Do dogs have a right to refuse food?

There was a question on our Polish Hunting Spaniel owner group recently about what to do in a situation where a puppy/young dog is not eating their food very enthusiastically, and the owner has already tried a lot of things. I replied to the question and realised maybe the answer would be interesting for other people too so… here we go!

You should always rule out medical or health issues first, but if the dog is eating treats they are probably fine, and the problem lies with the meals.

Whose perspective are we taking?

“A healthy dog does not starve itself”

The traditional dog owner advice is to offer food, and if the dog doesn’t eat it, take the food away and do not give them food until the next mealtime. It is, of course, very inconvenient for us humans when they don’t – I was frustrated when Grace refused food and I didn’t know why.

What if the dog is trying to tell you something? A dog does not reject food out of spite for you – there is something they do not like. The question to ask is do dogs have a right to choose their food?

We control everything in their lives, why not allow them to say what food they want to eat? When we recommend starving the dog, we are looking at the problem from an extremely human-centric perspective: the dog not eating is a problem for us, making our life more difficult. How dare they not eat the food we graciously offer them – they should be grateful we feed them at all! It was really uncomfortable to realise and admit to myself that I, too, had this attitude – even though I would never have said it explicitly, it was there.

Adding to the frustration was the worry and desperation of trying to make a puppy eat – you could probably starve an adult dog but when we’re talking about a puppy, they really need to eat to grow. With Grace, I decided to get over my ego and believe her that she had a reason. She could not speak for herself, so I had to form hypotheses of what might be wrong and test them one by one.

Before I go further, I want to add some clarifying context (after comments on social media I realised I took many things for granted when writing this):

  • Both dogs have always been fed the same way from the beginning – but for some dogs it may be how you present the meal. Be careful you don’t influence your dog’s attitude towards the food with your own behaviour.
  • Our older dog is a walking waste disposal unit and a permanently hungry spaniel who barely checks something is edible before swallowing – that was my assumption about dogs before Grace arrived, and I’ve been mightily surprised many times.
  • Grace will starve herself – she will walk away from food even if she is hungry. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it happen many times. If you’ve never seen a dog do that, I can imagine you might find it hard to believe – I would have too, if I’d only ever lived with Nell.
Our current veg prep where I add their supplements
  • When I talk about choice, I’m not suggesting letting dogs just live on cheese and liver pate – healthy choices must be a priority, and within that they can have choice. Both dogs are fed a high quality balanced raw diet (video of our most recent meal prep at the end of the post) with both ground sausage meat and raw meaty bones. They also eat fresh vegetables (carrot, broccoli, cucumber, courgette, apple) as snacks, and a steamed vegetable puree with supplements with their meals (lightly cooking vegetables increases the absorption of nutrients for dogs). Their treats are either dehydrated meat or high meat % kibble for things like scatter sniff games or toys.
  • The challenges we have experienced with Grace have not been all in one go – different things along the way, and some have not even been hugely challenging but simply observations of her behaviour. (All the while Nell has eaten absolutely everything and preferably Grace’s food too if only we would let her!)
  • Grace regularly refuses chews because she’s not in the mood – or takes it and tries to hide it, so we put it in the bookshelf where she can access it but Nell can’t. She then goes back to get it some hours later – there’s no clear pattern, just seems to be her mood about a third of the time. She also refuses food that is too frozen – she walks away from it and leaves it until it’s thawed, while Nell does not care one bit and powers through any Kong no matter how hard and frozen it is. Again, both dogs served exactly the same way.

Our experimentation process

Here are some of the hypotheses we have explored over the past two years – these are examples to inspire thinking about some for your own dog once you’ve ruled out both medical issues and environmental things like a new environment, busy location for eating, influence of other dogs present etc:

  • Some dogs have very sensitive noses – it is possible the food smells bad to the dog (all dog food smells bad to humans so we don’t know!). If it’s dry food, could it be stale/rancid? Is it additives? A dog can smell tiny trace amounts that we cannot. Try different foods of the same type – different brand and different meat. 
  • Is it the quality of the food? If the first ingredient listed on your kibble is maize and the percentages are not listed for the ingredients, it’s likely the food is not great quality and most of it is either maize or some grain, which is not really a suitable diet for a dog. From my observations, Grace is very fond of meat – for example our cocker eats vegetables first, Grace would avoid them if she could. When Grace was a puppy, she had ONE taste of “meat juice” from our older dog’s raw food (unintentionally) and immediately refused to eat kibble. It took me a long time to convince her by adding this meat juice to her food. She always looked at our other dog’s raw food and then at me: “that’s the crap you feed me?” We fed Orijen puppy but ideally you should look for a brand with a minimum of 60% real meat.
  • Maybe it’s the mouthfeel? Grace will happily eat cooked, dried and ground fresh fish, but if I give her a piece of a fresh whole fish, she’ll take it, chew it and spit it out – I regularly offer her the option to see if it could be an acquired taste like olives were for me, but so far the pattern is always the same (meanwhile Nell looks on, ready to eat the rejected food). Lots of humans have issues with the sensation a food has in their mouths and before Grace I would have said it’s ridiculous to suggest that about dogs but… now I’m not so sure, and we certainly do not know for certain they don’t!
“I will not eat vegetables. I am wolf.” (Or so she presumably thinks) This was finished off after a bit of encouragement.
  • Maybe it’s the general smell of the food even if it’s not stale? I have found our hunting spaniels love wild meat, for example. Vegetables are an on-going negotiation for Grace – she 100% refuses one particular vegetable mix, turns around and walks away from the whole meal if this mix is on top. I have now found another mix, and I puree them and mix in salmon oil (plus supplements). Grace will still sometimes try to lift the wet lump out of her bowl with her soft spaniel mouth and just eats the meat, so usually I mix the vegetable in with the meat so she can’t do it. Over time, the veg has become more palatable to her and she mostly eats it even if it’s not mixed in – with the odd exception like the picture which was 2 weeks ago.
  • Is it the bowl? Try feeding the same food from different container. From a mat on the floor? Maybe put the bowl on a different height? Throwing dry food on the floor to search helped when Grace was very little. She would have preferred raw meat but I could not guarantee a balanced diet for puppy needs so she had to eat dry food – searching made it more exciting. Also make sure you rule out any other environmental issues like presence of other dogs or a busy location (assuming all other things have remained the same and you haven’t just moved house etc.).  Ours have a lot of variety in their containers but because we feed raw, most often the food needs to be in a bowl. They also get lickimats and filled toys.
  • In adolescence, some dogs may be influenced by hormones and go off their food – I don’t have a reference for this, but I’ve heard it’s possible – also something to consider!

“If you spoil the dog they will learn to expect the toppings all the time”

It is not true at all that a dog will always require the accommodations you have provided. It is old fashioned knowledge to assume that dogs “learn” to do something forever if you make it easy for once. We used a raised bowl for a while, a mat sometimes, and we have even spoon fed Grace some of her raw meal many times. She has no need for them now that she is a grown-up – she eats enthusiastically, just as fast as her big sister. It was something she went through in her puppyhood!

Thinking a bit more deeply

Ultimately, the question we should ask ourselves is why did we get a dog in the first place? If it was to have a companion for life, why not make accommodations for them? Why not find a food they love? Do they not deserve it?

Nell, aka the walking waste disposal unit who eats anything and everything

Having a dog is a cradle-to-grave responsibility and as such far more complicated ethically than raising a child: a human child will have friends outside the home and other adults in their lives from kindergarten onwards. Eventually they grow up and leave, with the right to do whatever they want with their lives. With dogs, the equivalent of that age is typically when they turn 2, yet we continue to control their every interaction with others of their species as well as humans; their ability to go to the toilet; their food etc. Absolutely everything.

Yet… our dogs did not get to choose who they want to live with or what kind of life they’d like to live. Can we at least give them the right to choose their food?

I consider it a privilege to be able to share my life with two creatures of a different species and my responsibility is to give them the best life possible – that is why I have dogs! They do not simply exist for me, I also exist to fulfil their needs since I am the one who made the decision to bring them into my life. For that reason, I try to approach any issues with empathy and compassion for my canine friends – starting from the food they like to eat.

Most recent meal prep
Choice situation for chews – this happens all the time but I don’t film all of them 😄
The chew experiment

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