It is SOOO stressful when your dog won't eat - I totally get it.
You've tried EVERYTHING, and tonight was another game of you offering your latest findings, then two hours of cajoling, hoping and praying that THIS will be the one they love, and all your worries will be over.
You see other people needing 'slow feeders' to moderate their dogs excitement at meal times and think "pfft, that'll be the day."
Whilst novelty wins over initially, and they sample your offerings - you know it's not long before your four legged companion is saying "you expect me to eat this rubbish?" once again.
It's frustrating because ITS NOT RUBBISH that's in front of them! You're going to great lengths to try and provide the best food, only be wasting money, being constantly disheartening that you are trying to nourish your little one and despite your best efforts, they will just not play ball.
Deep down you worry that there is maybe something more at play, worry that you've done something wrong, and that you're letting them down.
This is a really common issue, and one I deal with on a daily basis with my VIP clients, so I have prepared this Ten Steps To Fixing The Fussy Eater guide to show you my successful formula to help you take the stress right out of mealtimes once and for all.
Step #1 Know your pets current body condition and weight
We need to get really real and face some hard truths, and that might feel uncomfortable for a while. Check out this graphic:
Where do you think you dog sits?
Here's a little tip - show an honest knowledgeable friend this picture, and have them give you their opinion. In my experience, owners are so conditioned to seeing their dogs body - that they are literally blind to the actual state it's in.
With any issues around eating, it’s important to assess the current body condition of the dog.
Although your actual dog’s weight is useful information, it needs to be used in conjunction with their body condition for an accurate assessment. It's no good assuming that a 27kg Labrador falls into an 'ok weight range' for their breed, if they are 3" shorter than the breed standard - see what I mean?
Use the guide here to establish your dog’s current body position, and pop them on the scales so you also know their actual weight.
You will then know which of the next three categories belongs to you:
Category 1: Your dog is 'very thin/underweight'
Ensure your dog has no painful teeth or underlying clinical issues by visiting your vet for a once over before doing anything else.
If you are given the all clear by a vet, its probable that your dog has some underlying anxiety issues, so work with a Behavioural Practitioner to discover the underlying cause. Anorexia (deliberately not eating) can be tied to general anxiety, sound sensitivity, sensory difficulties, repetitive behaviours and a whole range of other behavioural illnesses. Diagnosis should be made by a professional, so the right treatment plan can be executed.
Category 2: Your dog is 'ideal'
Your dog is probably getting adequate calorific intake from treats and scraps so has no appetite for their meal, or is self-limiting because they are simply not hungry.
You and your dog have developed bad food habits, follow our ten steps to healthy food habits.
Category 3: If your dog is 'overweight/obese'
You are currently overfeeding or under exercising your dog so that he is never actually hungry. This situation can easily be created by feeding treats, bones, table scrap and also by inaccurate feeding measurements.
The following ten steps to happy healthy food habits are just what you need.
Whilst we don't want to assume why a pet might not be eating, the VAST majority of 'fussy dogs' I meet, fall into category 2 and 3. They don't even know what it feels like to be hungry, as they are stuffed full of rubbish and empty calories all day.
Step #2 Choose a species appropriate diet
I'm not going to lie to you, I am a hard core fresh food advocate, let me explain why to you in this little video:
Bottom line, if you CAN'T feed a fresh food diet to your dog, make sure you are feeding the next best thing quality food you can. Let holistic veterinarian Dr Karen Becker tell you in WAY more detail here, (as well as how to cost effectively increase the quality of your pets meals).
Step #3 Feed for the goal weight not the actual weight
This sounds like a basic rule, but the amount of food offered to your dog should be for your dogs ideal weight, and this might not be his actual weight at the moment.
Feeding an overweight dog the amount for its current weight is too much. Let's say your Lhasa weighs 13kg, and has an overweight body condition. If you follow the instructions on the food packet and feed for a 13kg dog, your dog will maintain his unhealthy weight. If your dogs ideal weight (ask your veterinarian for this) was say 10kg - that is the feeding guidelines you should follow.
Obviously individuals vary in metabolism rate and activity levels, and you can make small adjustments to accommodate this as you go.
By the same token, feeding an underweight dog the amount for its current weight is too little.
Make sure to weigh your food accurately during the 'rehabilitation' stage as 10g can be the difference between weight loss and weight gain.
Weigh your dog weekly at the start so you can keep an accurate diary to find the optimum feeding amount, remembering that this will change as your dog matures, and enters different life stages, so keep an eye out for changes with a regular monthly weigh in.
Step #3 Get their body MOVING
Living beings need to move. Get the blood flowing, flush away toxins and build appetite. Often our dogs lead sedentary lives, especially as the weight piles on, or age creeps up. In a 'wild' environment, a large amount of time from this species would be dedicated to scavenge with short bursts of medium to intense exercise for hunting.
Try taking your dog for a LONG walk before offering meals.
Step #4 Get hungry
In this day and age, our dogs don’t know what it means to be hungry. That’s not to say they don’t engage in the 5 o’clock ritual of ‘lets go to the kitchen and find something I can turn my nose up at’ because dogs are creatures of habit, who enjoy social interaction, and in a lot of cases, this is the most fun thing they have done all day, as our dogs can be chronically understimulated.
Raw fed dogs, often self-limit with food, and opt to go a day without eating once a fortnight or so. So in this step, we skip one days food all together - that’s right, absolutely nothing to eat for one whole day. SHOCK HORROR!
We can use the appetite energy deficit this creates, to launch our new healthy food regime the very next day.
Fresh water must always be available, and your dog must be closely watched on a walk to ensure no inappropriate snacks can be picked up once their appetite is being stimulated.
Step #5 Preparation is important
Trial and error has shown me that most dogs prefer body temperature food, with squishy bits and crunchy bits. I guess this would mimic a 'fresh kill' on a 'carnivore scavenger' primal level. A fresh meal would be safer to eat regarding bacterial and decomposition levels. Cold food may have been there for some time, and might be unsafe to eat.
At the very least ensure you dogs food is room temperature and play around with warming it very gently (too hot is both dangerous and will deter appetite).
You can also mix a little chicken, mince, grated cheese (limited amount only as dogs struggle with Lactose and ideally goats cheese) or high quality tinned meat to stimulate their taste buds.
I am not advocating adding unhealthy things to your pets dinner, but you can 'bridge' the introduction to a healthier food if you mix it with a healthy firm favorite.
Step #6 Don’t EVER leave food down
This is important for two reasons:
Dogs are opportunistic scavengers, not grazers. That means they are evolutionarily evolved to eat a large meal in one go. Choose a meal time, prepare and offer the food to your dog. If they walk away, let them, and remove the food until the next meal time when you can freshen it up (see preparation) and offer it again.
Any leftover food in the wild would be buried, hidden or abandoned to stop it attracting more predators and avoid a potential conflict for possession. If food is left down it places your dog in a psychological conflict situation, creating unnecessary emotional impact.
Step 7 Do not offer an alternative
If your food choice is intelligent and species appropriate, and you know this to be the best option for him, do not offer an alternative if he chooses to walk away in the early days.
Dogs are ritualistic creatures, and if the ritual is ‘waiting for you to offer a more interesting alternative’, on which novelty factor wins over the lack of appetite issue, then your dog is training you nicely, and it’s a bad habit you need to break!
Step #8 Ditch the treats
I mean no treats at all. At least until your dog has developed healthier eating habits.
Your dog requires a certain calorific intake per day. It is important that food consumed is of high nutritional value, and not ‘fillers’ packed with preservative which do a great job of filling up our dogs with low value rubbish.
If your dog enjoys a treat, why not choose a health promoting natural treat such as carrots or apples, or a sustainable treat which is perfect for chewing, but takes a longer time to consume so won’t fill them up, such as bulls pizzles.
Step #9 Stop with the guilt
They don’t hate you, they are not sad – You are making a decision be a responsible dog owner, and to offer them a happy healthy future. Drop the guilt and give yourself a pat on the back!
Step #10 The Playful Hunter Game
This is a fun and useful exercise to encourage a reluctant eater, once the above steps have been addressed.
Firstly prepare the normal food intake for the day, and divide into ten portions.
Have a helper hold your dog, take a portion of the food and go and hide it somewhere easy to reach for your dog. Come back and get your dog, and excitedly help and encourage him to find it.
Once found make a big fuss and encourage a taste.
In the beginning this game will make no sense to your dog, so remember the top three tips:
• Very low criteria – make it easy
• Very high reward – make it tasty.
• Keep it fun an exciting.
If you split the food up into ten segments, you can get multiple games out of one feed quantity. Allowing you to reinforce the hunt many times over.
If your dog played enthusiastically, repeat as much as you can, working through the portions one by one.
• If your dog was confused, hunt the food yourself – dogs have a very high cooperative drive, and want to participate in group activities, so show him!
• If your dog joins in the game excitedly, but won’t eat the food, that’s fine. Wait a little bit and try again later. If your dog can catch, throw a few mouthfuls to him to engage him in a ‘catch and chew’ dynamic to see if you can kick start his enthusiasm for eating. Reward any movement towards the food warmly.
• If your dog is frightened by the energy around this game, and is not comfortable to play with you inside your own home, then you have a bigger issue at hand and could benefit from the input of a behavioural practitioner to get to the route of his anxiety.
As your dog better understands the idea of ‘hunt the food’, and gets better at it, you can gradually increase the portion size and difficulty level.
This game works because found food is always more precious that given food, and because it mimics the adrenalin and excitement built up on a hunt, and causes your dog to expend some energy to ‘win’ the precious resource.
He also has to start using his nose to search for reward, something they have to do less and less of with our 'on demand' lifestyles!
#BONUS STEP Free online course
To supercharge your relationship with your dog, here is our gift to you!
FREE online course - Understanding Your Dog
Your friend and trainer,