Re-Awaken Your Chow Hound
If you already have a chow hound, the kind that would gladly eat the entire turkey at Thanksgiving and still be eyeing the apple pie, congratulations. Your dog’s primal instinct to eat whatever they can, whenever they can, is intact.
It’s a safe bet that there are no picky wolves. Your dog may look very different than a wolf, thanks to artificial selection (breeding), but inside they are quite the same. Living in domestic situations where they are fed for free (they don’t earn their food by hunting), fed according to the clock, fed multiple times a day, or “free-fed” from a bowl of kibble left out all day are all reasons our pets become fussy eaters.
If you have a picky eater, there are two good reasons to re-awaken their inner chow hound: their overall health, and training.
A healthy dog is a slender dog
A veterinarian friend of mine likes to say, “keep them so skinny the neighbors talk”. Supporting her statement is an abundance of scientific evidence indicating that slender animals live longer lives and have healthier bones, joints, organs, and physiology than overweight animals. Unsurprisingly, there is an epidemic of overweight dogs in the United States, but our dogs need not share in this unfortunate and unhealthy shift toward obesity, not even in small part.
In their 2021 book The Forever Dog (1) authors Rodney Habib and Dr. Karen Shaw Becker explore how to optimize our dog’s nutrition for longevity and health. They make a strong case that intermittent fasting has powerful health benefits in dogs just as in humans. Even more to the point, a study just published (2) in April of 2022 shows that once-daily feeding for our companion dogs is associated with better health across several categories (dental, orthopedic, cognitive, digestive, and more).
Dogs thrive when their diet matches what their digestive systems have evolved to “expect” which is most certainly not three-square meals a day or even worse, grazing on kibble all day long whenever they feel like it.
The sacrifice you make when you overfeed or free feed
Many of the clients I have seen in the last several weeks have dogs who will look at a handful of meat (any variety, cooked or raw) and walk away. For me this is sad on a couple of levels. Sad because I know they aren’t living their healthiest life, and sad because if they had a more natural response to the food, we could better access a path toward a truly beautiful and mutually engaged relationship with them. Most of these dogs appear to be of average weight, by the way.
As a dog trainer I think a lot about the communication between our two species. Food is certainly the easiest and most effective way to train dogs but using food to train goes way beyond basic obedience cues. We use food with puppies to reward them for eliminating outside. A tasty morsel helps them learn their name and come to us when we call. We use food to efficiently train the foundational behaviors. When those foundational behaviors become second nature we can fade the food rewards for those simple things, while continuing to use food to teach more complex behaviors, tricks, advanced obedience, agility, heeling, nose work or other sports. We also use food to teach our dogs to have positive feelings about other dogs out on leash or to consent to having their nails trimmed, or to not be afraid of those freaky creatures known as toddlers.
Whether or not you go beyond the basics, food is used to tell your dog, “YES! You got it right.” When dogs are oriented to “the training game” and realize that they have the power to elicit a food treat by giving you the behavior you request THEN we have the beginning of true communication between owner and dog. Both begin to listen more carefully. Food is like the alphabet of the language we share with our dogs. It allows us to translate our desires for behavior into cues our dogs can understand.
When our dog doesn’t want the morsel we offer, we sacrifice this entire beautiful landscape of give and take, mutual engagement, and communication.
Are there other ways to train dogs besides food? Yes, of course! There’s punishment – but what a regrettable life for any creature. There are other types of rewards as well. Some dogs are so crazy about toys, balls, or frisbees that those can be used as rewards for behaviors. This is trickier though and no reward is as versatile, convenient, and easy to use as food.
Dogs with a healthy appetite offer us an avenue to a more engaged daily life with them, a means to exchange communication and by extension, increased harmony in the home.
How to re-awaken your dog’s appetite
Keep your dog slender, don’t overfeed
Subtract training treats from their meals to avoid overfeeding
Do NOT FREE-FEED! Free feeding means you leave kibble (or any food) in a bowl for your dog to partake of throughout the day. Instead, pick up whatever your dog walks away from or whatever’s left after 5 minutes. Don’t offer food again until the next meal!
Consider feeding once a day or skip breakfast most of the time, or occasionally
Consider replacing one meal, or one day’s food with a raw meaty bone once a week
Understand that it’s OK for your dog to miss a meal and it’s natural for them to know hunger between meals
1 Habib, Rodney and Dr. Karen Shaw Becker. The Forever Dog. Harper Collins, 2021.
2 Bray EE et al. (2022). Once-daily feeding is associated with better health in companion dogs: results from the Dog Aging Project. Geroscience. 2022 Jun;44(3):1779-1790. doi: 10.1007/s11357-022-00575-7. Epub 2022 Apr 28.