My Dog Doesn’t Care About Food

3FF01F18-61C0-4CA7-8581-4861780B0499Some dogs, like some people, aren’t all that interested in food. There are a few reasons for this. Your dog might be ill. They might be anxious, leading to upset stomachs and a lower appetite. They might not like kibble very much. Or they might just be picky eaters, like some humans. But eating is a survival behavior, and so all dogs do want to eat.

My first suggestion is to check the above things in order. Make sure your dog is physically healthy, and not highly stressed by their environment and daily life. Then try a different dog food, or a different kind of food, like wet food or adding some food from the grocery store to their diet. And if your dog is just sort of picky, well then, it’s your job to figure out what they love to eat.

Often picky dogs will play with some food toys, but only if they’re easy and whatever is in there is good. They don’t want the food terribly badly, and so they’re not going to go to heroic efforts to get it. But if you pack a Kong with wet food, they might work on it for a while. If that doesn’t work, try peanut butter. I think all dogs are born with peanut butter lust.

Another reason a dog might reject a food toy is because food has no actual value to him. A dog that’s free-fed—meaning there’s always a bowl of food available—doesn’t view food as a resource. It’s just always there. If you had a magic bowl that was always available and always full of M&Ms no matter how many you ate, how much will you like M&Ms after a month? Will you pay for them at the store? Would you do jumping jacks for M&Ms? You’d have to really, really love M&Ms to start with to maintain that kind of enthusiasm.

Free feeding can also contribute to obesity, it’s harder to monitor whether the dog is eating, it adds layers of complexity if you have more than one animal in the house, and foods can sometimes go rancid if you’re not paying close attention. For these reasons and more most vets recommend dogs be fed on a schedule—one to three meals a day, though you could feed smaller meals even more frequently. Since our dogs evolved as scavengers, smaller, more frequent meals make sense.

If you leave a bowl of food out for your dog all day, try putting him on a schedule for a week. Your dog won’t starve, I promise: you won’t let him! Put half his food out in the morning, and pick up what he hasn’t finished after fifteen minutes. You can put that same bowl out again at lunch and see if he wants any. If not, feed the second half of his meal at dinner time. After a few days of this routine, it’ll start making sense to him. If he’s hungry, he will eat, and if he doesn’t, then he has to wait. This turns food back into a resource for you, for training and for enrichment.

Working for dinner can actually become the reason why the dog eats. No, seriously. Many dogs enjoy the process of working to figure out how to get a snack so much that the food itself isn’t as rewarding as figuring out the project. Many dogs will choose a food toy full of kibble over a bowl full of kibble every time. You can bet that they didn’t do this the first time they ever saw a food toy, but over time they grew to love the puzzle so much that it became less about dinner and more about the game.

Think of video games. Beating a really great video game is equal measures exciting and sad. You did it! But now it’s over. I think food toys become like that for dogs too: the process itself is fun.

So even if your dog is reluctant now, and requires the easiest setting and most delicious foods on all their toys, and only eats half the Kong, don’t give up. Build this behavior. Make it the default, instead of the bowl. It’s good for your dog’s brain, so keep trying.