Discipline cures dog of finicky eating


September 14, 1991|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

Q: What's the best thing to add to a dog's food when he's not eating?

A: If your pet is healthy and you're feeding him a high-quality kibble, add absolutely nothing.

Are you one of those people whose pets "must" be spoon-fed, with a loving pat accompanying every bite? Do you add incentives to your pet's dish, to the point where he goes on a hunger strike if served anything except the choicest delicacies? Do you resent the routines, but fear your pet will starve if you don't continue?

A "yes" indicates that you may be a victim of what I call Frankie Syndrome. But don't despair: It's curable.

Several years ago, one of my friends cared for her parents' dog while they were on vacation. Little Frankie was a real sweetheart and smart, too: He'd finished at the top of his obedience class. But what his family failed to notice was that he was twice as good a teacher as he was a pupil, and they were the victims of his skill.

Frankie was a picky eater. It probably started when he was a little tyke and decided to lay off the chow for the day.

Oh dear, said the family. If he doesn't eat, he'll waste away! They looked into his dish, and since the kibble didn't look appealing to them, they figured it wasn't very appealing to Frankie. So they fried a strip of bacon, broke it into crunchy little bits, mixed it in with some fresh kibble and a can of "gourmet" food and offered it to Frankie.

He decided he was hungry after all, and the Frankie Syndrome was born.

By the time young Master Frankie arrived at my friend's house a year or so later, he came equipped with a list of feeding instructions two pages long. If Frankie won't eat combination A, pick up his dish and try combination B or C or whatever it takes to get food in Frankie. By the time Frankie went home, my friend had added another half-page of combinations to Frankie's menu.

I don't often recommend to anyone that they think of their pets as people -- that gets you a whole lot of problems -- but in Frankie's case, that's exactly what I did. If Frankie were a child, I told his owners, how much sense would it make to switch him to a diet that didn't meet his needs?

"OK, kiddo," says the parent, "you don't like your dinner. How 'bout if we have ice cream instead? I never liked chicken, either, and to tell the truth your dad's not the best cook in the world. Why don't we just go to the refrigerator and pick out something you like. Whipped cream and Oreos? Fine."

Anyone can see that treating a child that way is to teach him that if he doesn't like what's offered, all he has to do is ask for something "better." Frankie learned this early on, and had spent his whole life perfecting his technique. Why eat the kibble, his faultless line of reasoning went, when I know if I ignore it they'll broil me some steak?

It worked for Frankie; is it working for your pet?

If you recognize this pattern, it's time to change, to work your pet back to a diet that's healthier for him and easier for you. The first thing to do is make sure your pet isn't a normally healthy eater off his feed.

Because our pets can't tell us in words when they don't feel well, it is our job to watch for signs of illness, and a suddenly irregular eating pattern could be one of those signs. If your pet has always eaten kibble without complaint and suddenly isn't interested, a trip to the vet is in order.

If your pet gets a clean bill of health, then it's time to stop the games.

Start by making sure your pet's food contains complete nutrition. Skip the "generic" brands and those "cutesy-pie" foods high on food coloring, sugar and other useless additives. Ask your veterinarian to recommend one of the premium kibbles and resolve to stick with it.

You've got the food, now set the schedule. Animals thrive on consistency: Plan to feed in the same place at as close to the same time every day -- ideally, two-thirds of the daily ration in the morning and the remainder at night. Pick a quiet place away from family traffic and distraction, a place where your pet can eat in peace.

Give your pet the food and leave it with him for a half-hour, then pick up the remainder. No more food until the next regular feeding time, and no -- repeat no -- between-meal snacks.

Your pet's no dummy: Soon he'll figure out that he'd better eat, because there's nothing else. He will not starve, even if he misses a few meals.

Even Frankie, smart dog that he was, gave up his game-playing in the end. His owners threw those instructions in the trash, officially ending little Frankie's reign of terror.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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