Like any good doggie parent, you fill your dog’s dish up to the brim before leaving for the day, so your best pal doesn’t go hungry while you’re away. You expect the dish to be empty by the time you get home, but find the opposite: Your dog hasn’t touched their food the whole time you were gone, and won’t start eating it until they know you’re home for good.
Once you notice this behavior, you might find it a bit odd, and maybe even worrisome, but it’s actually quite common. Many dogs won’t eat until their human returns home for the following reasons:
- They have separation anxiety.
- Dogs are social animals, so some dogs only like eating with “the pack.”
- Through learned behavior, your dog has come to believe it’s only okay to eat in your presence.
Dogs That Won’t Eat Because of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is such well-known term these days, it’s become one of the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions. Just because your dog appears to go on hunger strike while you’re away, does not necessarily mean they have separation anxiety. While it is true that many dogs with separation anxiety refuse to eat or drink while their owners are away, the most common sign of separation anxiety is destructive behavior.
If, in addition to not eating, your dog is barking, howling, chewing, or making a mess while you’re away, then they probably have separation anxiety. If that is the reason your dog is not eating, then you’ll have to treat their anxiety.
Here are some tips for helping a dog with separation anxiety:
- Exercise your dog thoroughly before you leave.
- Give them a distracting toy to play with a few minutes before you’re about to head out.
- Don’t act emotional when you leave or return.
- As you’re leaving, give your dog a verbal cue to let them know you are coming back – I tell my dog, “I’ll be right back.”
You should also know, some dogs with separation anxiety are overly attached to one specific person, while other dogs have a general fear of isolation – i.e., they’re content in the company of any human, or in some cases, even another dog. If your dog only eats in the presence of you specifically, then they have an extreme attachment to you, or they think they need your approval to eat.
Dogs That Are Social (Pack) Eaters
Dogs descended from wolves, and wolves eat in packs. Furthermore, it is even normal for certain members of the wolf pack to bring food to other members; and of course, the alpha always eats first.
Many dogs, though far-removed from wolves through breeding and domestication, still maintain this ancestral characteristic. They instinctually want to eat around other members of the pack. If you only have one dog, then they probably only care about being in the presence of humans when they eat. If you have more than one dog, then they might want everyone – humans and dogs – to be present.
For these dogs, dinner time is party time. They get excited in the company of others, and become eager to feast. It’s sort of like how when people throw a dinner party, they wait for all the guests to arrive before they start serving the food. When you come home, in your dog’s mind it’s like the final guest just arrived at the dinner party, which means it’s chow time.
If you want to break this behavior, you need to teach your dog that eating doesn’t have to be a social activity. One way you can do this is by giving your dog their food in a room by them self, and then putting something irresistible on it, right before walking out of the room. For example, my dog loves tahini. If I drizzle some over her food, it always entices her to eat right then, no matter what I’m doing.
Dogs That Have Learned to Only Eat When You’re Around
Some dogs learn to eat only when their human is present. This happens often, but is usually unintentional. When you first got your dog, did you only feed them at designated times, while you supervised them? If so, then this is probably the reason they wait for you to get home.
You didn’t realize it, but you were teaching your dog that it’s only okay to eat when you give them approval. Maybe you praise your dog while they eat; or you stand over them, watching; or you simply occupy the same general space until they’re finished; regardless, your dog thinks you are giving them approval to eat.
This is what you need to do to undo this:
First, do not encourage your dog to eat, or praise them for eating. In other words, do not tell them to eat, pet them while they’re eating, or tell them they’re doing a good job. Just put the food down and walk away. If your dog won’t eat, try placing a treat on their food to entice them.
Once your dog has learned to eat without you standing by them or talking to them, it’s time to get them used to eating in a separate room until they eventually become comfortable eating even when you’re not in the house. This probably won’t happen overnight, so be patient.
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