have to take up a great deal of time – in fact dogs learn best with several short training sessions rather than one long one.
Brain Boosting Games For Your Dog
Wouldn’t it be great if your dog could find your keys or your mobile phone? This trick provides great mental stimulation and is useful for you around the house as well. When a dogs search for an item, they use their amazing power of scent. Having a dog use their sense of smell is a great way to exercise their brains and keep them tired and happy.
You don’t need to teach your dog to use their nose, they already know that. You just need to teach them the object you want them to find and show them that it’s worthwhile to find it.
Here are the steps:
▪ Show them the object you want them to find – you might want to give it a unique name for later when you expand to more items. Let’s say you’re teaching your dog to find the keys. Show them the keys and when they look at them, sniff them or touch them, say, “yes,” and give a treat (or any reward that motivates your dog)
▪ Place the keys on the ground and mark with, “yes,” and reward for the dog sniffing them on the floor
▪ Keep moving the keys around different places of the room and continue to reward for your desired outcome – this could be just sniffing them or picking them up. Reward for small steps towards your end goal
▪ At this point, put a command to the task like, “find keys!”
▪ When your dog is consistently giving you the reaction you want, start to hide the keys where they can’t be seen. This will encourage your dog to use it’s nose.
▪ Gradually increase the difficulty of the location as long as your dog is winning. If they are struggling, take a step back to where they were last successful and practice some more
If your dog knows how to fetch, you can start giving each individual object it’s own name. This is an impressive trick when you work your way up to several objects and is a great brain challenging game for your dog. You can combine this game with the Find It game to have your dog fetch different objects by name using their nose. But you should have each one going well separately first before tying it together.
Here’s the steps to name your objects for the dog to fetch:
▪ Choose the first object you want to name. Let’s say it’s a stuffed bear.
▪ Place the bear on the ground and say, “bear,” followed by your dog’s usual fetch command.
▪ Reward your dog for fetching the bear. Practice this several times and then try dropping the fetch command so you are just saying, “bear”
▪ Once your dog is fetching the bear on command, place the bear on the ground again as usual but this time, place a second object on the ground as well. Let’s say it’s a toy sheep.
▪ Test the bear command and only reward your dog if he sticks with the bear. If he gets it wrong, he won’t get his usual reward. If he gets it right, throw a party! Your dog can now fetch the “bear” item by name. Add more items around it to proof the “bear” command.
▪ Repeat this process with the sheep on it’s own and any other objects you want to name.
▪ The real test is when you have trained multiple items and you put them all down together. See if your dog can remember which one is which and only fetch that toy on command.
▪ Remember like all training, if your dog is stuck, take a step back to where he last succeeded.
Hide and Seek
Another task to encourage your dog to use her nose is hide and seek, where your dog has to find you! Make sure you have their favourite reward for them ready for when they do.
This trick uses the dog’s sense of smell, exercises their brain and gives them exercise as well. It can be easier with two people but you can do it alone if your dog can hold a reliable stay.
▪ Have your dog stay or have a friend hold your dog with them in another room
▪ Go and hide. Make the first few easy
▪ If you have a friend helping, they can say, “seek,” and let the dog go.
▪ The first few times, you may need to also call your dog once or twice to show them that they need to find you and give them a bit of help
▪ When they find you, give them a big reward!
▪ Make it slightly harder each time but always keep it fun. Ways to make it harder is to hide inside cupboards, behind doors or go outside and try it in a safe outdoor area.
Tidy Up Your Toys
Wouldn’t it be great if your dog tidied up all their toys when they were done playing? Combine this trick with the object discrimination trick for a super advanced version and blow your friend’s away with how smart your dog is. Your dog needs to know how to fetch for this trick. Be prepared for your dog to be nice and tired after a session of training this helpful trick.
▪ Start with just one of your dog’s toys on the ground and a basket to put the toys in
▪ Stand with the basket in front of you and give your dog the fetch command for that object
▪ Hold your open hand above the basket
▪ As your dog brings the object to your hand or goes to drop the object at your feet, hold a treat above the basket. As your dog goes to take the treat, the toy will fall into the basket. Mark (“yes”) and reward your dog when this happens and give lots of praise.
▪ Repeat multiple times until your dog is reliably dropping the item into the basket
▪ As your dog is successful, stand behind the basket and point to the basket as the dog approaches. Reward after the dog has dropped the toy inside.
▪ Now you can introduce a new cue to this task. To do this, say the new cue right before the old cue and then phase out the old cue. So say, “tidy up, fetch” and then reward as usual. After a few repetitions, try saying, “tidy up,” by itself and see if your dog understands.
▪ Gradually move further away and reward less often by asking for more toys to be tidied up before you give a treat.
Is it important to keep providing mental stimulation for dogs at any age?
It’s absolutely important to provide mental stimulation for a dog of any age, even an older dog. An older dog may tire faster but they will still enjoy it and appreciate you for it.
In fact, mental and environmental enrichment is important for all animals!
Consider: Do you have another pet that may be bored?
Young puppies need mental stimulation too and the younger you start, the faster your dog will learn things you want to teach them later on. Ins saying that, you can definitely teach an old dog new tricks! Like elderly dogs, pups may tire quicker so keep sessions short and fun.
Training these kind of challenging tricks not only helps your dog to get tired and satisfied, it also continues to make them smarter as they develop their skills and learn how to learn. And best of all, giving your dog mental stimulation through training increases the bond between you. So it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Originally posted on VitalAnimal.com
“Hello. We need some puppy training. He is 14 weeks old and almost ready to start – we have just been waiting to take him out until it’s safe after his final vaccination”
My heart sinks.
This is a call I receive all the time and every time, I feel a combination of sadness and frustration at hearing it. I could have helped that puppy so much more had the owners called me earlier. But they have been given misleading information that could affect their dog’s entire life. In fact this scenario is not the minority, but the majority, and it’s one of the main causes for behavioural problems.
When you first get a puppy, you want to make sure you do everything you can to set them up to be a healthy, well mannered and vital dog when they grow up. So of course you listen to the first professionals you have contact with – most often the breeder, the pet stores and the veterinarian.
But worryingly, many breeders, pet professionals and vets aren’t telling you what you really need to know about your pup’s development, or they’re giving you the wrong information, and some are even giving advice that could cause harm to your dog and their future behaviour. Because, wrapped in “puppy training” is something perhaps even more critical: puppy development.
The first thing your vet will recommend is puppy vaccinations but a concerning fact is that many vets are still giving the advice to keep your puppy at home until two weeks after the final puppy vaccination to protect them from disease while the vaccines take effect. Puppy training must wait.
It’s been known for many years that this advice is detrimental to your puppy’s development and while a change IS slowly coming about, the misinformation is still very widespread in the pet industry.
While this advice continues to be spread, puppies are growing into adult dogs with big problems because of a key factor that many vets gloss over or ignore completely.
A Critical Time
All puppies have a limited window of time while they’re young and during this time, learning is permanent. Puppies are soaking up information all around them like a sponge and deciding what’s good and fun in the world, and what is scary and to be avoided. This is a built in survival trait so that puppies can quickly learn what they need to avoid to stay safe when they venture away from the litter and out into the world on their own.
So if they have a scary experience during this time, it’s going to stick with them for life.
This limited window of time lasts from 3 weeks to roughly 12-14 weeks of age and can vary slightly from dog to dog and breed to breed. It’s referred to as the critical period of development and it’s called that because it really IS critical.
There’s actually a few stages within the critical period where a puppy is learning more about certain things than others. Studies have discovered amazing differences in the way puppies learn at very specific times which is beyond the scope of this article but the most important for you to know are:
3 – 5 weeks – Primary Socialisation – At around 3 weeks of age the eyes and ears open and so puppies become more aware of their surrounds. This is the critical time for puppies to interact with litter-mates and learn social skills from each other such as bite inhibition and appropriate play and interactions
6 – 12 weeks – Secondary Socialisation – this time has been found to be the most effective time for social learning around humans and the human world that the pup needs to live in.
Interestingly, around 7-8 weeks of age is when the mother of the pups becomes less tolerant of her puppies and her corrections for annoying pup behaviour increase. I’m sure this is partly because the pup’s teeth are now very sharp! It fits in well with the socialisation periods that puppies are removed from their litter and go to new homes at 8 weeks of age. Waiting too long past this age OR too early before this age can also cause issues later in life.
When should you start your puppy training? Straight away. A puppy’s learning capacity from 8-16 weeks of age is in its prime and a puppy that learns how to learn during this stage will make for a smarter and more trainable adult dog.
What Does Your Puppy Really Need During The Critical Period?
You’ve probably heard about the need for puppy socialisation and that’s exactly what is needed during your pup’s critical period.
A lack of socialisation can actually threaten your dog’s life. I can tell you it’s incredibly sad to see a 12 month old dog put to sleep because it cannot cope with the outside world, due to being kept at home for the first few months of its life on the vet’s or breeder’s advice.
If puppies aren’t exposed to a variety of environments and social situations during the critical period, their development can be compromised and the pup is unlikely to reach its full potential as an adult, even developing serious behaviour problems as a result such as separation anxiety, fears, dog aggression and human aggression.
In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour acknowledges this in their position statement on puppy socialisation:
Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”
So you see, socialisation IS the most important “immunization” of all – an immunization against behaviour problems.
But What Exactly Does Socialisation Mean And How Should It Be Carried Out?
When most people hear the words, “puppy socialisation,” they often think immediately of puppies playing with other puppies and meeting other dogs. But did you know that this is only a tiny part of what makes up correct socialisation?
Socialisation is all about teaching your dog the correct social skills and how to be confident in the human world. So your puppy needs to have exposure to lots of different environments, sounds, people, animals, traffic and objects that they will need to be able to cope with as an adult dog. While socialising during the critical period is the most crucial time, socialisation never really ends and you should continue to socialise your dog throughout their life to maintain a balanced dog. Puppy training segues into adult training in this sense. The socialization side of puppy training continues to your dog’s great advantage as an adult.
So how does socialisation work? Let’s use other dogs as an example. Take note of how the outcome could go several ways depending on how socialisation is carried out:
- Your puppy has a really fun and rewarding experience with other dogs. They play furiously and the excitement levels are through the roof. This results in a dog that can’t contain their excitement whenever they see another dog, to the point that they bark and lunge towards any other dog they see, making walks unpleasant for you.
- Your puppy has a scary interaction with another dog – the other dog just wants to play but is too rough. Your pup is likely to learn that other dogs are a threat and should be avoided. This could result in fear aggression.
- Your puppy never meets another dog. They are therefore more likely to be scared of other dogs later because they haven’t had any exposure at all.
- Your dog meets other dogs that are friendly and calm and has short play sessions but when he returns to you, you provide him with play and a lot more fun.
- Your puppy will learn that other dogs are ok – but the owner is better and worth listening to! This is the option I prefer that will result in the most balanced dog later on.
You can replace the words, “other dog,” in the above examples with anything that your puppy needs to be exposed to:
- lawn mowers
- new environments
- livestock, etc.
You should aim that your puppy has either neutral or positive calm experiences but you should always be the most rewarding and fun thing in your puppy’s life. This will set you and your puppy up for easier training later because your pup will be learning the value of focusing on you no matter what else is going on in the environment. Another benefit of early socialisation and puppy training is that it develops the bond between you and your pup.
Your puppy should also learn to accept physical handling such as checking paw pads, trimming nails, checking ears, eyes, teeth and holding still for examinations. This will make trips to the vets and groomers a lot easier later and those professionals will thank you for it. It’s also a great idea to do fun trips to these places where only pleasant experiences happen. This will help you avoid fear and anxiety over going to the vet/groomer later on.
Still worried about disease? Simply don’t put your puppy on the ground in areas that are highly trafficked by unknown dogs. Remember, meeting other dogs is not the only part of socialisation anyway. Your puppy can even benefit by taking in the world from your lap or the car window.
You can also do a lot around the home by using sound recordings. I recommend the “Sound Proof Puppy Training App” for this.
The Genetic Factor
How your dog turns out is a combination of their environment AND their genetics. And the genetic influence is massive.
Fear and timidity can be passed on through genes so you may have a puppy that is genetically timid of new things.
You may also get a pup that doesn’t seem to be phased by anything in life, which is ideal.
When socialising, we need to work with what we’ve got. A stronger pup genetically may get away with less socialisation than a timid pup.
In the case of timid puppies, take it slow and make social experiences very rewarding. Your pup may never be a confidence superstar but doing your best with good socialisation now will make a significant difference.
No matter what your puppy is like, never force them to do something they are afraid of.
Should You Take Your Puppy To Puppy School?
One thing a lot of vets tell owners is that it’s not safe to go out before the end of vaccinations, but that you can bring your puppy to the vet-run puppy training school. I do find this ironic because if you’re going to be exposing your puppy to diseases anywhere, a vet clinic is where they’ll be. For this reason, carry your puppy inside when you visit the vet and don’t let them on the ground in the carpark and gardens outside of the building. The inside is usually safely sterilised.
Puppy school can be a fantastic idea but not all puppy school instructors are using the right approach, and some can actually do more harm than good.
As mentioned earlier, your puppy could learn that other dogs are a scary threat, nothing to worry about, or that they are more valuable to pay attention to than you are. The result will depend on how the school is conducted and it is worrying just how many behaviour issues I see that have resulted from poorly run puppy schools.
You’ll want to find a puppy school run by a reputable dog trainer, not a vet nurse or anyone else that talks about all the health products you need (that they sell) while the puppies have a free-for-all in the middle of the room.
A good trainer will know how to match up the right puppies to meet each other and won’t force a fearful puppy to have another puppy overwhelm them with play. They will know techniques to bring out confidence in the shy pups and prevent inappropriate play in the more exuberant pups. Plus they will know the value of teaching you how to make YOU the most important thing in your pup’s world, NOT other dogs. And of course, they’ll teach you how to correctly socialise your pup with more than just other dogs.
If you don’t have access to such a well run puppy training school, you’re likely better off doing the socialisation yourself or hiring a private trainer to help you.
Putting All The Pieces Together
There are many factors that influence how your puppy will turn out behaviour-wise. There’s genetics, socialisation, diet, medications, and the way you train them. All these pieces work together to determine whether you’ll end up with a truly vital dog in both body and mind.
A well socialised puppy can still have behavioural issues later if the genetics are poor, if they are allowed to run havoc in your household with no rules, if they are not adequately exercised and stimulated, or if there’s toxic chemicals and fillers in their diet.
Other than your pup’s genetics, you can see that all of these aspects are up to you and the choices you make for your puppy in the early days.
Correct Socialisation Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult
I’ve created a Puppy Socialisation Checklist that you can download when you become a free member of My Dog Matters.
The checklist covers a variety of experiences to go through with your pup. You don’t have to tick off every single one, but if you do a few from each category you’ll be creating a truly vital dog.
Puppy-hood shouldn’t be overwhelming for your puppy OR for you. Just go out and have fun together!
That puppy breath stage isn’t going to last forever so embrace your puppy’s antics and enjoy it while it lasts.
Originally posted on VitalAnimal.com
This is Ned. If you saw this without knowing anything about him, you might assume that he has been abused and is traumatised. But you’d be wrong. Ned and his sister Kelly have been in the same loving home since they were bought together as puppies and are now five months of age.
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There are a couple of reasons that Ned is so fearful (Kelly lacks confidence too but it isn’t as severe).
– There could be a genetic factor contributing to the timidity and making it worse. But we can’t know this one for sure.
– The dogs, and especially Ned, have not been socialised early in life (I have spoken about this in other posts and you can read more detail about it on the blog). More so with Ned as the owners could not get the lead on him to take him anywhere – When Ned gets his collar touched for a leash to go on he actually yelps. Not knowing how to solve this, Ned could not be taken anywhere. There was a great deal of difficulty and many attempts to just get him to the vet for his vaccinations.
– The owners bought the litter mates together – a major factor working against them
– The pups were adopted at 6 weeks which is a bit too early and could compound these issues.
Buying litter mates together is something that people often do with the best intentions. It seems like a win-win as the dogs can grow up together and keep each other company when you’re away. But it can cause a lot of issues too.
Litter mate syndrome comes about because the two siblings are so emotionally dependant on each other that their learning is inhibited. Signs include phobias of people and other dogs, fears of anything novel, intense anxiety when separated, difficulty learning even basic training skills and can lead to the two dogs fighting when they hit adolescence.
Litter mate syndrome makes it more difficult to bond with and train the dogs and actually hinders their learning severely. You will likely never see the true potential of each dog as an individual but will have two difficult to manage anxious dogs that are not mentally developed.
This can also occur with two pups raised together from different litters or different breeds.
For the most success, each dog should be raised and trained completely separate from the other, except for brief interactions, until they are over a year old. This is a difficult task and so it’s often best to rehome one of the dogs so that both can develop into confident individuals. While a difficult decision, this is likely the best outcome for both dogs involved.
Many people are not aware of the pitfalls of raising litter mates together so the owners kindly agreed to me writing this with Ned and Kelly as an example to raise awareness so please share and tag anyone who is considering getting two puppies at once.
In this simple whiteboard explainer video, I discuss what puppy socialisation is and why it is so important as well as HOW to do it correctly.
Socialising a puppy must be done in a safe, social and positive environment such as that generally provided at a puppy school.
I also did a Facebook Live video on puppy socialisation. Also, how do are you meant to socialise your pup when the vet says not to take them out before two weeks after their final vaccination? All this and more is covered in the live video below.
In the video I also mentioned a free checklist you can use for socialisation ideas. You can download it by entering your email below the videos:
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