There are many unpleasant consequences to having a “fussy” eater – you basically have no control over when the dog eats (I’m not hungry right now), what he eats (I don’t like this!), how much he eats (three kernels was plenty, thanks), or when he ate last (an important question when you’re prepping for emergency surgery). You have no control over how much he weighs – and HE is busy playing mind games with you over control of the food. We’ve done a lot of experimenting with changing a dog’s performance and behaviour with how much and when we feed as well – for instance, dogs with a shy tendency, and dogs who tend to put too much pressure on themselves in competition are fed as close to ringtime as possible to change their body chemistry and calm them down. Dogs who tend to be a bit lethargic are fed three hours before ringtime to give them energy to perform. You can’t do this with a “fussy” eater. Many people habitually starve their “fussy” eaters every show weekend, hoping they’ll perform better because they’re hungry. Try telling THAT to a football player! In order to perform, an athlete must be properly fed and properly rested – to achieve that, the dog must understand the rules of his universe. When he understands the rules, he can relax in a coherent universe. So here’s the training “method” to teach your dog to eat “on cue”:
First, make sure your dog has no physical problems. Teaching your dog to eat ALWAYS presupposes a healthy dog!
Decide how much food the dog should be getting in a day (let’s say one cup, as an example). Divide that amount into two meals. Develop a ritual – say “Are you hungry? Where’s your dish? Where’s the food? Alright! Get in the kennel (or on your mat, or whatever)!” Put down the half cup of food and COUNT TO FIVE.
If, as you get to five, the dog is eating, fine.
If, at any time after you’ve counted to five and the dog is eating, he turns away from the dish before he gets to the bottom and polishes the bowl, say NOTHING, pick up the dish, and put the food away.
If you get to five and the dog isn’t eating, say NOTHING, pick up the dish, and put it away.
Give him nothing until his next scheduled meal, 12 hours later (for adult dogs).
If the dog either doesn’t approach the dish, or turns away from the food before it’s all gone, and you got to take the dish away, measure what’s left. At the next scheduled meal, give him HALF WHAT HE ATE at the previous meal. If he ate 6 kernels of food and wandered off, he’ll have 3 kernels of food in his dish at the next meal. If he eats two of those three kernels and wanders off, give him 1 kernel at the next meal.
When he eats ALL the food in his dish, polishes the bowl and wishes there was more, you can give him slightly more at his next scheduled meal (don’t give him more at THIS meal), and more at the next one, etc, until he’s back to getting – and eating – the appropriate amount of food.
If at any time he doesn’t eat all the food you give him before turning away, take the dish away and give him half what he ate for his next meal.
Of course you CARE what he eats, and whether he’s healthy or not, but it’s very important that you don’t take responsibility for whether he chooses to eat or not.
People who worry that the dog will starve to death don’t get healthy dogs. They get dogs who hold out for days without eating, who “demand” to have their food changed every few days. Remember, you’re NOT withholding food from the dog. You’re offering him food twice a day. You’re giving him the same window of opportunity you give him in any training situation. If the dog is healthy and just “fussy”, all he has to do is choose to eat. HIS choice.