We’ve all been there. The dog is refusing to eat the nutritious but decidedly boring-looking food you’ve left out for it, so you go with the most obvious solution and offer it something tastier. Whether that something is a new dry diet, a table scrap or a mouth-watering treat, it’s surely better than seeing your dog go hungry?
In fact, letting your dog go without (assuming its reluctance to eat isn’t accompanied by signs of illness, which would need looking at by your vet) is an effective way of training it out of its fussiness.
Unlike cats, dogs don’t necessarily need to be fed every day, especially if they are getting the odd treat here and there. Having evolved from wolves – the original feast and famine eaters – dogs will cope well if made to go a day without food. That is not to say you should adopt the skipping meals approach, only that you shouldn't panic if your dog isn't always hungry enough to finish its meal.
So, who is to blame for my dog’s fussiness?
It’s one thing rewarding obedience or good behaviour with tastier foods and treats and another indulging your dog just for looking cute. While the former approach will positively reinforce training, the latter will promote fussiness and poor appetite.
Dogs are never born fussy; rather, they become this way as a product of their feeders. ‘Free feeding’ – that is, leaving food out all day for dogs to pick at as they choose, is a sure-fire way of developing your dog into a fussy eater. Dogs with ample time to finish a bowl of food will have time enough to decide they don’t like it. When there is no urgency or sense of taking an opportunity to eat, dogs will quickly learn to pick at their offerings.
Those that are fed at regular intervals are less likely to have this problem and will eat what they are given at their allotted time. If they don’t eat it, they know their food will be taken away and they will have to go without. Leaving the bowl down for a set time before taking it away will also give you chance to see how much your dog has eaten and, if less than normal, you can assume you might be over-feeding.
People tend to presume that if their dog doesn’t finish its meal, it doesn’t find it tasty enough. In actual fact, taste has very little to do with it as dogs have only 10% of our taste capacity (not forgetting they are more than happy to eat their own faeces!).
When owners see their dogs eating less, they are often tempted to change them onto something they believe to be more palatable or appetising. Again, they leave this out all day and when eventually the dog gets bored of it, they introduce a new food, exacerbating the cycle of fussiness and poor appetite even more.
If your dog is not eating all of its food and doesn’t show signs of illness, you are probably feeding it too much or your dog just isn’t hungry. Take the food away if your dog isn't eating it and put the exact same meal down later on. Once he realises there is no alternative, your dog will soon polish off what's on offer. Don't be tempted to coax your dog to eat with something new or tastier as this will only reinforce a negative behaviour of expectation.
Avoid feeding your dog from your plate or over-doing the treats as this will give him something to compare his regular food to. A dog won't want the plain but nutritious dry food you've left out when it knows there are tasty liver treats to be had. To encourage eating, try feeding smaller meals more often and stay on hand to reassure your dog during feeding.
Placing the bowl in a 'happy place' will also promote positive eating behaviours and exercising your dog before a meal will help stimulate a hearty appetite. Avoid exercising at all after feeding as this can lead to potentially fatal bloat and gastric torsion.
If you have any tips on feeding a fussy eater, please share them with our other readers! Feel free to contact me directly with any further questions and/or suggestions for future blog posts: firstname.lastname@example.org.