5 min read • By Leena Chitnis, Founder, Timberdog®
Is your dog notoriously picky, driving you crazy with the laundry list of foods you have to try out on him, as well as all the customizations you have to make to those meals?
Take heart. Your dog is not as picky as you think -- and before you fight me on this, listen! I was very defensive when people tried to counsel me on how to feed my newly-adopted rescue puppy. I took it as a type of judgment. Food is an extremely personal topic for many people, after all, even when it comes to their pets.
I fixed Kashi's problem through a combination of listening to her, having patience, using clever hacks, and employing tips I read up on exhaustively online. At this point, I could write a book on this topic because my dog was so challenging, and there really isn't a single good primer on this problem out there, just scattered articles across Google. So, I'll try to give you the abridged version below, which took me a full year to distill.
1. Don't read into it too much
Unless you suspect a medical issue, don't be overly concerned with all the hypotheticals as to why your dog won't eat her food. It won't get you anywhere, and truly, it's conjecture, as you can't read your dog's mind and you don't know your dog's full history (especially if he's adopted). Your dog's pickiness could be due to trauma, or just being used to high value treats, the latter naturally making his dinner boring. Or any number of other things.
2. Like Socrates said, "The secret of change is to focus your energy not on fighting the old, but building the new."
As soon as I observed that Kashi's love language is play (she'll wake up out of a dead sleep to play), I started flicking her kibbles across the room one by one, and she'd run after them and eat them enthusiastically. This gave meal time an immediate positive association. Listening to what I'd read, I also removed any other distractions, and removed her collar so it wouldn't clang against the bowl (some dogs really dislike that). Finally, I figured out she had some trauma around her food and water bowl (she'd shake and cower when she neared the bowls), so after I called her just once to eat her dinner, I'd let her be. Meal time was her decision, not mine.
3. Avoid helicopter parenting
There was no insistence or hovering once she cautiously approached her food. If she didn't eat touch her meal within a few minutes, I'd simply put it in the refrigerator and out of sight, and bring it out a couple hours later. I'd repeat this process until she realized that the cost of visiting her scary bowls was outweighed by her need to eat. Trust me when I say this was exceedingly hard for me to do, when my first instinct was to slather her food with peanut butter, toppers, cheese, and all the rest, because I loved my puppy and wanted to make meal time fun, super tasty, and comforting. But dogs don't need all that, and besides, many toppers aren't healthy.
When it comes to food, dogs don't need our inputs. They need their own: an appetite, natural hunger, and routine.
4. Don't spoil dinner
Before mealtime, I'd lavish Kashi with processed dog treats from the pet store, thinking I was ahead of the game because I was saving the truly high-value ones, like cheese, for after her meal. It occurred to me that these junk treats spoiled her natural hunger and skewed her tastebuds in the wrong direction. My hunch was confirmed when I saw a friend at the park give her own dogs huge bags of treats, only to complain that they never touched their kibble at home.
I immediately made up my mind to give Kashi only healthy snacks during the day - like dried or fresh fruit and veggies, never anything that came from a box. She only got a piece of cheese or teaspoon of peanut butter right after she finished her meal. This gave her treats double the value, because I wasn't doling them out all day long. It also reinforced that eating properly at mealtime was a good, rewardable behavior.
5. Make occasional exceptions
There were days where Kashi didn't have as much exercise as the previous day, and so she wasn't as hungry or interested in her food. But already being a fairly lean dog, I had to make sure that she ate something every day. On these days, I'd make sure meal time was extra interesting by sprinkling some low cal peanut butter powder over her food (like PB Fit, mostly for the smell), or maybe tossing in a teaspoon of nutritional yeast (for the cheesy, savory aspect).
6. Kibble or wet food by themselves aren't enough
A quality kibble will have most, if not all, of the vitamins and minerals your dog needs to meet her daily requirements. But I'm a strong believer in fresh, micronutrient-dense food, also. Kibble is processed after all, no matter how high-quality it is. So, as soon as Kashi got used to eating her plain kibble, I fortified her meal with foods like flax meal and flax seed oil for her coat, as well as organic blueberries, pumpkin puree, dehydrated apples, and sweet potato.
If you go this route, make sure to reduce the kibble just a bit to accommodate the addition of fresh foods, so that your dog won't overeat. I rotate my dog's food as well, switching kibble every few weeks to get the benefits of different brands, and making sure Kashi has healthy snacks after, like organic and homemade dog cookies and teeth fresheners.
7. Make sure there is a "dessert" at the end
If your dog realizes that there is a "rainbow" at the end of his meal, he will likely finish his bowl enthusiastically, like mine does. After Kashi has had dinner, we practice tricks or play a game, and she is then rewarded with a cookie or two (which I make very simply out of organic oats, banana, and peanut butter). Then, I let her settle with a small Kong with hard-to-reach treats inside, or some vegetarian rawhide (I truly love Earth Animal's No-Hide, in peanut butter flavor). She loves working on these treat-puzzles and will tuck into them for a good 45 minutes, dopamine abuzz. I love that this is her time to be alone, relax, and have her fun.
8. Patience is vital or nothing is going to work
It is imperative not to admonish your dog or show frustration when they don't eat their food. They know their bodies, moods, and appetites best. It's more effective to be patient and work around their pickiness with the tricks I've mentioned above. The more patient you are, the more your dog will reveal to you why she won't eat her food. Then, you can work with, rather than against, her behaviors.
What hacks have you used to get your dog to eat and enjoy mealtime everyday? Let us know in the comments below, and tell us if the tips and tricks above helped your pups overcome their pickiness!
Photo credit: Rarnie McCudden
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