Is our behaviour to blame?
Eating is an operant behaviour.
Theres often an underlying reason as to why dogs become picky eaters, refuse treats or wont touch their food. One of these reasons can be a medical reason to which I advise you chat to your vet. For the others, we can prevent them just by being aware of what we are doing when we offer food to our puppies.
Food as a distraction should be used with caution, particularly when in a situation your puppy is worried by. Please don’t confuse distracting with conditioning. Distractions happen when you present your puppy with a treat, before they are aware of the scary thing. The scary thing then often happens and before you know it, the food is now a predictor of something scary. The food becomes aversive, its a warning of a negative event and something to be suspicious off. If you’re using food to help create a better association to something scary, food (and food markers such as you reaching for a treat pouch) must come AFTER a diluted version of the scary thing in order to build a positive association.
Food should be used with caution in aversive situations. If your puppy is worried about something, lets say people, and so you get people to offer your puppy food from their hand to try to change their mind, if the puppy is truly worried by the person, you will run the risk of future treat refusal. You see, food being offered by hand is linked to a scary situation, we therefore poison food and food becomes something they are likely to refuse in future. And we’ve all been guilty of this – how many people hide medication in something yummy? Do it enough and the act of taking food from you will lead to treat refusal or at least suspicion, particularly if your dog finds the taste super aversive. One big example here I see alot is bowl options or positioning of bowls. Sometimes the bowl itself has become aversive or linked to a negative situation (something as simple as their tag hitting the bowl). Puppies may then refuse to eat, not because they’re not hungry but because that set up is aversive.
We as humans hate seeing people not eating and we often worry more when we see our animals not eating. We offer our puppies their bowls and they walk off uninterested. Please take this ‘no thanks’ as their answer. If you have given the meal, you deemed it an acceptable meal. By upgrading their food and offering extras (usually of higher value), you’re likely to inadvertently teach your puppy to refuse their meal as you reinforce the refusal behaviour with a better option. Please allow your puppy choice to not eat the food. I am however a massive believer in life being too short to eat rubbish food, so if you truely feel the food is the issue, offer something else BUT later! Remove the bowl, offer the better food at a later time.
Following on from the above point, we need to stop with the pressure and coaxing to eat. This only leads to two things: all sorts of eating rituals that we cannot keep up OR further disinterest in the food through aversive pressure to eat. Offer the food, accept the ‘im not hungry right now thanks’, be prepared to pick it up, pop it in the fridge and offer it again later.