Have you ever been running late, fed your dog as you headed out the door, only to come home that evening to find his bowl untouched? Have you traveled for a few days and your pup’s caretaker reports he did not eat while you were gone? While these scenarios can be stressful and worrisome, they are normal. Your pup is not on a food strike, he just prefers to eat with you. Your return will likely bring on the return of his appetite as well and the issue is resolved. If he does not return to his normal diet, then consult your veterinarian so that you can eliminate any medical sources of decreased appetite.
The Root of the Behavior
As pack animals, dogs are most at ease when working in a group and surrounded by the members of their pack. There is structure, order, and reliability that put him at ease. In your home, there is a pack order, ideally with you as the alpha, and each member of your family has a place. The pack leader does everything first, from walking ahead to entering and leaving a room, and eating. Many trainers, training books, and websites stress the need to establish yourself as the alpha in order to properly train your furry friend and to maintain control over his behavior. With that in mind, it is highly stressed that you are to always eat prior to your dog to establish and hold your place as the alpha. Allowing your dog to eat before you suggests to him that he is ahead of you in the pecking order and that this could derail your status as the big dog in charge. If you have followed this advice, and your dog has completely bought into your being alpha, he will not be able to eat before you do. If he has not seen you eat then he is stuck, as he does not want to break the chain of command. You have essentially trained him so that he will not eat before you.
Dogs are very social animals and eating is a very social event. Social facilitation, a phenomenon where the behaviors of others influence your dog’s behavior, can also affect when he eats. He may simply need to see you eating to prompt his own desire to eat. On the same vein, if he is used to your being near him or standing over him while he eats, he may not feel prompted to eat without your presence. Anxiety can also keep your dog from eating before you or without you. Some theorists believe that a dog that struggles with separation anxiety may be too stressed to do anything other than pine for his owner, let alone eat. Dogs that are prone to guarding their homes a bit excessively may be too busy barking at each possible threat to eat their food. When you come home they can feel more secure and eat again.
Encouraging the Behavior
While no one doubts that wolves run in a pack and an alpha is essential to establishing order, there are many trainers that do not feel you need to run your home in the same manner to keep your dog’s behavior in check. If your dog is more of a beta personality, to begin with, you may not need to hold him to the same standards as you would a more alpha prone or stubborn breed. Occasionally feeding your dog before yourself may work just fine in your home, and could alleviate the problem of his not eating when you are not around to eat first. The same holds true while training your pup in that you may want to leave the area while he eats so he grows accustomed to eating whether or not he is alone or in a social setting. If your dog is too anxious to eat while you are gone, look for ways to make him more settled during your absence.
First and foremost, a well-exercised dog is a happy dog. Spending time with you on walks, playing catch, or even training can go a long way in easing his separation anxiety. While home with him, remain calm at all times whenever you hear a noise outside in the hopes that he too will grow to ignore every bump and beep. When you are away, trainers recommend leaving on some sort of soothing background noise such as classical music or children’s television programs. Closing the blinds can help as well.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Separation anxiety can become a very difficult problem to live with and the behaviors that ensue are also hard to break. If your dog is not eating while you are not home and you think it is due to separation anxiety, it is important to address this head on. Typically, you will see other behaviors occurring as well, including but not limited to howling for a prolonged period of time, biting, defecating in the home, and breaking or tearing up objects or items in the home. You can record your dog when you are not at home to see if his not eating is not the only symptom. If his behaviors are erratic, it is strongly recommend you hire a licensed behavioral professional and trainer to fully evaluate what is going on and treat your pup before the behaviors get worse.
Dogs do not necessarily have manners, but they may have been trained to wait for you to eat either out of respect or learned behaviors from you. Dogs are social animals so they may just not have any interest in eating while alone and will eat when you come back. Some dogs are too anxious, either from separation anxiety or because they are more focused on protecting their territory to really sit and eat a meal. If they eat when you return and do not exhibit any other problems, you need not be too concerned. If they are exhibiting other negative behaviors, it is best to consult with a trainer to rule out any deeper psychological problems.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 03/15/2018, edited: 01/30/2020