• Nichole Burik
  • Dog Nutrition and Member Service Specialist

  • 3 minutes read time
  • Picky Behavior - Where did it start?

    I have been working in the pet industry for years now and I still learn something new every day and that I am just hearing for the first time. Right when I start to feel like I have seen and heard it all, something new surfaces.. it’s so great! Despite the daily knowledge, there is one thing that I hear everyday, and that is “my dog is picky”.

    So, let’s get real - dogs are not born ‘picky.’ Dogs are not “divas” and they do not decide one day to randomly turn down the majority of the food they are fed. In fact, dogs are opportunistic carnivores, just like their wolf ancestors. Frequently, the cause of finicky eating isn’t actually a result from the dog’s natural behavior, but from his owner’s behavior. Dogs are highly intelligent and often times the owner is trained by their dog and not visa versa.

    Here are some of the most common factors that cause a dog’s picky behavior, you may start to notice a pattern.

    Overfeeding

    Even when you don’t suspect you are overfeeding your dog, you are most likely feeding more than your dog needs. First off, the average pet owner will feed based off of the feeding guidelines on the back of a bag of dog food. You will notice the average feeding amount for a 60lb dog is around 4-5 cups of food a day, but it is important that you factor in the age, weight, activity level, health, and breed of your dog before you follow the feeding guidelines rather than combining all 60lb dogs needs. A 60lb senior dog and a 60lb highly active dog should not be fed the same amount of food. A 60lb overweight dog should not be fed the same amount as a 60lb dog who is at a healthy weight. This may sound funny since you look at dogs as always being hungry, but once you start overfeeding your dog in the slightest bit, they can become ‘full’ and start refusing food. The last thing I want to do when I am full is eat more food, especially if the majority of the food you are feeding is kibble since carbohydrates are filling and ‘heavy’.

    Feeding guidelines are there to help you start out, but monitor your dog’s weight to see how they do with the amount you are feeding before you stick to it. Decrease the amount if your dog is gaining weight since that is the first sign you will notice if they are overeating.

    Free Feeding

    I would go so far as to say that this is the first if not the second most common cause of pickiness in dogs. If you aren’t familiar with free feeding, it’s when food is left out for the animal to “graze,” like cows do with grass. This behavior not only causes pickiness, but doesn’t give your dog any urgency to eat… what’s the fun in that? Meal time should not be treated like there is a buffet of food that is left out for hours to days at a time, especially if it’s kibble because it can and will go rancid from the fats! Meal time should be scheduled and consistent. Put the food out for 15 minutes, if your dog does not eat it within 15 minutes, pick it right back up and offer it again next meal. Keep doing this until your dog realizes that you are in control of when he eats. However, it’s important to note that you do not want to fast senior dogs, puppies or unhealthy dogs, so only use this method with your healthy adult dogs. Do not offer treats, table scraps or anything else to make up for the fact he hasn’t eaten his meals.

    My Siberian Husky used to refuse his food when I fed kibble since I allowed the free feeding go on for a while. As soon as I started picking up his meals after 15 minutes, it only took 2 days until he started eating again each time I put the food down. Now I feed raw and he’s never refused a raw meal ;)

    Table Scraps

    When you offer table scraps to your dog, he is seeing them as an option for food. He doesn’t know how many scraps you are going to feed or when you are going to feed them, but he knows he will get them, so he is going to hold out until he does. You put his bowl of food down at mealtime that he doesn’t eat, but you can’t help but notice that he can’t stop gawking at you while you eat your hamburger and fries - that’s because he thinks (and knows) he will get some of what you are eating. When you feed scraps such as salty fries or buttery hamburger, there is no way your pup is going to be hungry or even be excited for his mealtime.Table scraps tend to have extra salt or sugar which will cause your dog to be picky, and of course they will pick that over their own pet food!

    I’ll be real with you - I feed my dogs table scraps, but ONLY the table scraps that my dogs would regularly get in their own meals (such as fresh veggies, raw meat before I cook it, etc). If you are going to offer your dogs fresh scraps, be sure you aren’t feeding too much as that can affect how hungry your dog will be for their regular meal.

    Offering Alternatives

    Other than free feeding, this may be the first most common cause of pickiness. You often think “Well shoot, my dog won’t eat his dinner, now what?” I know this feeling so I know what you are thinking. You first become frustrated and blame your dog for being a “diva,” you then question if you want to rush to the pet store to get a different food that he may or may not eat, you scratch that idea and find yourself searching in your refrigerator for leftover meat you can feed and… that’s where I am getting at. You found some leftover cooked chicken that you had for lunch the other day that you can quickly heat up for your pup so he has a meal. He is so excited for dinner that he doesn’t even know yet that he is going to hate his breakfast option the next morning and hold out until he gets some more leftovers. Now you are in a cycle with your furry friend that you can’t break because your dog won’t eat until you offer him something ‘better’. In 1981, research indicated that dogs showed a strong taste preference for meats and sugar. They preferred a diet containing sugar to one that does not, and they actually preferred water with sugar added to water without.

    New Food/Treats

    Out with the old, in with the new! Since variety is the spice of life, it makes total sense why you are ready to try some new food and treats out with your pup. Afterall, can you imagine eating the same food twice a day everyday? So, it’s great you are trying something new out! But you see your pup isn’t taking very well to it - he is sniffing it and walking away acting completely uninterested. This doesn’t always happen because he doesn’t like it, rather he has never been introduced to this type of food before and needs a bit of a “push”. Before giving up on the new items in his diet, try adding some water to the food/treats to soften and rehydrate them a bit - this brings out new smells and new textures, which often entices the dog to eat it. As I mentioned before, variety is key. Not one protein and one brand can possibly provide your dog with all the nutrients he needs, so keep variety in a rotation in your pup’s life!

    Excessive Amounts of Treats/Type of Treats

    What you choose to feed as treats matter. Feeding treats that are starchy, salty and sugary will cause your dog to:

    1. Not be hungry for mealtime
    2. Wait until you feed more treats because he wants those instead of his meal

    Treats should only be 10% of your dog’s total diet, but I get it, it’s hard not to treat your dog! Remember when I said earlier I feed my dog fresh table scraps? I also break the rules by feeding a bit more than “10%” of treats, but that’s because I feed fresh, single ingredient treats that I even include as part of my dogs daily meals. If you are going to treat your dog, make sure you source quality treats so you don’t have to feel guilty feeding inferior treats that affect how your dog takes to his meals.

    I also choose not to feed biscuit type treats because a lot of the ingredients are very nasty and extremely filling, so be sure to always read the ingredients on the back of those bags!

    Does Ancestry Play a Part?

    Let’s remember that dogs are 99.9% related to wolves. Wolves had to hunt and kill their prey when possible, but it wasn’t possible every day. Wolves would go days without eating when they weren’t lucky enough to catch something. Wolves were not fed twice a day, every day, their entire lives and did not eat the same meals or same portions each time either. Although dogs have been domesticated, the majority of dogs still have prey drive in them, some breeds have more than others. However, dogs’ bodies have not changed - they have jaws and teeth fit to crack bones and rip and tear flesh, and endorphins are released when they do this. Dogs are still carnivores and thrive off of fresh food. Perhaps your dog would like to work for their food like wolves had to? Maybe feeding the same food twice a day lacks variety and nutrients so your pup refuses? It is possible dogs still mimic a lot of the same behavior as wolves!



    Aside from these, there are other underlying causes of pickiness in dogs such as pain, digestive upset, anxiety, depression, dental disease, and spoiled kibble which can all cause lack of appetite. If your dog has recently been put on any kind of medication, food refusal can be a side effect as well. If your dog has been eating fine and then becomes picky, especially if there is weight loss, visit your Vet immediately to look for a reason before you start to stand firm and wait for him to start eating normal again.