Pavlov in Your Kitchen

New dish, happy dog

Every second that you spend with your dog, you are teaching something. Often something you don’t want. On top of that, your dog is pairing environmental cause-and-effect in his own instinctive, superstitious way.

It’s a terrible, wonderful burden.

Behaviors you didn’t really teach are tricky to change. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what the cue is that’s setting off the behavior. Sometimes you know the cue, but it’s not in your control. Sometimes the entire situation is completely in the dog’s head, and you’re just guessing.

That last situation is where we’ve been lately with Silas’s breakfast. I know some of you (ahem, Jodi and Jessica) have dogs whose begging for breakfast is a problem behavior, but we are the opposite. Silas has never been a great eater, and his medication suppresses his appetite. Plus, after years of food allergies, he’s naturally suspicious of food. Medically, there’s nothing wrong with him. (This is always the first thing you should check when a dog loses his appetite.)

Silas had entirely stopped eating breakfast. I couldn’t even get him into the kitchen anymore. Without his stomach problems, it wouldn’t be a big deal if he naturally preferred to eat one meal a day, but his acid reflux gets really bad if he doesn’t eat.

I finally realized that Silas had developed pervasive bad associations with eating. I think the last straw was me putting his medication in his breakfast, where it dissolved too quickly and made his food bitter. It could be lots of things, though. He eats in the kitchen, where I also trim his nails. He has stainless dishes, which some dogs don’t like. Because of his allergies, Silas has a long history of food making him sick. (Have you ever eaten something that made you throw up? Did you ever eat it again?) It really could be everything in combination–like I said, dogs are superstitious.

If I wanted him to eat, I needed to change all of the situation around him eating.

I started feeding him in the crate in the living room.

I bought him a new dish, in ceramic instead of stainless.

I switched his breakfast meal with his dinner meal, to give him the food he prefers when he’s less inclined to eat.

Sneakily, I started all these changes to correspond with our rotation to Silas’s favorite food.

So far, he’s eaten breakfast every day.

17 thoughts on “Pavlov in Your Kitchen

  1. Glad you figures something out. Having retrievers, not eating is seldom an issue. Although Thunder used to go off his food periodically until he was about 3 or 4. Now, you better not be late with food.


    1. Like many things, it would probably help if Silas got more exercise. I just try to do the best I can on that front.

      I always appreciate that your guys aren’t overweight.


      1. I should probably have mentioned that we went through a lot of different kinds of foods before we found one that worked for both Thunder and Storm. I think there were times that Thunder just did not like the food and did not eat it, and other times he had girls on his mind. Once we found a food that he liked, he never turned his nose up so I think liking what is being offered can be helpful for picky eaters.


  2. Love the title! I agree with your strategy of thinking up all of the possible triggers, then changing multiple things together. It’s not scientific (you’ll never know for sure which, if any, of these things made the difference), but as long as your dog benefits, who cares? Now my dog, Toby, will happily eat anything, anywhere, any time, out of any container at all (or none). We have more of a shyness problem with him.


    1. I was at my wits’ end on the food thing. His other behavioral issues I do try to tackle in a more one-thing-at-a-time way. Silas is also quite shy. It’s a slog; you have my sympathies.


  3. That’s awesome – looks like you came up with the perfect solution!
    We only feed once per day and don’t have issues with Moses and Alma not eating. In fact, if 11pm rolls around and they haven’t been fed, you have two big brown sets of eyes watching your every move precisely, willing you with their minds to remember meal time.
    Though, it hasn’t always been that way. When Moses was intact (pre-Alma), he’d skip meals. Sometimes 2 days in a row. He was always a healthy weight, and our vet assured us “he’s just got other things on his mind”. Made finding the right currency for the show ring a challenge, and we often had to switch up food choices, because he’d quickly lose interest. Post-snip, however… not a problem.


    1. Silas would prefer to eat once a day; I think that’s also part of our problem. But his stomach is just a wreck if he doesn’t eat breakfast. As in, audible gurgling and he clearly feels bad. It’s one of those moments you wish you could explain the logic of something to the dog. “If you would eat your breakfast, your stomach would feel better!”

      That’s interesting about the neutering. I don’t recall it making much difference with Silas, but we were right at the peak of his food allergies when he had it done.


  4. See I would have never thought of this. BUT both my dogs LOVE their food and don’t seem to have any food allergies. I’m glad Silas has you to think of these things.

    But ahem….to answer your question, I have gotten sick on Vodka before and rarely drink that, but Tequila, yes I’ve been sick from that but still drink it. 🙂

    NOW my sister threw up Orange Juice once when we were kids and she did this in the car, so it did take me a long time to drink OJ again. 😉


    1. I am an over-thinker. In his own doggie way, so is Silas. It’s how we roll around here.

      I have a friend with a GSP who is a serious chow-hound. I had no idea that was how “regular” dogs ate; I was so used to Silas and his picky ways. I’ll bet that’s more how your two are.


  5. I had one of each with my last girls: Lasya was picky and also had a sensitive stomach. Freya was a chow-hound, the kind that required a slow-feeder bowl. I have no problem with Ruby’s kibble dinner, which we feed doing any combination of chase-the-kibble, trick training or RP, but in the morning I’m pressed for time so it’s important to find something she’ll eat on her own. We are still experimenting there…


    1. It’s a vicious cycle, too. You need them to eat, but you don’t need them to get in the habit of turning down food and waiting for you to make it better.

      Silas is most likely to eat Ziwipeak or Freeze-dried raw food, both of which are too expensive to feed him for every meal. Sigh.


      1. Yes. Ruby loooooves the Stella & Chewy’s patties, which just can’t be sustained cost-wise as a regular meal but is what we take traveling. I was excited about The Honest Kitchen because of their great loyalty program, and right now they are changing packaging so you can get great deals, but that’s been hit or miss.

        I do worry about contributing to her finickiness by changing it up all the time. I don’t really have an issue with sticking to the Fromm cans which she like pretty consistently (although they are pretty expensive), I was just trying to incorporate some really high quality freeze-dried raw since she does eat kibble for one meal.

        Can you get breakfast into Silas via a couple mini training sessions in the morning? Are there any treats he can have that might hold him over until one mid-day meal?


        1. Silas is a total blob in the mornings. I do good to get him out of bed let alone training. I have the time, he just isn’t interested. As for the treats, it depends on what his problem is that particular day. Today I can tell that his stomach hurts, and he won’t even take a treat. I’m increasingly convinced that I need to push his regular vet a little harder about his stomach issues. I can give him famotidine, but since he won’t eat I have to force feed it to him. I really hate doing that.

          I have a review somewhere in the archives about THK, where the bottom line was “I love this food; my dog does not.” I get pretty good results mixing the turkey flavor with Silas’s turkey organs, but that’s it. I bought a box of Preference that he thinks is *horrible.*

          Lew Olson’s dog food book has a pretty good discussion of ways to “improve” your kibble.


        2. I have had great success with the Organic Superfood Skin & Coat supplement – I think it’s something we discussed on the Pinterest board and that they make a digestive support one, but of course you’ve got the same issue of getting him to eat the supplement.

          Ruby seems to like the THK Force grain-free chicken the best, if I mix some veggies in and top it with crumbled Wishes haddock. And hand feed it to her. That’s hardly saving me time in the morning.

          We had a similar issue with the Sojo’s complete freeze-dried, which was really too bad because they sent me a huge box for free. She ate it once and wouldn’t look at it a second time.

          Currently I’m giving Ruby coconut oil which I put on her kibble – she thinks that is delicious, though it makes for a greasy clicker 🙂


  6. Poor dude:( Kaya was a terrible eater when she was a puppy. It stressed me out so much! Every time I thought I found a solution, it would wear off. I would even encourage the cat to eat her food so she would join him. Thankfully now she inhales her food every time. I guess it was just a puppy thing in her case.


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