Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Questions: The Picky Eater

Here's another question for Ask The Dog Trainer:

My dog has not been eating.  He doesn't seem sick, and his energy levels are fine, but he will often skip his meals or just have a nibble or two before abandoning it.  My vet says to just leave food down for 20 minutes and then dump it if he has not eaten, but that seems like such a waste.  I've tried warming his food, but that doesn't seem to help either.  What should I do?

This one is actually pretty simple.  Assuming there's nothing physically or psychologically wrong with your dog (and sense you've asked your vet about this, I'm going to assume there's not), your dog is simply not hungry.

Here's the thing, while some dogs may eat every meal like they're starving and this bit of mushed, compressed chicken is the best thing they've ever seen, many dogs are much more discerning.  Plenty of dogs self regulate how much they eat, and if they're not hungry, they will simply ignore their food.  So, how do we handle this?

Well, I hate to tell you this, but your vet was right.  By leaving food down for him for as long as it takes him to eat it, you are, in fact, encouraging him to take his time with his meal.  You're also allowing him to self reward whenever he feels like it, and that can cause some other behavioral issues.  Look at it this way, most people tend to follow a general schedule when we eat.  We have a certain amount of time for breakfast in the morning, we have a lunch break in the afternoon, and, while dinner can sometimes drag on for a while, there's normally a pretty set beginning and end.  The same should hold true for your dog.

To encourage your dog to eat on your schedule, try the following:
- Feed at regular times in the morning and in the evening (younger dogs may also need a midday meal).
- Feed smaller meals.  If your dog is still full from breakfast, he won't want dinner.
- Limit the amount of time your dog has to eat.  Of course, if he's continuously eating, but is just a VERY slow chewer, don't steal his food.  Just pick it up if he's abandoned it.

Over time, your dog may or may not learn to eat his food right when you set it down.  If he does, great!  If he doesn't, don't stress.  He's not going to starve, and as long as he's physically healthy, missing a meal won't hurt him.

Oh, and if you're concerned about the waste of tossing uneaten food, try switching to dry food.  That will last a little longer than canned or wet food.

Good luck!

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