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On at least a weekly basis I meet dog owners who claim they have a very picky eater or a dog who just isn’t food motivated at meal times or during training.

I want to clarify up front that I don’t believe this to be a natural occurrence.

“Finicky” isn’t who your dog is. Your pet learned that.

As to how it happened is up for discussion and we should look back at our pets eating history to find out where things went south so we can take step to get them eating regularly again.

I know many of you may not think there is a problem with having a picky eater for a pet but I assure you a dog who finishes his meals regularly or takes treats as a reward when offered is generally a healthier, happier and easier dog to manage and train.

Let’s consider how this started.

1 – You leave food down all day. (free loading)

In almost all households where I find a picky eater I find free, devalued dog food still sitting in a dish hours after mealtime.

Leaving food down all day reduced the desire to eat when offered ruining your feeding relationship. Your presence is no longer tied to the delivery of the food since you have removed yourself as the consequence for not finishing. This in essence may devalue you as a resource or reinforcer since you are no longer tied to the enjoyment of mealtime.

As a rule, all organisms (dogs included) only behave order to produce consequences.

When there is no consequence for not eating when offered, desire to eat diminishes.

  • A dog without a natural pattern of eating is also more difficult to assess for illness. Discovering a health problem is much faster with dogs who eat on a schedule as lack of appetite is usually one of the first symptoms of a health concern. You may not notice an eating change for weeks with free fed dogs.

2 – Your dog is overweight.

Yes, even a dog who is 5-10% overweight may be less hungry or inclined to finish meals.

This is obviously not the case for all dogs but carrying extra pounds often undermine appetite and motivation. Often your vet won’t mention their concern regarding your pets’ weight for fear of losing you as a customer. This really happens. The next time you visit ask your vet for their honest opinion if you’re unsure.

3 – You keep upgrading your dogs’ food after refusal(very common)

One day you put your dogs’ food down and for whatever reason they didn’t want it.

Being the loving pet parent you are, your first instinct was to add something more appetizing to the meal. Maybe they ate and maybe you kept adding that cheese or cooked egg to the kibble. We likely haven’t addressed the real reason they didn’t want to eat but we have just said to them the next time you balk or say no to food I will give you a treat. You conditioned them to say no to food and the battle goes on and on until you’re out of ideas of what to top off the food with next.

I suggest being indifferent to your dogs’ refusal of a meal. That is their choice. Give them that option and address the issue the next meal time. If you want to upgrade the food then it won’t teach them that refusal gets rewarded.

4 – The food is poisoned. (not really)

If you have ever used food or treat bribes to get your dogs to go somewhere scary or do something they dislike you may have accidentally conditioned food treats to the scary event. This essentially poisons the idea of food reinforcers in the future.

  • Avoid bribing your pets with food before getting groomed or bathed, getting in the car, going to the vet, or anything your dog perceives as a trigger.
  • If your dog is nervous around stranger and you allow stranger to give a snack first, followed by unwanted interaction, you may be poisoning food.
  • Trainers who use punishment and food rewards together will often make food seem (poisoned) if they inadvertently pair punishment with food.
  • I suggest not using a lure but to use a food reward after facing something scary.

Have your veterinarian give treats after inspecting your dog, not before. Likewise, deliver treats after the nail trim versus before.

There are many adjustments you may consider when attempting to change the feeding dynamic in your household.

The first is to consider is your pet is afraid. If they eat worrying about the presence of competition from other family dogs that can be enough for some dogs to change their eating habits. Consider giving your pet more space in this case.

“Use feeding time to train. Ask for simple sits, downs, hand touches, or shakes to reward them for. Likewise, you may want to invest in a few interactive feeding toys.

Animals given a choice to use their behavior to get food or receive free food will often choose their behavior.“(Kathy Sdao, Applied animal behaviorist)

I once worked with a labrador puppy who one day refused to eat his food for no apparent reason. We started giving him kibble for tricks and he gobbled the whole bowl. The problem wasn’t the food. He wanted to work.

If you or any friends or family have a picky eater please share this info with them.

Thank you for reading,

Be well and wag tail!

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