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Food & Behavior… Think Before You Feed – Dr. LeeAnn DuMars, ABVP

This month’s topic is behavior; which encompasses a wide range of study. I was reviewing a new book to our hospital library, “Encyclopedia of Canine Clinical Nutrition” by Royal Canin (Pibot, Biourge, Elliott 2006), and read a chapter on the “Social role of food and behavior pathologies in the dog.” There is so much misinformation about the feeding behavior of dogs and with our well-intentioned, yet misguided actions, we confuse our dogs and can cause education problems, dietary disorders and even pathological conditions.

The management of resources, specifically food, is fundamental in animal societies. Access to food becomes ritualized, requiring well developed communication, once the essential needs are covered. The rules established in a given group are maintained and reinforced by the application of rituals that means of communication in a social group. The use of a ritual imposes a calm and social glue for the group. In human societies, when food is plentiful, meal access and eating have a social value. This ritualization causes the members of the group to consume the food for reasons other than hunger. Our domesticated dogs are placed in a similar situation as most of them have sufficient food. The management of their food is then more often guided by the needs of communication than by hunger. In dogs, the control of food is a symbol of a higher hierarchical position, even when the supply is abundant. A dog that begs at the table may be doing so not for taste or hunger reasons, but to show that it has access to the group’s resources. The behaviors that allow one animal to eat before the others, while the others wait and watch, also has social significance. The dominant animals take the best food first and then they oblige others to attend the meal and patiently wait their turn. Domesticated dogs exhibit many of the behaviors that are motivated by the need to impose periods of “respectful” observation on the master when the dog eats. For example, difficult dogs often love to attract attention when they eat.

Dr. Gerard Muller, author of this chapter has the following errors to avoid when feeding your dog:

TEN ERRORS TO AVOID

1. Giving food from the table. By sharing food you destroy the dog’s image of you. The dog admires and feels an attachment and respect to masters that protect their food.

2. Encouraging your dog to eat or hand-feeding. If you want your dog to respect you, you should not stay in its company while it is eating. By showing the dog that you want him to eat, you assume a subordinate role and invite the dog to refuse food in its desire to move up the hierarchy.

3. Confusing a good diet with being nice. This may be true for humans but not for our dogs. A happy dog is a healthy, appropriate weight dog that can go for a walk and play. Food should only be used to satisfy hunger, not as a way of gaining affection. Animals are not capable of managing dietary pleasure in any reasonable way.

4. Do not feed your dog just before you sit down to eat to keep him from begging.This just confuses the dog and he will not beg from hunger but because he wishes to take on a higher status by sharing your food.

5. See the next list for new puppy training and food.

6. Using small treats to stimulate the dog to eat his kibble. If the dog is hungry he will eat his kibble. Otherwise, there is a risk of making him eat when he is not hungry, which will cause unwanted weight gain. In addition, if you continue with this ritual you increase the risk of the dog not accepting its kibbles.

7. Making up for your absences with food. This risks reducing the master-dog relationship to an exchange of food.

8. Reducing the quantity of food and water for cleanliness. Young puppies need to eat 3-4 meals daily and they must have access to fresh water at all times. Varying from this may cause learning and will lead to digestive disorders.

9. Over consumption of diet (much more than the manufacturer recommends) can be a sign of behavioral problems or digestive problems. Please discuss this with a veterinarian.

10. Giving a homemade meal once a week. Commercial diets that are complete and balanced have excellent dietary quality and the dog will not be “unhappy” with the commercial diet. See #3 above. Remember, you can easily substitute a few kind words or a few pats instead of a food treat. The dog appreciates any form of positive reinforcement. In general, you should only give food over and above meals as a reward to help the dog to learn. This means you should give the treat or other reward at the end of the sequence of commands you want to reinforce.

And Dr. Muller’s tips for puppies:

FEEDING TIPS FOR THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW PUPPY

1. Do not change the food the first day the puppy arrives and only make food available to the puppy for brief times (4-5 times daily for 10 minutes). Do not linger with the puppy while he is eating. Adult dogs should eat twice daily.

2. From day one, do not allow your dog to approach the table during your mealtimes – this rule must never be broken.

3. Select dog food in a rational way without succumbing to the current fad. Any changes should be transitional.

4. Use small (size of a fingernail sliver) pieces of food as a reward after exercise, but ensure that these treats are associated with a command or activity learned.

5. Give the dog its meal after you have had your own or at completely different times.

6. Leave the room when the dog is eating. Do not try to take his bowl away. Be sure all dogs are separated at mealtime so that they can eat in peace.

7. Bones do not provide the dog with much in the way of nutrients. Dogs do need to chew but it is preferable to supply dental chews that are safe for teeth. Leave the dog in peace when it is chewing but keep a watchful eye for choking.

Hopefully, these suggestions and insight into canine ethology (study of animal behavior) will give some guidance about food issues as they relate to behavior and our dog-human bond. It is very fascinating and amazing to me that dogs can be so insightful with our behavior and actions, that we inadvertently create problems in our relationships with them. It is not out of maliciousness, but more likely from our ignorance of the study of canine social groups and hierarchies. Here’s to continued learning!!