Teach my dog to eat?
With high prey drive dogs, one of my huge priorities is to make sure they can eat in as many situations as possible. It is absolutely true that strong emotions – excitement or fear – can cause some dogs to stop eating. That’s why most people with a high prey drive dog will find themselves saying at some point something like. “I could dress myself in a suit made from steak and wear a roast lamb hat and my dog still wouldn’t notice me.”
Yes, emotion does have an impact but eating can be altered by training. We are not used to thinking about it in that way, but I believe it’s important for high prey drive dogs. When I brought my little working cocker puppy, Ren, home last January, she wasn’t a keen eater. I knew that she was going to have a high prey drive and I believe food is useful in training dogs like her, so I wanted her to learn to be more excited by food. What I worried about was that if she wouldn’t eat food reliably in my kitchen, then I would have no chance of getting her to eat out on walks when there is wildlife around.
Don’t worry – I didn’t starve her at any point. There is no need to use starvation to increase your dog’s interest in food. What I did was use a process that we dog trainers call shaping to gradually alter Ren’s attitude to the food in her bowl. Shaping just means teaching things in tiny increments toward a goal. At first, if she approached the bowl, I would add a tiny cube of cheese to her meal. Then, if she approached the bowl and sniffed the food, the cheese would go in. Eventually, she would eat a whole meal before the cheese would go in. Now she eats like a normal dog – and she’s excited about her food arriving. Training aside, I am delighted. It is stressful to have a dog who doesn’t eat reliably.