Of all naturally-driven or instinctive behaviors, eating food is obviously among the most important. Dogs normally do not have to learn how to eat—from the time they are born and are compelled to seek their mothers’ breast, they survive by seeking food. In pet dogs, however, eating behavior can be associated with problems—either because it is excessive and results in obesity, or because owners feel their dogs do not eat enough and are finicky about food. Although it is less common to hear of a finicky dog than a cat, some dogs just are not voracious eaters. Why would this be?
First, it is important to realize that normal dogs will not starve themselves to death simply because of fastidious taste in food. Second, a thin appearance may not indicate that anything is amiss. Individual dogs, like other species, have a physiologically determined “set point” of body weight—while some are overweight, others are quite thin, and efforts to change that weight may not be successful in the long term. If your thin dog is maintaining his weight over time, there is probably little to worry about (weight loss or a new change in eating habits should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian).
In some cases, dogs balk at the food we serve them because they have learned that they can either get lots of attention and hand-feeding from their worried owners or because, if they hold out long enough, more delicious human food will be offered. To change finicky behavior, the first step is identifying the ways it might (accidentally or purposely) be reinforced.
If you are petting your dog, or hand-feeding her, to coax her to eat, try stopping for a while. You can increase the palatability of dry food by adding a good quality canned food to the dry kibble. Place this on the floor for fifteen minutes—if it is not consumed, remove it and offer a fresh bowl of food twelve hours later. As long as food is available twice daily, your finicky dog will not starve. It may help to feed your dog during your family meal so that he is socially facilitated to eat. Otherwise, try ignoring him during the meal—resist the urge even to praise him for eating. In time, even the fussiest dog will begin to eat when food is placed before him.