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.