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By kind permission of Elaine Hyde.

There is nothing worse than a poor feeder, nothing more calculated to send the sanest of dog lovers round the twist.  It is frustrating and worrying not to mention wasteful.  The tale of ‘The Problem Feeder’ is well told, and most breeders have heard it a hundred times, even if you have not had it poured down the phone to you before, I am sure it will ring a few bells!

The puppy is quite normal, a happy bouncing little soul that eats quite well during the first weeks (after the initial new home blues), then at around 16 weeks usually when he is cutting the first teeth, he goes off his food, doesn’t want his milk and thinks his usual diet is YUK!  The owners are worried, (after all this is going to be a Great Dane).  “If he doesn’t eat enough he won’t grow”, and so they change his food to their idea of a more tempting dish.  “Perhaps he didn’t like the old stuff; I wouldn’t like to eat the same old thing every day”.

Now for a day or two the new food is wonderful and he eats it as if there is no tomorrow, then he turns his nose up at it.  Menu number 2 hits the dust and something else must be tried.  “It worked last time; he must be a canine gourmet”.  Menu 3, however, only lasts one feed and Menu 4 is hardly even sniffed at.  By now almost every waking moment is taken up with the poor dog’s dietary intake and feeding times are a nightmare of “will he/won’t he”.  They sprinkle cheese, gravy, suet etc over the bowl, hand feed him, scatter it on the floor because sometimes “he cleans up the mess”.  But nothing pleases him and all the time he seems to get thinner.

Now you have a problem, it can be solved but it would have been easier not to have got there in the first place.  Remember, dogs are just like us, sometimes they are starving hungry and other times they are just not interested.  Perhaps when they are teething, when it is very hot, bitches when they are 5 or 6 weeks after a season, dogs, when the bitch down the road is more ‘interesting’ than usual.  Also some are greedier than others by nature, and some are genetically designed not to be roly-poly fat during their growing period or young adulthood.  Nothing you do will make a dog with a small appetite turn into a mobile dustbin!

Remembering these things, it is essential that when the dog has an ‘off’ day, don’t push him.  He may not eat well for a few days, perhaps only half or less of his usual intake, but sooner than you like, he will eat a normal amount and perhaps even ask for more.  He may have periods of ‘off’ days all through his growing period or longer, and these are the times that if you ‘tempt’ and ‘push’ him to eat more than he wants, you create a mental feeding block that starts by being fussy and ends up baulking at any food whatsoever.  You can, in fact, so worry a young dog that the sight of a feeding bowl is enough to make him tremble.

It is interesting, and no surprise, to note that 9 out of 10 problem feeders are owned by people who want to show their dog; and here lies the clue.  The more important it is for the dog to look right (i.e. show ring sleek), the more likely they are to be worried when the dog is finicky and slowly develops a problem as described above.

Find out what the dog’s parents were like when they were young.  If the Sire (now a beautiful rounded show dog) was a skinny tin-ribs type when he was a teenager, you may be bashing your head against a brick wall to get weight on to his tin-ribs son/daughter.  Don’t worry about him he will get there in the end.  Whatever you might think he won’t starve himself to death.

Now to the dog who is already a problem feeder.  Perhaps there are other ‘answers’ but this is the one I know that does work, I have used it myself and advised others too and if you really want to, you can solve the problem.

To start with you must be feeding a well-balanced and palatable food; even hungry dogs will not eat sour or stale food that has been hanging around for days (in and out of the fridge).  If you do not have another dog that is a gannet you must be prepared to throw food away sometimes.

  • Have set feeding times and stick to them.
  • Prepare half of his usual food in a clean bowl and push it to one side of the bowl so he can see the bottom is visible (he can see there’s not much in there).
  • Put it down for him and don’t watch him, get on with the washing-up or something.
  • Give him about five minutes or until he goes away from the bowl and then take it away completely, out of sight.
  • Do not offer him any food until the next scheduled feeding time (incidentally some dogs will only feed once a day even as five month puppies).
  • Harden your heart, don’t give him anything no matter how starving he looks, or how longingly he eyes your dinner or how “I’m sure he’ll eat it now” you feel.
  • At the next feeding time do exactly the same, half of his meal freshly prepared, clean bowl etc.
  • Remember five minutes, no more, even if he looks like coming to eat it as you take it away.

For some dogs this treatment works in two days, in others it can take nearly a week and it is much harder on you than it is the dog.  It will work because he will eventually realise that you mean business and he will get really hungry.  When he finishes his half ration on two consecutive occasions, you can steadily give him more but never go back to leaving food down, tempting or hand-feeding.

He will get back to square one faster then you can say Pedigree Chum.  It does work, I promise you; more by your own attitude to the dog’s feeding habits than the whims of his appetite.  I will tell you the following to illustrate that.

Years ago I was showing a promising young puppy who I always felt should be a bit fatter!  She never had a big appetite and I simply couldn’t bear seeing her thin or missing meals so I did all the things I have mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of this article, and ended up not just hand feeding her but force feeding her!

Yes, I am not a bit proud of it, it was dreadful and I was in tears over her many times.  This went on until she got her Championship at about 2½ years old (a long time to stuff food down a dog).  I told her on the way back from the show that she needn’t eat now, it didn’t matter if she looked like a hat-rack she need never go to a show again (it just shows you how up-tight I was about her).

Anyway, that night and from then on she was given the ‘five minutes and no more’ treatment.  It worked like magic.  No, of course she did not turn into a gannet overnight, but she ate her meals at the proper times with no coaxing.  She seemed to know that there was no tension anymore; she even got to the stage where I had to diet her to reduce her waistline.  She is an old retired lady now but I will never forget the lesson I learned and I would never do it again.

Problem feeders are made not born.  The more you worry the worse they get.  If you have never known the frustration of a poor feeder you are very lucky indeed.

Happy meal times!