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Some dogs are picky eaters. Some dogs get stressed about mealtimes because of social pressure.
In our latest Ask A Behavior Consultant, we’re facing a question that’s surprisingly common: “My puppy will only eat if I quickly fry his wet food and spoon-feed him. What do I do? I’m worried he’ll be undernourished if I stop.”
The really tricky thing about this problem is that we obviously don’t want to starve a dog – especially a fast-growing puppy (the questioner here said her pup is just 7 months old). But the reality is, very few dogs will actually starve themselves if we stop upping the ante around meals!
Of course, it’s always good to get an opinion from the vet first. Pickiness, especially when it suddenly appears, is often related to a medical concern. Medication side effects, pain, nausea and GI issues, various infections or parasites, or even poisoning can all lead to your dog not wanting to eat.
So if you notice a drop-off in your dog’s appetite or she’s consistently disinterested in food, call your vet first.
But in many cases, your dog is being so darn picky because you’re encouraging this behavior!
Mistake 1: Beg and Plead
Think about it. Your dog turns her nose up at kibble, so you cajole her – coax and plead and beg until she eats.
In some cases, this actually backfires because you’re so annoying that mealtime becomes a dreaded event!
In other cases, the pleading works – but now you’ve taught your dog to wait until you beg and give her attention so she can eat.
What To Do Instead
Try letting your dog eat alone, in peace. Perhaps feed her while you’re reading a book nearby. If she doesn’t eat after 10-15 minutes, put the food away without fuss. Try again in an hour or so but use the same food – don’t make it tastier. If she still doesn’t eat, try again the next mealtime.
Mistake 2: Sweeten the Pot (too much)
The other tactic people often try is to make the meals a bit tastier. Sure, this makes sense – if your dog hates the boring, crunchy kibble, it makes sense to make their food better. I support this! But only to a point.
However, be careful not to change flavor-enhancements every few days. If your dog stops eating after you’ve added some bacon dust or chicken broth, don’t just add more tastiness!
Constantly improving your dog’s food teaches your pup that waiting and refusing food will make better food appear.
What to Do Instead
But be sure to pick a meal improvement (I like the Stella and Chewy’s Dinner Dust) that’s sustainable for you. Make it easy and quick so you can keep it up long-term.
And again, if your pup stops eating or turns her nose up at the food, simply put it away after 10-15 minuets and try again once more in an hour.
Keep an eye on your dog’s health and weight; if she’s truly losing weight and starving herself, talk to your vet right away!
Other Things to Try Instead of Spoon-Feeding Your Dog
- Feed your dog out of a puzzle toy. It’s counterintuitive, but many dogs actually will eat better when they have to work a bit for their food. Try something simple at first, like a Snuffle Mat or Slow Feeder.
- Pay attention to what your dog likes and doesn’t like. Perhaps chicken makes your dog’s stomach turn, or hard kibble hurts her teeth. If your dog seems to have a healthy appetite for some things, take note. Perhaps you can use that information to create a meal that works better for your dog.
- Notice when your dog does eat. Does your dog scarf down food in training or when you drop it, but turn her nose up at kibble? Perhaps a puzzle toy will add excitement that will help. Try to find a pattern and use it to your advantage.
- Consider switching to a fresh food diet. Most picky dogs will eat much more voraciously when they’re not fed cruddy kibble. When my dad’s old lab was dying of cancer, NomNomNow’s meal delivery really helped keep her appetite up!
Again, make sure this is a sustainable strategy for you and your dog before making the switch. Constantly swapping food and trying new things will only teach your dog to wait for something better.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.