Adopting a dog over the age of six months is rewarding and fun. When initially integrating dogs into a family, we can expect some challenges. As with humans, change in eating habits is a common reaction to stress caused by change in environment or physical ailments. When physically healthy dogs who are adapting well to their new environment refuse to eat, it can be scary and a bit of a mystery for many adopters. Fortunately, the solution may simply require logic, creativity, and the ability to think like a dog.
Early in my career, a client had recently adopted their dog, Sophie, who refused to eat from her bowl. My client assumed Sophie was nervous and tried handfeeding, which was successful, but Sophie continued to refuse to eat from the bowl. The success with handfeeding told us Sophie was not hesitant to eat or nervous of human contact, which was also evident by her friendly greeting upon my arrival.
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. Alternatively, they could switch to a rectangular shaped plate. Problem solved.
Dogs who survived on scraps provided by humans (aka “community dogs”), commonly prefer “people food”, and can be surprisingly picky! Many will prefer meat or cheese and will “cherry pick” through the kibble, or not eat anything, preferring to go hungry. 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. Fortunately, there are seemingly endless options of dog food. (Consult with your veterinarian or certified canine nutritionist to 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 often easier for them than dogs raised in more sheltered environments.
Dogs who survived on the street can feel vulnerable when eating, causing them to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. While living on the street, they may have taken their food to a quieter area or avoided eating when other dogs were present. Upon bringing these dogs into my care, I fed these dogs in a quiet area with no other dogs, in a room that had multiple exits, so they did 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 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 them food. By teaching basic commands at easy, positive times without relying on food, applying these commands to the outdoor feeding routine, and then transferring these commands to the indoor feeding routine, we provide a calm, clear, consistent routine which provides comfort, decreases stress, and increases our bond.
Many dogs start out life in a good home prior to adoption, such as with a family who had good intentions, or in foster care with a reputable rescue organization. It is common for caregivers to incorporate basic commands, such as “Sit, Stay, OK!” into a feeding routine during puppyhood. This feeding routine, when transferred to the new home, can provide clarity and comfort. If the dog automatically sits when they are “triggered” it is feeding time, such as the food cupboard opening, we can safely assume they were taught a feeding routine, and some dogs will not eat if this routine is not followed! If possible, ask the previous caregiver which words they used, as it can be confusing to a dog to hear “Sit, Wait, Go,” when previously taught “Sit, Stay, OK”. If contacting the previous caregiver is not an option, then it is easy to learn by trial and error, and the process of elimination. The dog will let us know!
Dogs over the age of six months can thrive in their new home. It is our responsibility to understand their quirks and harness their skills to creatively address challenges. By simply switching our mindset from “training and rehabilitating” to “working with” dogs, we can calmly integrate dogs with checkered pasts into our lives.