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Is your dog a fussy eater?
It is hugely frustrating, not to mention concerning, if as an owner you put down a bowl of food and the dog turns up their nose. You worry they will be hungry or that they're ill, and so rummage in the back of the cupboard for something that's a little more tasty. Bingo! You put down that tuna and the dog wolfs it down. This makes you feel so much better... until their next mealtime. This time, same again. Dog chow goes down and your best buddy turns up his nose.
The tuna is all gone so your raid the fridge to find some chicken breasts. You pop those down, and hey presto, it disappears in a flash.
Can you spot what's going on here?
The dog has learned that if they don't eat their boring old dog food then something much tastier will appear. In fact, you've trained the dog NOT to eat dog food. How so? By rewarding their lack of eating with a tasty snack. This is reward-based training at its most basic (and manipulative... from the dog's point of view.)
So, avoid this pitfall by following the advice below.
Training a puppy to eat dog food may sound rather a non-event, but if you have a dog that's a fussy eater or only eats human food, then you'll appreciate it's not always as easy as it sounds. Indeed, it's all too easy, with the best of intentions, to accidentally make the dog expect table scraps or become a fussy eater.
Teaching your pup to eat at the right time and the right food should start as soon as the puppy comes home from the breeder. Think about the basics of what you want to achieve, such as eating from their bowl (rather than the table), eating at meal times, and eating their chosen dog food. When following the advice below, be sure to be consistent and that way the puppy will learn quickly what happens at mealtimes and the consequences of not eating is a rumbly tummy.
Be aware that most puppies will come to no harm if they don't eat for a meal or two. Just be mindful of extremely small puppies such as teacup or toy breeds. There is a slight risk of them developing low blood sugar if food is withheld. The way around it with these little guys is to stick with the rules, but offer several small meals over the day so it's never too long until their next mealtime.
When you bring home a healthy puppy, it's best to start as you mean to go on. That said, allow the pup to settle in for two or three days and find their paws before you get too strict. That newbie pup should be offered the food they ate with the breeder and at the time the breeder fed them... too much change when the pup is already stressed by leaving their mother can cause tummy upsets.
Once you begin in earnest you will need:
- A dog bowl that belongs to the pup and that pup only
- A quiet spot without distractions to feed the dog
- A separate room for you to go while the pup is eating
- Your chosen dog food
- A watch or phone on which to time 10 minutes
- A garbage bin
- A determination not to let the puppy melt your heart and give in to those imploring eyes
The Mealtime Routine Method
Understand the importance of predictability
A strict routine around mealtimes helps the pup understand the consequences of not eating. By sticking to these suggestions the dog will learn that food is available for a short time only, and if they doesn't eat then they go hungry until the next meal. This sharpens up their decision making about whether to eat or go hungry.
Decide on the rules
The rules are the dog eats at meal times and if they don't eat, the food goes in the bin, with nothing offered until the next meal is due. Decide on the times you want to feed the pup and stick with these times. Make sure all members of the family understand and stick to the rules. If one person 'cheats' and feels sorry for the pup, offering them something tasty in between, then all your good work is undone.
Meal time routine
Call the puppy over for their meal and have him sit before you put the food down (he must work to get the food, which helps focus his mind.) Put the bowl down and sound excited that he has such lovely food. Leave the room.
Stay away for 10 minutes
Stay out of the room for ten minutes. Then return, ignore the puppy, and pick up the bowl and any uneaten food. Throw the food into the garbage and wash up the bowl. Then turn you attention to the puppy and take him out for a toilet break.
Repeat at the next mealtime
Follow exactly the same pattern at the next mealtime, and the next. Hence you prevent the puppy from using attention-seeking strategies (such as not eating) which can lead to bad habits. It becomes crystal clear to the pup that mealtimes is their big chance to fill an empty tummy and their pet parent isn't to be manipulated into giving something different.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Don't: Watch the puppy eat
When you anxiously watch over the puppy to see if they eat, you put power into the puppy's paws. He'll read your body language and quickly learn that whether or not they eat matters to you. You may well be tempted to coax and encourage the pup to eat, which they will enjoy and start to refuse to eat unless you encourage them... See where this one is heading? It ends with hand feeding and a fussy eater, so leave the room at mealtimes.
Don't: Offer alternatives
If the puppy doesn't eat, throw the food away and wait until the next meal. Don't delve into the cupboard to find something else to tempt him with.
Don't: Tempt the puppy
If he doesn't eat, dont coo and fuss and tempt him to eat. Down this path lies a dependence on the puppy getting attention in order to eat. It can also set a precedent for the pup not eating unless they are hand fed.
It is unlikely your pup will come to harm through skipping a few meals, they are more resilient than you think! The exception is the teacup breeds, because they are prone to low blood sugar. However, it's more important than ever for a tiny breed to teach them to eat properly so that you don't have to fuss over every single mealtime. If you are worried about low blood sugar and your dog then speak to your vet for advice before starting a new regime.
Do: Make things easy for yourself
If you can't resist those puppy dog eyes when eating your food and would be tempted to feed the puppy scraps, then put the puppy in a separate room or their crate. Begging from the table is the first step of choosing to only eat human food, so nip the whole thing in the bud by keeping the pup in a different room at human mealtimes.
The Prevent Begging Method
Recognize a vicious circle developing
Your pup isn't a great eater. They beg at the dinner table. Because you're concerned at the dog's lack of appetite, you drop him a tasty morsel from your plate. The pup gobbles it down. Pleased that he's eaten, at the end of the meal you give him the plate to lick. What then happens is the pup decides human food is tastier than dog food and skips his next and begs from the table again. See where this is heading? The pup becomes accomplished at blagging human food from the table but skips his own dog food.
Apply the dog mealtimes rule
As well as preventing begging, you should follow the structured mealtimes plan as outlined in the 'Mealtime Routine' method. Again, this predictability helps the dog settle sooner into their new eating pattern.
Ignore the dog at the table
If the puppy is in the same room, it's essential that you completely ignore him at mealtimes. Do not respond to any behaviors that try to ellicit your attention. Instead, turn to stone and let him work away at getting a reaction. It's likely the pup will get very creative about ways to get your attention, and up the ante as they believe they haven't done enough for you to notice them. Only once they've done their best and it still didn't work, will they eventually give up
Teach an alternative action
Giving the puppy an alternative task (other than begging) is a good way to distract them. A good command is to teach the pup to wait on his mat. The puppy then has to actively stay on their mat while you eat. If you are clever, when you've finished eating, reward the pup's good behavior by giving him his meal on the mat.
Crate the puppy
If you can't trust yourself not to resist the puppy begging, then put them in a separate room or in their crate with a chew toy. Do this for every meal and the pup will soon accept that this is the way things are.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 03/23/2018, edited: 01/08/2021