I’ve been reading an interesting book on dog behavior, physiology, and history: Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs, An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris. There’s a lot of interesting science in there, including an interesting theory about why dogs roll in stinky stuff (but we’ll save that for another day).
In the chapter Odd (but mostly normal) Behavior Budiansky talks about a behavior I know as “training the human to up the ante” – at dinner time there are dogs that “learn to hold out for something better than ordinary dog food. They learn that if they refuse to eat, their owner will put [something delicious] on their food, and this too can lead to a rapid upping of demands.”
I am so guilty of having been trained like this by my dog. Even though I knew in my head that Chico wasn’t thin, that he didn’t always eat every day, that he gets lots and lots of calories every day from training treats, it didn’t matter; early in our relationship I decided he needed to eat his dinner every night. So started the escalation of dinner demands. And it got bad, really bad. There was always wet food – often cheap, sugar and grain and mystery-meat filled canned food – atop the kibble, sometimes with other delicious treats added.
Oh, I tried not to be too bad – I swore that if he didn’t eat kibble with wet food, I wasn’t going to add anything else. That worked about 50% of the time. I was projecting my own food issues on Chico and he gained four pounds, 10% of his weight.
Budiansky maintains that the “up the ante” behavior is easily cured with conviction, points out that in the wild dogs will eat almost anything, and generally will not let themselves starve to death if there is anything to eat. He relates a joke that goes something like this: Bill is complaining to his neighbor Sam about the cost of feeding the dog. “Oh,” says Sam, “I solved that problem. I feed my dog turnip greens.” Bill exclaims, “Turnip greens! My dog wouldn’t touch turnip greens!” “Oh,” Sam replies, “that’s how my dog felt about it for the first two weeks.” No one is advocating that one feed one’s dog only turnip greens, the point is dogs are always looking for a better deal and if humans succumb there is no limit to how much the “so, what else have you got?” game can escalate.
From the get-go Julie has encouraged me to feed Chico only treats and dry kibble, I just couldn’t do it. Recently Chico had a chance to stay at Julie’s while I went to visit my father. He’s there with her dogs who are thrilled when they get their kibble (I know, I’ve fed them). At Julie’s Chico got fed treats when he worked and then his kibble at night. If he didn’t eat it in fifteen minutes, she took it away and he didn’t get anything else. I decided that this is the time to make the break from my past bad habits. Since he came home a few days ago, Chico is accepting kibble when it comes from the treat bag and also (with variable levels of enthusiasm) eating it from his bowl.