*NOTE: the information in this article is in reference only to dogs who are over six months of age.
Thinking Like A Dog
Adopting a dog over the age of six months is rewarding and fun. When initially integrating a new dog into your family, we can expect some obstacles. As with humans, a change in eating habits is a common reaction to stress caused by a new environment or physical ailments. When physically healthy dogs–who are otherwise adapting well to their new home–refuse to eat, it can be scary and a bit of a mystery for their adoptive parents. Fortunately, the solution may simply require logic, creativity, and the ability to think like a dog.
Getting a new dog to eat includes harnessing their emotional intelligence, recognizing their individualities, and respecting their ability to adapt to new situations. By providing calm, clear guidance and direction in the initial stages of adoption, we can easily integrate dogs into our families and overcome any challenges we may encounter.
Already-ingrained Feeding Routines
Many adopted dogs were either raised by a family with good intentions, or at some point, found themselves in foster care with a reputable rescue organization. In these cases, caregivers often teach and apply basic commands during puppyhood, such as “Sit, Stay, OK!” during a feeding routine. If you can adopt their feeding routine, this will help provide both clarity and comfort for your new family member. For instance, if your dog automatically sits when you open a food cupboard, we can safely assume they have already been taught a feeding routine. Some dogs will be hesitant to eat if this routine is not followed, leading adopters to assume the dog is nervous, when in reality they are just waiting for your cues. If possible, ask the previous caregiver which exact words they used, in their commands since it can be confusing to a dog to hear “Sit, Wait, Go,” when previously taught “Sit, Stay, OK”. If you cannot contact the previous caregiver, then simply try different sets of words to learn what works–dogs always let us know what they know!
Personal Preferences: “Sophie”
Early in my career, I worked with a client who had recently adopted their dog, Sophie, from their local shelter, and whose nice family had surrendered her because they could no longer care for her. In her new home, Sophie refused to eat from her bowl. My client assumed Sophie was anxious and tried hand feeding instead. Sophie ate from their hand without hesitation, but continued to refuse to eat from the bowl. The success with hand feeding told us Sophie was not hesitant to eat, or nervous of human contact. Sophie was also very friendly upon my arrival, and showed no sign of nervousness.
So why was Sophie refusing to eat?
As I watched Sophie, I thought, perhaps, she was bothered by her long, floppy ears touching the sides of the bowl. I suggested switching from a bowl to a plate. Success! Almost. After consuming the portion on the half of the plate closest to her, she stepped back, refusing to eat the remaining food. I suggested turning the plate around, so her ears did not drag across the dirty plate. This worked well – for Sophie – but my client felt it was a bit “odd” to be turning Sophie’s plate for her. (“Really! She is quite the little princess!”) I then suggested moving the plate away from the wall, allowing her to access the other side of the plate on her own.
Sometimes switching to a plate that is more to the dogs liking can be a game changer. For example, Sophie’s people could use an oval shaped plate, so she does not need to reach across the plate to access all the food, but, instead, simply move sideways. In some cases, it could simply be the material of the bowl is not to their liking. Be flexible and try to provide different options–this is how we think like a dog to solve problems!
Community Dogs and Street Dogs
It is common for dogs living in communities to survive on scraps provided by humans. Once rescued and homed, they can be surprisingly picky when it comes to what they will eat! Many prefer “people food”– “cherry picking” around the kibble–or they might not eat anything at all, preferring to go hungry. It is not uncommon for dogs to remove food pieces from the bowl, prefering to eat off the floor.
Creatively combining dog food with people food is a great way to “meet in the middle”. It is common for these dogs to like one type of dog food one week, and then suddenly “poo-poo” it the next. A consultation with your veterinarian or certified canine nutritionist will help you prevent and avoid allergic reactions and unsafe feeding practices, and to ensure your dog is receiving all the required nutrients.
Many adopters are surprised how easily dogs who lived independently, survived “on the street”, or fended for themselves in busy cities, integrate into a new lifestyle. Their puppyhood provided real-life socialization, and they are accustomed to ever-changing environments, making adapting to a new home easier than many people expect!
Dogs who have survived on the street can feel vulnerable when eating, causing them to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. Hand Feeding is a solution commonly effective with puppies, and, as with Sophie, something dogs enjoy, but can be unrealistic, ineffective, or even counterproductive with dogs who feel the need to guard their food.
While living on the street, these dogs may have taken their food to a quieter area or avoided eating when other dogs were present. Upon bringing these dogs into my care, as a short-term solution, I feed them in a quiet area with no other dogs, in a room that has multiple exits, so they do not feel trapped, or outside in a quiet, safe, secured area. It is common for them to prefer to eat “with their back against the wall”, so I put the food bowl a few feet away from a wall or fence, allowing them to face outward when eating.
Dogs who have lived outside their entire life, whether on the street, in a community, on a chain, or as an outdoor guard dog, can be distrusting of people offering food, or feel uncomfortable eating, as they feel vulnerable and “on guard”. Although many of the suggestions offered in this article provide solutions “in the moment”, it is important to address the reason for the behavior to provide long term solutions.
By teaching exercises at easy, positive times without food present, we build a bond and establish transferable skills that change the dog’s perception of us, and show them our ability to calmly manage situations while respecting their emotional intelligence. We apply these exercises to the outdoor feeding routine, and then transfer these exercises to the indoor feeding routine. This entire process is often accomplished in as little as a few days! Finally, if we address the reason for the behavior using Canine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CCBT), we can harness and change the emotional thought patterns driving the behavior. To learn more about CCBT in relation to resource guarding, listen to our podcast episode.