SFRAW Founder Note No. 2: Preventing and Managing “Picky” Eating Behavior or Refusals

Important: The below information does not apply to animals exhibiting anorexia related to a health crisis or illness.

What to do/not to do when your dog is being picky about eating something “known good” – a food that you know is safe, suitable, previously enjoyed and healthy for them.

My Great Dane, Groovy usually eats her meals without any hang-ups or issues. Of course, she has true big time favorites and then there are some foods she’s not a fan of, plus a very few things I have not been able to get her to try yet (rabbit furry things so far are a no-go). She also has quite a few food intolerances (according to our #glacierpeak #petwellnesslifestressscan results); we simply avoid these foods. She’s not a picky dog, in general. She loves food and is very food motivated.

However, we had an interesting experience last week.

A very nice pork foot that I offered to her earlier last week was served frozen solid. I was a bit concerned that it might be too hard to eat safely, and, when she tried to bite it, it was just too hard – frozen bone can break teeth in some instances. So, that was not going to be safe her her… she knew it & I agreed.

So, I wrapped it up and put it in the fridge for the next day instead. She ate the rest of the dinner and she also gets kitty meal leftovers and treats on walks & at SFRAW, so I was ok with her getting a smaller meal that day.

Next day, this same foot was served to her defrosted (still quite frosty, but defrosted enough for her to eat) along with a healthy sides of some fresh grinds, elk stew meat and lamb heart. She gobbled up the other foods and avoided the foot …again. Hummm…? Weird. She just sat next to that foot, and looked at me as if to ask to get something else instead. Huh. That’s not happened before…

But, I have also taught her to sit not only before her meals (#impulsecontrol), but also after her meals, to indicate that she’s truly done eating/cleaning the plate and leftover bits. Sitting after her meal communicate to me that she’s all ready to come out from the feeding area (confined space), and be released to head on over to her bed where she usually relishes in joy and contentment by rubbing her face off, being super happy, well nourished, and adorable — ending with cuddles from daddy.

So, sitting is an indication that she’s done eating. Ok, got it – she has been getting extra treats during the day lately as I am working on reinforcing/training behaviors in preparation of the new puppy arriving next week. So, maybe she was just not that hungry and got enough food?

And…here’s where I made a big mistake with her — I “traded” the foot for a nice big “jackpot” of another favorite food — frozen anchovies (quite a few of them — like 6-8). Reward given, trade enjoyed…but, I didn’t know what I had done… just yet…

Next day, foot served again, defrosted & alone. I was confident she’d eat it now…nothing else was being offered and this was after a dew days of smaller meals. And…she sat. Almost immediately. Wouldn’t even consider it.

I was astonished because she usually LOVES anything pork (pork, lamb, beef all BIG favorites) and has eaten these before with gusto and never had any issues with pork feet.

I took the foot away after a few minutes. She was quite perplexed by this — like, “Oh, wait – I might want something – but but… something else, perhaps?” (…”like a bag of anchovies?”)”.

I knew what I had done! By trading for anchovies the night before, she thought she could “trade up” with the pork foot currency and sitting behavior. But I wanted her to eat the foot instead. So, we closed up the kitchen, wrapped up & put the foot back into the refrigerator and no dinner was had.

No dinner – sigh. Oh well. While I had made a mistake with the trading up, she was also testing to see what would work: if she could trade with me again using this foot. But I wanted her to eat that foot.

Bottom line: She had made the choice not to eat. She could have eaten it, but decided not to. Her choice. Nothing was wrong with that foot. Because of her behavior/refusal to eat the foot, I resolved that the next day was going to be an actual, true fasting day — no treats and no kitty leftover meals to interfere with her appetite.

So — his is when my husband, Branko, starts in with — “how long has she fasted?” “She might be hungry. You’re cruel.” Texting me: “Groovy’s really hungry! This is not fair….” yada yada yada…

But I knew this was a make or break it moment where I could establish normal eating behavior now or enter into the dysfunctional realm of picky eating, refusals, complicated mealtimes, etc.

No way I was going to let that happen. To be sure of it, she was getting a real actual fasting day and that foot would be the only thing on the menu for at least a few more days until she decided to eat.

She was not wasting away, she’s a healthy adult dog of normal weight and has no health issues – no reason why she can’t fast.

I think this is the moment when a lot of people would give in to capitulate, beg/bribe, offer replacement foods, or otherwise negotiate with their dog over the food being refused. (Again, there was nothing wrong with the foot and I know she’s enjoyed them in the past. This was a behavioral issue, not anything having to do with the foot or her health/appetite.)

Bribing and negotiating is a FATAL mistake with a lot of dogs because are reinforcing stressful and unhealthy eating behaviors/food issues that YOU have created/reinforced and rewarded by engaging in this way with them — difficult behaviors that are so easily avoided within a few days using the right technique.

So, this is the moment when you will need to really stay strong and know that this is “just” a behavioral issue that you can either reward/reinforce or extinguish. If you choose to engage with them over this, you can easily foster and develop unhealthy eating habits. But you could also avoid this from happening by ignoring the refusal and picky behavior and reinforcing good and normal eating habits. Use a little bit of hunger, a strong resolve and persistence, keep everything low drama and matter of fact. Remove the food if refused immediately, no quibbling…wrap it up, put it away — no coddling or discussion over it. Just up and away. Then, that’s what will be on the menu the next day – no “ifs, ands or buts”.

It’s like teaching any behavior in our dogs — but I know a lot of people struggle with this one.

So — after a day of fasting, last night the foot was served again. Now, I did shove a teeny, tiny little bit/morsel of dehydrated beef jerky inside the foot where I could just shove it inside, under one of the tendons attached to the hoof. I knew this would spark some interest and help encourage her to really get into the foot, but it was so little that there was also no way that she was going to feel satiated if she got just this.

Related note: I think most people would be absolutely astonished and shocked to learn just how even the most ridiculously teeny tiny bites/licks DO count, and how very little dogs and cats need to eat survive. Fasting on water exclusively for up to four days is considered a totally average, basic, therapeutic fasting period. It’s often easy for them to do, can be very healing and they will feel like a million bucks after day two or three. When they are unwell, fasting can be your single best tool to helping them feel better and recover from minor health issues. Carnivores can fast on nothing but water for weeks, actually, and still be perfectly healthy in the end. So please understand that they can also go many DAYS if not weeks, eating just a few tiny bites/licks of food each day – you may think “they haven’t eaten anything” but indeed, they have not actually fasted because they’ve gotten a treat or a few licks in during the fasting period that will disrupt the fast and can derail the fast completely by inhibiting, eliminating or reducing the many benefits associated with fasting.

So, please don’t slather or cover the refused item with other yummy things or fuss or dress it up – just try one single, minor modification – perhaps a tiny or small enhancement to spark their interest, and only if you think it’s necessary. The reason I why I did it was I was starting to get a little worried for the foot. I didn’t want the foot to go bad…after three days, tonight was gonna be “the night” 🙂

And — guess what? Groovy sniffed that morsel out, took just a quick minute to get into it, and then proceeded to eat the whole foot with the usual gusto and enjoyment I’m used to seeing. She spent a good long time and had a great, satisfying meal. It was just the outcome I was hoping for! Success and joyfully onwards to many more great, easily enjoyed meals ahead.

I love that Groovy has provided us with this example. Thanks, Groovy! Here’s to many more meals ahead — served without any drama, pickiness, compulsive behaviors or even hesitation 🙂

Bon Appetit!!